[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee, Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, HC 479, and the Government response, HC 1132; and the summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on support for new adoptive parents, reported to the House on 16 March 2022, HC 479]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 601323, relating to support for new adoptive parents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. The prayer of the petition states:
“Ensuring statutory adoption pay is available to a self-employed parent in the same way that maternity allowance is available for self-employed new mums would promote an equal and fair society inclusive of all routes to parenthood. A parent taking statutory leave regardless of it being adoption or maternity should be both recognised and supported fairly. Expecting self-employed parents to take unpaid adoption leave whilst supporting their child during a critical transitional period is unfair. This current policy is not inclusive of adoptive families and to many, reads as an act of discrimination. I wish the Government to introduce an Adoption Allowance comparable with the Maternity Allowance for the Self-Employed.”
I thank the petition creator, as well as the multiple campaigners, parents, charities and organisations—including many who are in the Public Gallery—who have come forward to share their experiences of the adoption process, for reaching out to me and all hon. Members present to help us prepare for today’s debate. I also put on the record my gratitude to the Petitions Committee Clerks and the team behind the scenes for conducting an online survey to ask the petitioners about their experiences of adopting a child. As expected with a topic of this importance, there was a lot of passionate feedback from petitioners, which has helped us to better understand the policy on adoption. I am grateful for their assistance.
The petition has amassed almost 15,000 signatures, including 37 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I should explain that although the petition has not reached the 100,000-signature threshold that would normally trigger a debate in this place, the Petitions Committee has discretion to schedule debates of this nature. This topic is a perfect example of where we might want to use that discretion, because it is an issue that not many people come across directly. It might be a bit niche for some, but it is something that is very important. We therefore felt that it was important to bring it here today.
The issue of financial support for self-employed adoptive parents was raised by the Petitions Committee in our October 2021 report, entitled “Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on”. The report expressed disappointment that the Government had not acted to close the disparity in access to support between employed and self-employed adoptive parents when it was first raised during the pandemic by the Committee’s report on new parents in July 2020. Our report also highlighted an apparent lack of departmental ownership of the issue within Government, with confusion over whether it sits with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Department for Work and Pensions. Ultimately, we concluded that the
“benefits available to self-employed birth parents should be extended to self-employed adoptive parents”.
Before we delve into the detail, I want to set out the context in which we come here to hold today’s debate. There are around 1,870 children waiting to be adopted in England alone, and 52% of them—over half—have been waiting longer than 18 months. Our country currently faces a shortage of adoptive parents who have the right skills and background to meet the needs of the children waiting.
I welcome last year’s new national adoption strategy. As part of it, the Government’s vision was to ensure that:
“All adoptive children are found permanent loving families as quickly as possible where they will be safe and secure.”
The strategy stated:
“Prospective adopters from every walk of life are warmly welcomed and supported in a system that is never threatening or judgemental. Unnecessary barriers and bureaucracy placed in the way of those seeking to adopt are removed, systematically, across the country…Children and families get the support they need when they need it.”
In summary, our country faces an adoption problem, and the Government are taking steps to ensure that appropriate prospective adopters are supported to adopt a child in need, as per their strategy.
Women in employment having a baby are, of course, usually entitled to statutory maternity pay. For those not entitled—because they are self-employed, for example—there is the fall-back benefit of the maternity allowance. Employees who are adopting a child are also eligible for statutory adoption pay, which is modelled on statutory maternity pay. However, there is no equivalent for people who are adopting a child and do not meet the qualifying conditions—that is, those who are self-employed.
My hon. Friend is making some very good points, pointing out the importance of the Government addressing this issue. Will he reflect on the fact that the Government have proactively encouraged people to be self-employed over the past 10 to 12 years, and ever-increasing numbers of people are self-employed or on flexible contracts that mean they would be considered self-employed? Does he agree that the encouragement the Government have given to self-employment makes it all the more important that this issue is looked at as a priority?
As ever, my hon. Friend is amazing in his psychic abilities, having seen ahead to where I will make that very point further on in my contributions. It is a very important point, and he makes it even more eloquently than I will.
In the Government’s response to our Committee’s report on this issue and to the petition, they restated that local authorities can already provide discretionary financial support to self-employed adoptive parents where affordability is a barrier to them taking time away from work. It is also noted that
“Prospective adopters…are also entitled to an assessment of their family’s needs”,
which could result in further offers of support including
“discretionary means-tested financial support, advice, information, counselling, and support services.”
