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Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2011


Asked By

My Lords, the Munro review and the Family Justice Review will help us to build the capacity of the social work profession and speed up the family justice system. The Government have appointed Martin Narey as ministerial adviser and established a ministerial advisory group. We have issued revised statutory guidance on adoption. To improve transparency, we have also published data on the performance of local authorities. We are committed to speeding up the adoption process, and will take further steps, as necessary, to do so.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to improve the life chances of our most vulnerable children, but does the Minister share my concern that adoption of children with more complex needs—often older children, those who have suffered abuse or neglect—is often delayed because the Government will not provide funding for post-adoption services? Instead, we say to adopters, “You pick up the pieces. You look after a difficult child no one else will take and you pay for their specialist medical health requirements”. Will the Government and the Minister review that funding policy so that we give our most vulnerable children the chance of a loving home?

I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of trying to address the problem of how one finds places for older children. In particular, there are a number of groups—disabled children, sibling groups and older children—which, as the noble Baroness will know much better than me, suffer from those problems. I will certainly relay the points that she has made to my honourable friend Mr Loughton. I know that he is delighted that the noble Baroness has kindly agreed to serve on the ministerial advisory group. He is very grateful, and I am sure that he will pursue those points with her as part of that.

My Lords, at Barnardo’s, of which I am vice-president, we have found that children who are adopted are more likely to have entered care because of abuse and neglect; 72 per cent of children who were adopted enter care for this reason. Because of the damage that they have endured, they need access to age-appropriate emotional and mental health services. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to improve the capacity of the care system to support children and young people who have suffered neglect and abuse?

Again, I think that this is an important point. Across the piece, we are trying to take a number of different measures to address some of these issues, whether it is speeding up the adoption process, trying to raise the quality of the social work workforce or working with charities and other voluntary organisations such as Barnardo’s. There are a number of ways in which we have to work. The Government have made a priority of tackling this problem and we will continue to come forward with proposals as to how we might best achieve that.

My Lords, a two-and-a-half-year average delay in the adoption of a child at this very vulnerable age is devastating for that child and may have disastrous consequences. Although some delay may be necessary in order to make a proper assessment of the suitability of adoptive parents, can anything be done to reduce the rather long delays in the judicial processes? Can we also do something about removing the unhelpful barriers to white parents adopting black children? There is a rather large number of black children who are hanging around waiting and we should not be putting up barriers.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that black children have particular problems in finding adoptive parents and that the results for them, in terms of finding adoptive parents, are far worse. Their chances are half as good as they are for other children, and that is clearly a problem. We have sought to make it clear that the colour of someone’s skin should not be a bar to them adopting. If one can find parents where all sorts of things all fit into place that might be better for the child, but the most important thing is a loving parent. In terms of delays in the court process, the Family Justice Review looked at that and has come up with recommendations that we should aim to spend no more than six months on the court side of the process. That would address the problem that the noble Lord has rightly identified.

My Lords, desirable though it is that a Government should prudently plan and estimate the number of appropriate adoptions in England and Wales in a year, and appropriate though it be that every effort should be made to ensure that there is an available stock of would-be adopters, does the Minister nevertheless agree that adoption is an order of the court of such crucial importance that it should only be made in the light of the specific facts of that particular case, bearing in mind the interests of the child and taking into account the whole of its life?

The noble Lord is exactly right: one wants to adopt a balanced approach to adoption. The fact is that the number of children being adopted has unfortunately been falling. Of around 3,000 children in care under the age of one last year, only 60 were placed in adoption. There are things that we ought to do to redress the balance, but the noble Lord’s underlying point is clearly important.

My Lords, the Government’s proposals will remove legal aid entirely from some 35,000 families a year who are in court for one reason or another concerning their children. Are the Government not concerned that without legal representation there will be severe delays in the hearing of these care cases, including children for whom the plan is adoption, adding further to the delay for these children?

My Lords, CAFCASS has an extremely important role to play in giving support through the legal process to the families and the children who are going through this process, and that support through CAFCASS remains in place.

My Lords, does the Minister have any information about the consequences in terms of the number of children adopted following the closure of children’s adoption agencies consequential to the sexual orientation regulations?

My Lords, I am aware of the number of Catholic adoption agencies that have had to reorganise to carry on performing their important role. I would be the first to recognise that the Catholic adoption agencies, in particular where disabled children are concerned, have a very proud and long record. However, very few of them have had to reconstitute themselves to comply with those regulations—I believe it is actually only one. I know that there were concerns about that, and I am glad to say that the vast majority have managed to accommodate the regulations and to carry on with the important services that they provide.