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Adoption: Adoption Legislation Committee Reports

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 16 May 2013

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

To move that this House takes note of the reports of the Adoption Legislation Committee on Adoption: Pre-Legislative Scrutiny (1st Report, Session 2012–13, HL Paper 94) and Adoption: Post-Legislative Scrutiny (2nd Report, Session 2012–13, HL Paper 127).

My Lords, I was delighted and honoured to be asked to chair the first post-legislative scrutiny Select Committee on the current adoption legislation. As we went along, we also became a pre-legislative scrutiny committee. Consequently, we published an interim report to express our views on the first two clauses of the Children and Families Bill in December 2012 and our final report in March 2013.

I begin by thanking the committee staff and our specialist adviser, Professor Harris-Short, for their dedication—I use that word deliberately—extremely hard work and the efficiency of their support in the evidence-gathering and in writing the two reports. I am also very grateful for the enthusiasm and enormously valuable input from the members of the committee. It would be invidious to single out any particular organisations among those which gave evidence, and we are extremely grateful to all of them for their invaluable contributions. In writing each report, we felt that we were running to keep up as we received, and had to digest, the Government’s adoption initiatives at short notice. Our committee staff wrote and rewrote the reports to meet those initiatives and our views on the adoption clauses in the Children and Families Bill.

We heard evidence over several months and made a considerable number of recommendations. In the time available, I will pick out several of those that I consider the most important and refer to the Government’s initial response. Inevitably, I shall omit important issues. As we considered the evidence presented to us, we had very much in mind the right of the child to be brought up in his or her birth family, whenever possible, and the right of parents and their children to respect for their family life. Children should not be removed from their birth family unless their welfare requires it, but, sadly, not all children are able to remain with their birth families. The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.

It was abundantly clear to us from the evidence that there is no need for far-reaching changes to the adoption legislation. The main issues of concern we found were the unacceptable delays in the adoption process, failures of the processes and practice, and the shortage of adopters. Even for babies and young children, who are seen as easier to adopt, the delays are significant. The average age of a child at adoption is three years and eight months, and the average length of time taken from entry into care to adoption is two years and seven months. The longer children wait to be placed, the more difficult the adoption outcome for them and for the adopters.

From the evidence presented to us, we identified numerous failures of procedures and, particularly, of practice contributing to those delays. Consequently, much of the evidence we received focused on those failures and how they might be addressed effectively. Our recommendations have therefore been largely directed to those issues. They are set out at some length in our final report. The initial response of the Government sets out sensible steps to be taken—and steps that are being taken—to reduce delay, but there is nothing much new or that we did not know before we started our investigations.

There is undoubtedly potential for more children to be adopted. Adoption is unique as a change of the status of the child who becomes the child of the new family. The Government are to be congratulated on recognising the importance of adoption and seeking practical ways to improve the situation in guidance as well as proposed legislation. However, there are not enough potential adopters and, further, there are many children suitable for adoption and placed for adoption—that is, ready from the court procedures to be adopted—but who are not adopted for lack of available adoptive parents. In March 2012, there were 4,263 approved adopters and more than 4,600 children who had completed the adoption process and were ready to be matched with adopters. The process of matching is slow. In addition, there were many more children for whom an adoption decision had been made but who had not completed the court process. Until now, potential adopters have been largely recruited by individual local authorities and retained by them on their books. The national register is an excellent initiative and will, I hope, mean that approved adopters will be more widely available, which should improve the matching process from a wider pool.

However, adoption is only one relatively small solution to the large numbers of children entering the care system. For various reasons, adoption is not appropriate for many children. On 31 March 2012, there were 67,050 children in care, of whom more than 60,000 were placed away from their families. Proper provision has to be made for these vulnerable children who need to be looked after away from their birth parents. All these children need to be loved, cared for and provided with stability and long-term security. Most of them may be cared for by other members of their family, friends, special guardianship or long-term fostering. However, a danger was articulated to me by a district judge this week that the 26-week requirement for the completion of care proceedings may concentrate on process rather than on the welfare of the child and may create injustices through the inability of some social workers to make adequate assessments of the birth family and of the wider family who might otherwise be able to take over the care of the child. I therefore stress the importance of early family conferencing throughout all local authorities.