In response to this petition, as well as a written parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—who is in her place—the Government also stated that support for employed parents have been prioritised, as they
“do not generally have the same level of flexibility and autonomy over how and when they work as self-employed parents do.”
However, there are a number of concerns about this approach that need to be better understood, and in my view, the approach should be rethought. First, while local authorities should consider making payments equivalent to the maternity allowance to self-employed adopters, there is no legal requirement for them to do so—it is merely guidance. This creates inconsistencies across the country, because a particular problem for prospective adopters is that many search for an adopted child through national agencies rather than local ones, and indeed many local authorities are combining their adoption pathways. I have also heard from multiple adoptive parents that the guidance is unclear and confusing, including unhelpful signposting on the gov.uk website. That is not a surprise, considering the issue of departmental responsibility that I touched on earlier.
Secondly, linked to the first concern, inconsistencies in funding create uncertainty for families hoping to adopt. Conversations with social workers and agency staff are limited to ifs, buts and maybes, and financial planning therefore becomes difficult, if not impossible. There was agreement among the majority of respondents to the Petitions Committee’s survey that access to adoption support needs to be simplified, with multiple complaints about the role of local authorities. Of course, the very nature of the process of adoption is uncertain, but adding further stress and uncertainty to that process may not be the best policy to ensure stability for the newly adopted child and their new family.
Thirdly, the Government’s understanding of self-employment when it comes to adoption seems outdated and unrealistic in many cases. As part of my research for this debate, I heard from a prospective adopter who is self-employed. Unfortunately, like so many others, that individual is unable to hit the pause button on their work whenever they feel like it and press play again when they are free. The individual in question works full time, teaching in a school, and has the same amount of flexibility as an employed teacher. One of the key takeaways from the Petitions Committee’s survey on this issue was that adoptive parents feel they need more time to bond with and care for their child than the average birth parent. That is, of course, understandable, because adopted children have often suffered trauma from years of neglect and loss.
The survey found that just 61% of self-employed adopters were able to take time off work following adoption, compared with 78% of employed workers. Furthermore, 95% of self-employed adoptive parents agreed that more financial support would allow them to take the time off they needed to support their new child’s adjustment to their new family and new life. Contracts and work patterns have changed a lot in recent years, but adoption support has not reflected that. Self-employed adopters need support to take leave from work, so they can put time into ensuring their new child is safe and settled.
Fourthly, coming at this from a Conservative point of view, I feel the Government should be supporting and encouraging entrepreneurialism rather than repelling people from it. There are currently 4.8 million self-employed people in the UK, making up to 15% of the workforce. That is a 12% increase since 2001 and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, we are doing much to encourage people to become self-employed.
The self-employed are our country’s business owners, job creators and wealth creators. They are the backbone of our economy, and we need them. We have debated support for the self-employed many times, and I led debates in this place on support for the self-employed and business owners during the covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the peak of the pandemic, like many Members of this House, I was contacted by dozens of constituents who were unable to receive substantial financial support, many of whom were self-employed.
Finally, the Government’s position on support for the self-employed is not consistent with the aims of the national adoption strategy. One responder to a Petitions Committee survey on this issue explained how they had changed jobs shortly before adopting and, as a result, could not adopt a child for the first six months that they were in their new post. Self-employed adopters are penalised and children are waiting longer in care.
I absolutely support the aims of the Government’s national adoption strategy, which states that prospective adopters from every walk of life should be supported, including the self-employed. The vision is to ensure that all adoptive children are found permanent, loving families as quickly as possible—unless, of course, their prospective parent is self-employed, or so it seems.
It is difficult to gauge the full extent of how many individuals, children and families are impacted by this disparity. Nevertheless, I hope this debate will highlight the need to address it and pave a path that will ultimately unlock future adopters and support the creation of safe, loving and happy families.
In my research for this debate, it sounded very much like this is a loophole that no one had noticed. I seriously hope the Government see things in the same way and will look to close this loophole as soon as possible. I draw my remarks to a close, as I know other Members are eager to contribute. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and hope he is able to address the five concerns I have raised, as well as the many other concerns that will doubtless be raised by other Members.
Thank you, Ms Ghani, for calling me to speak. It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair.
I thank the Petitions Committee for selecting this topic for debate, particularly given the number of signatures, because we know that everyone who has petitioned will either have personal experience or know of others with personal experience of what it is to be self-employed and to adopt, and the challenges that brings.
Before I home in on the petition itself, I want to pay tribute to the families who provide safe, loving, forever families for children. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and permanence, it is a privilege to engage with the whole community involved in adoption, from young people themselves, birth parents and adoptive parents to those in health and social services, the professions working around the child and our secretariat, Adoption UK and Home for Good.
We strive to make the adoption journey one of the most supported and safe journeys around the child: one that puts a young person very much at the centre; one that ensures that funding and services are there; and one that looks at good family making and good family building, with secure foundations. We recognise that many challenges can arise. When we identify those barriers, we need services to respond and Government to use their agility to fix the challenges.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about how we need to support adoptive families and children. I have been campaigning on the rather niche issue of regulating the sale of sperm online. Colleagues might be horrified to learn this is widespread in Facebook groups and on other social media. It is causing children to seek alternative means of finding out where they come from—via AncestryDNA, for example—which causes a lot of problems.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at all the services that support adopted children and their families in the long term, especially in the online and regulated space?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue, on which she is probably more of an expert than I am. We have recognised the role of digital and the fact that many children in adoptive settings can be traced or can trace their birth parents without having support around them. We have to recognise the digital age in which children are growing up in order to keep them safe and to protect them. I am sure we will talk more about this subject.
The Minister for Children and Families, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is committed to building stable families and providing the care and support that young people and their parents need. He has a sizeable task. Over 80,000 children are in care. I trust that, with the imminent publication of the review by Josh MacAlister, he will simultaneously fix the gaps in the adoption journey. We welcome the commitment of £144 million for the adoption support fund and £19.5 million for the implementation of the adoption strategy over the next three years. It is a sound investment, on which we will see a return.
We need a workforce plan to support children in the care system and their families. There is a deficit in timely support for families, and the scars of trauma emerge in various expressions. Three quarters of children experience abuse or neglect prior to adoption. They need support to be in place at the right time. In our APPG’s “Strengthening Families” report published last year, we identified the importance of aiding parents in the matching process. It has been more challenging through the pandemic, but we cannot let a recovery period delay the process of family building. We are particularly concerned about black and minoritised children in the care system, as well as older children and young people who have been in care the longest. As an APPG, we have more work to do, but so do the Government.
Self-employed parents need help, too. The crucial period of bonding as a family forms is vital in forming attachments and a new rhythm in a child’s life. The self-employed need the same opportunities as other parents to dedicate time to this. Denying statutory adoption pay is nonsensical. I trust that the Minister agrees. We await the legislative response to the Taylor review. I ask that the Minister ensures that the voice of adoptive parents is not lost in that process.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made a powerful plea for other parental rights to emerge in such a Bill. I ask that adoptive parents do not suffer any detriment either. If we, as a society, value parenting and recognise its importance, there is no excuse for exclusion. I hope the Minister will forgive me, but I am impatient. Self-employed parents need support now. We know how hard self-employed people work to make their businesses a success.
We heard from the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) about the challenges of the pandemic and how hard people worked to make their businesses thrive. They cannot juggle work around bonding with their child. Ensuring that the right attachments are made is a full-time task. That is why we need to ensure that the self-employed get the financial underpinning to not have to worry about paying their bills, not least at a time when the cost of living is such a challenge to all families.
Adoptive parents should not have to go cap in hand to their local authority either. Special guardians, kinship carers and adoptive parents need recognition that they, even more than birth parents, need to be 100% focused on family building. There is time for the Government to carry out a consultation on the Taylor review prior to their promised employment Bill. I ask the Minister to commit to that consultation today.
The 2013 statutory guidance on adoption states in paragraph 9.38 that
“The local authority should consider making a payment of financial support equivalent to the Maternity Allowance to adoptive parents who are ineligible to receive”
statutory adoption pay. Why is it that adoptive parents continually have to chase everything, and dedicate their time to feeding into the bureaucracy and trying to get it to work for them, as opposed to the Government addressing the issue?
Statutory pay will aid the recruitment of potential adopters and will assist in the success and stability of others. We know that 3,000 children are in need of a family. A full consultation was committed to by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has responsibility for parental pay and leave, during his evidence to the Petitions Committee in 2020, but we must include adoption pay, too. The Government have committed to improving adoption, so this is yet another opportunity for them to do so, and I hope the consultation will therefore be inclusive. He said,
“it is crucial to the success of an adoption placement that an adopter takes time off work to care for and bond with their child.”
That must apply to the self-employed as much as to the employed. There is no difference in the eyes of that child, or in that child’s needs.