The committee was concerned that the Government’s proper concern with and focus on increasing adoption may risk disadvantaging those children in care for whom adoption is not an option. Improving the outcomes for all children should be the priority. All routes to permanence merit equal attention and investment. In the initial response, the Government have set out a number of steps already taken to improve the fostering process and commissioned research on special guardianship.

The committee believes that early intensive work with birth parents where there is capacity to change has the potential to allow the children to remain safely with their parent or parents and would reduce the number of children entering the care system. There are excellent government-supported early-intervention initiatives, but the committee was concerned that a substantial sum—£150 million—is to be removed from early intervention to help local authorities improve their adoption procedures. The Government’s initial response has, rather surprisingly, been to point out that fostering for adoption is a form of early intervention. That is true, but it removes the child from the birth family. Early intervention, working with the birth family, can be successful and, if so, the child can remain in the family and fostering for adoption would not be necessary. It would be most unfortunate if the potential benefit of early intervention were to be undermined by the greater focus on adoption.

We are told that a significant increase in the budget is being allocated to early intervention. I should like to hear from the Minister how that increase is to be distributed. I provided the Minister with my draft earlier today.

On post-adoption support, most children are adopted from the care system and most of them, other than babies, will have had unhappy experiences in their birth family, which is why they have been removed from the family. Adoption provides the opportunity for the adopted children to have a secure and stable childhood. It does not rid them of the unhappy early part of their lives. Some of these children present major problems for their new, adoptive families and both the children and their new parents often need a great deal of practical help, counselling and therapeutic help. It is much to the credit of the Government that they now recognise the importance of post-adoption support. The adoption passport will be available online to be accessed by potential adopters and sets out the help which may be available to them.

The committee recommended that there should be a statutory duty on local authorities and other service-commissioning bodies to co-operate, to ensure the provision of post-adoption support. The Government have not responded directly to that recommendation—it would be fair to say that they avoided doing so—and I hope that it will be seriously considered when the Children and Families Bill reaches this House.

We invited adopted and looked-after children to come and talk to some of the members of the committee; we are indebted to the Children’s Rights Director, Roger Morgan, for arranging for these children to come. Both groups ranged in age from about 17 down to eight and were most informative, particularly the younger children when they developed sufficient confidence to tell us what they really thought. The two points I pick out today were said by both groups of children. First, they were not consulted. They did not expect that their views would be accepted, but at least they might be asked. Most of them were very critical of independent reviewing officers whom they had not met or who were not helpful to them; to the contrary were one or two children whose independent reviewing officers had done a very good job with them. Some children were critical of their guardians, who neither spoke nor listened to them. I am disappointed that the Government have rejected our recommendation that IROs should be genuinely independent—it is an important issue—but I hope that something effective will be done about the IRO case overload.

The second point the children raised concerned the training in schools of other pupils about the meaning of adoption and the meaning of being “in care”. Much more importantly, however, they focused on the training needed by teachers. Two adopted children told us that they were criticised by their teachers for being unable to complete a family tree. They were actually put in front of the class and told that they were being unhelpful. I cannot believe any teacher could be so insensitive as to tell an adopted child that he or she was not supportive of the class when they were unable to produce a family tree of their new family. I am glad that the Government are looking at this important issue of teachers.

I turn briefly to outcomes and data. The Government have rightly concentrated on the importance of improving processes, but there has not yet been sufficient focus on outcomes. Some adoptions fail, with disastrous results for the child and for the adopters and with considerable additional cost to the state in taking a seriously damaged child back into care. We need much more data and research on breakdown and how it can be avoided. The Government say that they are looking at it. I hope very much that they take some effective steps to find out what lies behind these breakdowns.