I am sure the Minister will find it difficult to disagree with the hon. Lady. She rightly mentions the barriers to adoption more generally. The coalition Government did a lot with my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), in a previous guise, to reduce some of those barriers. He also highlighted the failure of previous Governments to have joined-up thinking, such as joining up the fiscal and financial incentives to support people in adoption. I hope the take-home message for the Minister is that it is time to do that. I hope he will commit to doing so at the Dispatch Box, and I hope the hon. Lady agrees.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Normally it is the parent who does the joining up, and that is clearly not right. The Government need to make sure that the adoption strategy looks at every aspect of an adoptive parent’s journey and ensures that the facilities, support and services are in place to give the child the best possible start in life. It is exhausting for parents, who find themselves having to negotiate—this is where the law stands at the moment—with a local authority to see if they fit any of the criteria, on which there is no guidance. We know that cash-strapped local authorities may not be minded to pay specific attention to what is a very small cohort of parents.
The Government recognise how necessary statutory maternity entitlements are for parents to bond with their child, and they must recognise how much more important such support is for a child who has experienced multiple forms of trauma and who could have complex needs that need addressing. Life is often exhausting for an adoptive parent who is trying to form a new family and working to give their child the safest home possible. The services need to be there in a timely way to support and nurture that child, and to ensure they have the best start in life when perhaps their first start was not the right one.
The “Good Work” review does not accept that there should be a differentiation in the support received. On statutory adoption pay for the self-employed, we are not talking about a lot of people. It is not a high cost to the Government in the scale of things and, as well as the savings to the Government from ensuring that self-employed parents have the support around them, statutory adoption pay would be immeasurable for parents and for the child. Now is the time to act, and I trust that the Minister agrees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for opening the debate. He made a cracking speech, and I agree with pretty much everything he said. I join him in thanking the Petitions Committee for its work on this issue and, of course, I thank the families who have contributed to this discussion and the petition, as their work is incredibly important.
Adoption is very close to my heart and, like many people across this country, my own family understands it well. Whether or not adoption is part of our family, I think we all have an instinctive understanding of the value of adoption to our society. Before this debate, I was contacted on this incredibly important issue by many people in my Scunthorpe constituency—some who have adopted children, and some who have not. I thank all those who took the time to raise it with me and to share their experiences and views. I have constituents sitting in the Public Gallery today, and I thank them for taking the time.
I was surprised to learn that self-employed parents are not able to access statutory adoption pay. We all know, as do all the petitioners, that employed adoptive parents are able to access adoption leave. This is a fantastic system that provides the same access and rights as maternity leave and puts adoption on exactly the same footing as other ways of building a family. That is exactly as it should be, and it is right that the Government support parents who adopt.
The benefits of taking adoption leave are huge. It gives time for a new family to settle in and bond, as we have heard today. Especially for new-borns, the developmental benefits of the family being able to take that time off are invaluable.
I was shocked when I started to look into this issue after it was brought to my attention, because it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Why would self-employed people not be able to access statutory adoption pay? The benefits to new families that I have just described are reason enough to extend statutory adoption pay, as the petitioners have asked. I support them in their desire to see statutory adoption pay extended. Beyond that, we should be helping prospective parents to adopt. We should be making it as easy as possible for the right people to do so, regardless of their financial situation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned, 1,870 children in England are waiting to meet their family, and more than half have been waiting for longer than 18 months. We have a shortage of adoptive parents. Not having access to statutory adoption pay is a potential barrier to self-employed future parents. Without it, people face a considerable time away from work. If they are the only person driving their business, this is a massive financial hit that not all families are able to absorb on their own. I worry that any self-employed person who wants to adopt may not be able to do so, simply because they cannot afford to take time away from work. If that applies to just one person, it is one too many.
I am not under the illusion that lifting this barrier will mean that every single child who needs a family will get one. However, making adoption a viable option for more self-employed people will help some of the children who are waiting to find their family, which should be our priority. This ultimately boils down to fairness; we should provide the exact same support to all adoptive parents, regardless of their employment status.
I know, from raising it with the Government, that this situation is not intentional. The system was not actively designed to favour one set of parents over another. It is an anomaly, and I welcome the commitment to review this situation. Similarly, I know that some local authorities, as we have heard, are able to make discretionary payments to support adoptive parents. We have a very good local authority in North Lincolnshire Council, but parents should be sure of getting the same support, regardless of whether they live in Scunthorpe or Southport.
I want to highlight an incredibly important issue that we must keep in mind, because many families are not publicly visible and are not able to fight on this issue. We understand the reasons for that difficulty, which makes it even more important that we do all we can to give a voice to those who, through no fault of their own, are not able to shout as loudly as they would like for their families. I spoke to a woman in my constituency just a couple of weeks ago—the mum to a gorgeous little boy—and she made that point to me. I am mindful of her words as I speak today.
Support that is provided to one parent must be made available to another; there should be no anomaly because of how the person became a parent. In the reply I received from the Government, I was told they are fully aware of the issue and are considering what options are available for equalising rights and entitlements given to adoptive parents, and I am very encouraged by that.
I hope the Minister will commit to looking again at this issue and to considering how we can extend statutory adoption pay to all eligible families who adopt a child, and show that the Government stand behind families and are committed to helping children who have sometimes had a very difficult start in life. I hope the Minister will strongly consider the requests in the petition, the strength of feeling on the subject and the support for it that I believe will be forthcoming in all our communities.
I am delighted to be here and hon. Members will realise why shortly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester on his speech, his presentation and the case he made. I hope we hear a similar speech from the Minister in a moment or two, and that the Minister accepts everything his hon. Friend said; I did not find anything that I disagreed with. I also agreed with the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft).
As always, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made an impassioned case in support of adoption. She knows, even if others do not, why the issue means so much to me. I say to the hon. Member for Colchester that it is not just the Conservatives who think that we should support our self-employed people; that is what the Labour party thinks, too. I speak from personal experience, because I was self-employed and started and grew small businesses for many years.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and to the constituents of Carshalton and Wallington for moving them to Essex—that will get me into a whole heap of trouble. I will get into trouble at home for that as well. Not only was I self-employed, but I adopted two children with my wife in 2007, while we were growing our businesses, so I completely understand why the issue is so crucial for so many people and my personal experience means I support the case. My children were from Essex and were born in Southend, so I will now be in deep trouble for having slighted them.
We found it incredibly difficult to build relationships with our children when we adopted them, which is a common experience. The challenges of children who have been neglected and faced trauma, including the trauma of having been removed from their birth parents, have been described. That trauma can be there in the youngest of children, not just among older children who have conscious memories.
As well as giving a chance for parents and children to bond, those of us who have done it appreciate, sometimes much later on, that there is a huge need for us as adoptive parents to learn from experience, preferably with support, about what is required in looking after children with significant additional needs. Sometimes those needs come out much later, when children are older. The very least we can do is ensure we reflect the response to the needs of parents who give birth to their own children and the arrangements for adoptive leave for people who are employed. There seems to be an oversight and an inconsistency, which I hope the Minister will address.
We have heard about the situation where a self-employed birth parent has the right to paid adoption leave, which was introduced by a Labour Government nearly 20 years ago. The rationale was that it gave time to adjust to the new relationship and reduced the number of disrupted placements. As we heard from a number of hon. Members, sadly more than 80,000 children are in care, a number which is at a record high. Anything that we can do to get permanence for those children must be to their benefit and to the benefit of society as a whole.
We heard about the figures from Home for Good and the Federation of Small Businesses. The FSB estimates that £5 million a year would fund self-employed adoption leave, while Home for Good estimates a figure of £34,000 a year for each child in care. It does not need very many more children to be in a position where self-employed prospective adopters can adopt them to make a financial saving for the Exchequer. The numbers work.
It is absolutely clear that this is the right thing to do for children. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington correctly said, the support should be available to self-employed people as well. I got his constituency wrong because I was thinking about the Children’s Minister, who has spoken previously on the issue.
I hope that we will make some progress and that we get a good response from the Minister. Ultimately, providing such support is right for adopters, entrepreneurs and the Exchequer; above all, it is right because it will provide a better chance for children and families. Sadly, self-employed people were excluded far too often during covid. Far too many of them are excluded from the opportunity to make a difference to children’s lives through adoption. Come on, Minister—let us include the self-employed and change lives for the better.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate and for the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter)—who is no longer present—and from the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). This is an important debate that should be treated with the seriousness that colleagues have shown this evening, in accordance with the importance it clearly holds for those in the Public Gallery.
As many other hon. Members have already done, I pay tribute to the incredible work that adoptive parents do every single day. I am utterly and completely in awe of those who take on that responsibility and do so for a lifetime. It is incredible to see people’s willingness to do that and to support vulnerable young people in very difficult circumstances to ensure that they build a better life.
I have never spoken about it in this Chamber, but this is something that my partner and I have looked at on a personal level. I have not done it; I have not taken the leap from the springboard that some in the Gallery have done. I am trepidatious—it is very challenging, and we are still working it through. From looking at it, I know how difficult it can be and how much it impacts on people’s lives. The Government are immensely grateful for all the work done on a daily basis by adoptive parents up and down the country, whether in my constituency or any other represented here today.