It would also be helpful if a child’s passage from the moment of going into care to being placed in adoption, and thereafter, was monitored so that one has a graph of what happened to that particular child, which might also help with the issue of breakdown. We need much more data and research on breakdown and how it can be avoided, and I do not apologise for saying that again.

The other recommendations the Government have rejected are likely to figure in amendments to the Children and Families Bill when it comes to this House. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a great privilege to come immediately after our splendid chairman. Age before beauty, of course, as one of the lonely men on the committee, my goodness, it was a pleasure to serve under our chairman and to have such a riveting and exciting time studying a very difficult subject.

I will not follow in any detailed way what has been done, what the law is and what is now proposed. I would like to speculate a little on the relationship between Government and local government, and all the other agencies that are involved in the very complicated matter of care and permanent placements.

Clauses 1 to 3 of the Bill all do things that are entirely relevant to what we studied. There is a new duty, a change in the rules about how you look at matching on grounds of ethnicity, and in Clause 3 there is the headmaster’s stick behind the curtain, which is the possibility of directions. I have to admit to a personal dislike of any clause that has directions in it as there is no parliamentary procedure for appealing against the decision of a Secretary of State.

However, that may be—let us hope that Clause 3 never needs to be used—when thinking about these complex matters we need to remember quite a number of things. A lot of very expert people are involved in these complicated matters: not least, of course, the courts. Views about child psychology and the best interests of the child are a moving target. I was an economist at one time and, as noble Lords will know, no two economists agree. I am not sure that any two child psychiatrists entirely agree either. There is a very wide intellectual background to these matters and of course there are wide differences on the ground.

The demographics of Bradford are not the same as those of north Yorkshire and Hackney is very different from Southall. The divergences of circumstances on the ground—between local authorities and between individual circumstances—are enormous. As the chairman has already said, we found—and the evidence completely supported this—that the behaviour within the existing system is much more important than the probably helpful tweaks that can be given to it in legislation. This issue of the behaviour within the existing system will stay with us. That is why I am very interested in how the Government approach their relationships with local authorities in a matter such as this.

Of course the financial relationship does not help. The fact that local authorities are responsible for such a small part of their own funding does not help at all. I do not want to draw parallels with the governance of the eurozone and the monetary problems that arise from that, but there are parallels. If you split these responsibilities in a quite draconian way, it does not help and it contributes to the public not turning out in very large numbers in local government elections and coming to think of their elected representatives as delegates—a very non-Burkean position. Centralisation makes the question of the postcode lottery more difficult. Dealing with children in care in Kent will remain a very different matter from dealing with children in care in Northumberland or—again—Hackney.

In pursuing these difficult judgments about whether a child should be taken into care, and how quickly a decision should be made about the best possible placement, when to go to court and so on, we need throughout the system—in the department, in local authorities, among elected members and in social services departments—confidence, professional certainty and an acceptance that now and again the judgments that are reached in pursuit of minimising delay will have risks to them, and occasionally will turn out not to be as successful as we would have hoped.

The Government’s initial response to our December and March efforts was pretty general. I have read it carefully and I am not filled with certainty that everybody in the system knows how to handle these matters in the best possible way. I suppose that that is inevitable. Therefore, the question becomes whether the difficulties are properly recognised, and whether there is a dialogue about them and an acceptance that we have to get on with thinking about this very carefully, even if we are somewhat uncertain about the right answer. Otherwise, uncertainty will have to be rationalised out and so will become indifference and certainly delay. Therefore the central issue is how the Government intend, in their relationship with local authorities, to impart a degree of confidence that will lead to a degree of certainty and a willingness to make decisions in a timely fashion. That goes right through all the people involved in the system, including the adoption agencies and all the other people who contribute to the very important wish of all of us to see a greater number of successful adoptions.