The Government recognise that it is also a big endeavour for someone to be willing to go out and set up their own business, be an entrepreneur and think about how to support individuals and undertake private enterprise. It is another leap in the dark and another thing that takes time to do. We want to be supportive of self-employed people—those who want to set up their own businesses and who have the desire to go out there and innovate.
The debate covers two very important areas of policy. It is important that the Government think through the potential implications and the challenges that have been highlighted through the petition and by hon. Members today. Before I come to the substantive point, I want to say one more thing. I think the creator of the petition is in the Public Gallery. I was looking at their blog in preparation for this debate, and I read a post they wrote in December, when they were talking about why they had created the petition and why it was so important to them that Parliament consider the issue. At the time, the person was talking about how they had got 4,000 signatures—obviously it went much higher than that. In their blog they said:
“We want to have our voices…heard. To be visible, accepted, recognised and supported. In a nutshell, we want…rights…I don’t think we are asking for all that much. Although I know next to nothing about politics…I’ve managed to work out an e petition”.
I want to say to that person, who might be in the room, that although I cannot speak for my colleagues, I think most of us here did not come from political backgrounds. I certainly did not. My dad was a self-employed milkman, so I did not expect to be here, either.
This place is often very difficult for people who have no experience of it, as most of us did not before we came here. It is hard to understand and work out. We have weird, very strange approaches to things. We say things that we would never say down the pub. Most of us are quite normal people. We are not properly normal—we are in politics—but we are not far off. Ultimately, we understand the challenges and we recognise that there are issues out there. We know that parts of our broad legislative canon are sometimes challenging and do not make immediate sense, and are sometimes in tension with each other. If nothing else, I hope that from coming to Westminster Hall today you will recognise that and feel that you are being heard—
I am grateful to you for pulling me up on that, Ms Ghani.
Moving on to the substantive point, as hon. Members will note, the Government have responded to the petition. It is on the website and those who take an interest in the issue will have seen it. No doubt there will still be a continuing conversation and people will continue to push the Government, but I want to spend a few minutes explaining the reasons behind the response. There will be people in the Chamber, and people watching, who have different views, but I hope at the very least to be able to explain the rationale for why we are here. The Government should always listen and always think through such issues in detail. They should always try to understand the tensions between different policies, and I will take a few moments to outline the situation.
The Government want to support all adopters, including new adoptive parents, to ensure that they can access the support that their children and family need at the early stages of adoption. As has been mentioned by hon. Members already, in July 2021 we published our national adoption strategy, which highlights the key improvements that we expect to see in the adoption system. There is an incredible amount in it and an incredible amount of ambition, and it will take time to get there, but that is the direction that the Government and my colleagues in the Department for Education want to go in.
The strategy sets out commitments to improve services in three main areas, the first of which is the recruitment of sufficient adopters. Hon. Members have already highlighted the importance of ensuring that children who need adoptive parents can be matched with them, and we also have commitments both to match approved adopters with waiting children and to provide support to adopted children and their families, which is exactly what we are talking about today.
Earlier this month, we announced that the adoption support fund will continue to offer important support to adoptive and eligible special guardianship order families up to March 2025—to the end of the spending review period that we are in at the moment—through providing access to therapeutic services. When that was launched in 2015, it was a unique programme that provided funding to local authorities and regional adoption agencies so that they could access a range of support for families and tailor it, including psychotherapy and creative therapies following a review of locally assessed needs.
Supporting and ensuring permanency for children is a priority. I hope that it has been demonstrated that since 2015, through measures such as the support fund, we have been able to offer support to nearly 40,000 children. The additional funding just announced will take that to 10 consecutive years of funding. It is £144 million between next month and March 2025. I hope that demonstrates that the Government are committed to stabilising placements. It recognises the importance of the Government in that approach.
Today’s debate has been very reasonable and important, and the level of cross-party support, interest and gentle pushing—quite rightly—of the Government on such important issues demonstrates the willingness of Members from all parties to take the issue seriously and move it outside the normal bounds of party political knockabout that we often fall into in this place. I hope hon. Members and those in the Gallery recognise that there has been progress in recent years in trying to create a more level playing field for adoption and on making the processes easier and simpler, although there is still much to do in the future.
Let me turn to the specifics on maternity allowance. As colleagues know, there are two types of maternity pay available to pregnant working women and new mothers: statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance. Historically, both were primarily health and safety provisions that related specifically to people being in the workforce but needing safety and support for pregnancy prior to giving birth, for childbirth itself, and for breastfeeding. I recognise that the area is in tension, and I understand the clear arguments that have been made by Members from all parties, but because that support is based on the original principle the challenge is in recognising how we apply it. I am not saying, I would not dare to say, that there are not different challenges. The hon. Member for Sefton Central highlighted the challenges that adoptive parents go through at different times, but the principle behind the benefit that the petition seeks to equalise starts from a different proposition and a different perspective. That is why the Government are not coming forward at this time with the change that is being proposed.
The Minister is right to say that the circumstances of an adoptive family are different from those of a birth family. However, the fact that there are different circumstances means that the Government should look at those circumstances specifically. My ask today is that the Government go away and consult on that, to have a better understanding of why these measures are so important.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments, and she makes an important point. I am not in a position right now to talk about any future consultation. I know that this is an area where the Government are always keen to get views and that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and across Government elsewhere, such as in Education, will continue to look at the issue and take views from colleagues in the House and outside, and from those who have strong views. I understand and acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point.
Let me turn to a few points that have been made in the Chamber today. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who introduced the debate so well, highlighted a number of issues that he was keen to put forward. He highlighted some challenges with guidance and clarity, and I am happy to confirm that I will take those away. I am keen to speak to him about them in more detail, so that I can pass them on to my colleagues to see whether there is anything that might be possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about variation around the country. As he and other hon. Members know, there is an inherent tension about where and how we structure our policies, and about where and how we put national requirements at the centre, versus local discretion. One answer to the question we are debating is that, as outlined by the hon. Member for York Central—I accept her challenge on this—there is a recommendation and an indication that local authorities should be able to provide discretionary funding where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. Although I understand her point about the challenge of going through the process—such processes can often be challenging—it is there. I hope it is used and that people watching out there who are thinking about adoption and who may be self-employed contact their council, should they feel that that would be beneficial.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd talked about a specific area of the policy on adoption, and I am happy to take that back. I am afraid I do not have an answer for her today, but given the importance of the point, and the profundity of it, it merits being given back to my colleagues, and I hope they will take her points seriously.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe highlighted the challenges and opportunities of self-employment, as well as articulating clearly her support for this change. It is something I understand on a personal level—I think I mentioned a few minutes ago that my dad was self-employed as a milkman for 30 years, and one of the reasons he was doing that was to look after me and my brother when we came home. It was not that common in the 1980s for dads to make the tea, clean the house and things like that, but he did it, and that is a demonstration of how self-employed people try to keep all these balls in the air, try to juggle things and try to make it work. I understand and accept why we are debating this issue today, and its importance to a group of people within that community.
The hon. Member for Sefton Central made his characteristically very direct appeal to the Government on this, as he does on a range of other issues. I am grateful to him for sharing his personal experiences. I completely understand why this matter is so important to him on a personal level, and I respect and am grateful for those experiences being shared in public.
Thank you, Ms Ghani, for letting me intervene, given that I could not be here for the start of the debate. On the one hand, I have heard the Minister say that, personally, he agrees with what everyone in the Chamber has said today, but on the other, I think I have interpreted that the Government have not given him the authority to say that he will do anything about it. Is this therefore a question of policy or of money? If it is a question of money, has the Department quantified how much it would cost to extend these benefits to the people in question? If so, who would pay it? Is it an issue for the Treasury or for his Department?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his characteristically incisive intervention. My answer is that we continue to look at all the different elements of how we can structure support for new parents, whether birth parents or adoptive parents—not that that should matter in any way, shape or form—and to work through the most appropriate interventions possible. There will be opportunities later in this Parliament to look at this issue again. I am keen for people to continue to highlight their challenges and personal situations.
I hope I have articulated in my contribution so far the challenge of working through the intentions of every single element of different policies brought in for very good reasons at different times, but the fundamental point is that this particular benefit, which this petition seeks to extend, was ultimately brought forward for a different purpose from what is being talked about here. That does not take away from any of the important points being made by colleagues and the petitioners at large.
I would like to draw to a close, if I may—
The Minister has made the point, which I accept, about how, for health reasons, benefits for parental leave and maternity benefits were decided on for employment and self-employment. The principle seems to have been established for adoptive parents in employment, too. What I have not followed from his argument—I waited until the end to ask, to see whether he fleshed it out—is the rationale for saying that the principle has not also been established for adoptive parents in self-employment.
The principle is that while we recognise that the world of work changes—the hon. Member for York Central highlighted the moving parts around the Taylor review and other things around how work is changing—there is a difference between employed work and self-employed work. The cohort of self-employed, who we want to support, grow and help, is very diverse, and there are groups within it who have additional flexibilities as a result of self-employment. Some have the ability to work around their personal lives in terms of their work issues and the rest of it, and we accept that there is a group that does not. It is a question of recognising that the cohort is very diverse.
One reason for the recommendation and advice to local authorities about being able to give consideration to support for specific circumstances is to acknowledge the diversity within that cohort and to try to ensure support where people need it. However, it is also a recognition that this diverse cohort has different groups and different people with different needs.
In terms of the overall position, I recognise that there are strong feelings here and that there are significant views on this issue, both in the Chamber and in the Public Gallery.
Allow me one more moment and then I will happily give way.
I hope that I have been able to articulate that, although a number of people in this place will remain at odds with it, the rationale for the Government approaching this issue in the way we have and for why the policy is in place comes originally from a different prospectus—a different proposition—and we think there is some flexibility in the system to support those who need it.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time and indulging me. I am just conscious that those in the Public Gallery may wish to know what might happen after this debate. Earlier in his closing remarks, the Minister said that there would be a further opportunity to push this issue in this Parliament. Could I probe him to give a bit more detail about that? For example, are we expecting a Bill in the Queen’s Speech—perhaps an employment rights Bill—where we might be able to see amendments or suggestions on this issue, or did he have something else in mind?
I am grateful for the request for clarification, because my point was about the general parliamentary process and the general opportunity for people to continue to campaign, to continue to make their voices heard and to continue to highlight things. I cannot give any commitments on behalf of the Government about what we will or will not do, other than what I have already said. At this stage, we believe that the position is as outlined in the response to the petition.
If I can just say a couple more sentences, I will be happy to do so. I just want to draw towards a conclusion, before giving way to the hon. Lady.
We recognise that this is an important area of policy, we understand the challenge and we understand why the petition has been brought forward. I hope I have been able to articulate today the reason why the policy is the policy and to outline some of the discretion in the system, which hopefully has the potential to cover those who have concerns. I do understand the challenge, although I am sure the hon. Member for York Central is about to tell me about it for a final time.
I just seek another commitment from the Minister. Will he meet the Children’s Minister to discuss this issue further, not least in the light of the Government committing to respond to the Taylor review in legislation? I would have thought that that would be a great opportunity to take this issue further and to ensure that we have the support in place for self-employed adopter parents.
I am very happy to give a commitment that I will meet the Children’s Minister and pass back the strength of feeling in the Chamber today. I hope the hon. Lady recognises the position I have outlined, which aligns with the petition response. I have set out the rationale for why the policy is the policy, the reason why we think discretion is in place and the hope, on that basis, that it covers sufficient scenarios, sufficient individuals and sufficient challenges, such that it is a reasonable and proportionate place to be.
Before I conclude, I again thank the petitioners and all those who have a significant interest in this issue. I also thank hon. Members for their willingness to debate it in such a serious and proportionate manner. The Government are grateful to people for continuing to raise these issues, even if at this time we think that the current situation and the current discretion should cover most of the challenges that we see on this policy.
Thank you for calling me to sum up, Ms Ghani—I promise that I will not take the remaining half-hour to wind up the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this important debate. I reiterate my thanks to the petitioners—not only those from Carshalton and Wallington but those from around the country—and to those who have made the journey here today to watch this debate from the Public Gallery. Most importantly, however, I thank those who do one of the most selfless things anyone can do, which is to adopt a child in need—I forgive the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for mispronouncing my constituency, given that he is one of those people.
I hope that the Government will commit to go away and look again at this issue. I was pleased to hear that there will be further opportunities throughout this Parliament to revisit it, and I seriously hope that it will be given the attention it deserves. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), who articulated the point so well, I was surprised when I learned about the current situation. I thought, “Surely this can’t be right. This seems like a weird anomaly to me.” I do not believe that the policy has got to that place intentionally. It sounds like an anomaly that was created when legislation went through, and no one saw the glaring gap until we reached this point. I hope that there will be a chance to look at this issue again and hopefully to close this loophole. I really do not believe that the cost to the Exchequer would be very much, but the return on that investment in our children will be huge and well worth it.
I hope we can all bear in mind that this is ultimately about those often vulnerable children who need long-term loving families. I hope we can get the bureaucracy out of the way to give them just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 601323, relating to support for new adoptive parents.