The challenge is to ensure that when John Humphrys gets into a dialogue on a problem that has arisen—and problems will arise—everybody in the system, when they are interviewed, can say, “We thought this through together, we are all in it together and not one of us is trying to make sure that somebody else carries the blame”.

My Lords, I thank the House for appointing me to this committee. It was my first Select Committee at this end of the building, and I enjoyed being part of a very thorough piece of work with a very interesting and varied group of people, with very different expertise and experience. Of course we were expertly chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I had the enormous privilege of encountering her chairmanship much earlier in both our careers, when she chaired the Cleveland child abuse public inquiry. I was new to the House of Commons but I had been working as a social worker in the north-east, so was involved and interested in the issue. I was also serving on the then Education Bill Committee in the Commons. This was, I think, in 1998—the Bill became the 1998 Act. I was able to learn from her work and report in getting a much firmer framework for child protection in this country. She was immensely gracious to those of us who were new to Select Committee work in this House, and very tolerant of our different approaches, and I am very grateful to her for that. I am also grateful that she has today given us a much more expansive report, in a sense, of the overall conclusions of the committee, because I want to concentrate on a much narrower area of the committee’s considerations. However, it is important for noble Lords to remember the whole context in which the committee was working.

Adoption is, of course, an important option for children who are not able, for whatever reason, to be cared for by their birth parents, but it is sometimes forgotten that the pattern of adoption has changed significantly over the past 50 years. No longer is it dominated by newly born babies, probably put up for adoption because their mothers were out of wedlock. These days, that is not the main reason for children coming into care or, indeed, being placed for adoption. Many of the children who are placed for adoption today will be from what the Government often call “troubled families”, which means that many of them will have had very traumatic experiences in their childhood and will be very damaged by the neglect, violence or abuse that they have already suffered.

The report is trying, in the areas with which I am concerned, to establish that careful balance between the importance of achieving early permanence for vulnerable children alongside that key recognition that the best place for a child is to be raised within the family network, provided that it is safe and in their best interests. I remember as a social worker many moons ago just how anxious and obsessed were many adolescents with whom I worked because they did not have contact with their birth parents or their early family. It did not matter what we did in the care system; they wanted to know, wanted the reasons and wanted to see what we could do to establish contact. Today, if they go down the adoption road, that is very difficult for them. For me that means that we have a responsibility to take early intervention seriously. The committee felt that the careful balance that I am talking about could be met only by effective early intervention. Again, my experience as a Minister in tackling social exclusion was that there are good evidence-based programmes around the world on early intervention. There is now a lot of knowledge and work around that, and we have a responsibility to use that knowledge, now that we know.

There is increasing evidence of the importance of the time from conception to the age of two in the development of a child. We know that this is the crucial phase of human development. It is in this period that children form those solid psychological and neurological foundations to optimise lifelong social, emotional and physical health, and that of course then has such an important effect on their educational and economic achievement. Lack of attachment, neglect and abuse all have serious detrimental effects on children, and severely affect that development.

I commend to the House a report that has been published since the committee deliberated this issue from the special interest group for nought to two year-olds set up by the Government. The report was co-written by Sally Burlington at the Department for Education and George Hosking, CEO of the Wave Trust. I remind the House of my interest as a trustee of that organisation. I hope the Minister has been briefed on that report as it clearly points out that the most effective interventions are often preventive rather than reactive. The report says that preventive interventions address risk factors likely to result in future problems for particular families without waiting for those problems to emerge. That is precisely what I urge the Government to do. Although we considered early intervention we were not able to look at that report, but I think that many of us on the committee agree with that finding.

We heard from the NSPCC about some of the work that that organisation has done in this area. I talked about evidence-based programmes such as the Family Nurse Partnership, and continue to do so. Indeed, some people think that I am obsessed with those programmes. I had the privilege of witnessing the Family Nurse Partnership in the United States of America and then persuading my Cabinet colleagues to fund pilot programmes in this country. It became clear from that work that health visitors and midwives are the key to achieving better health and well-being for children in their foundation years. We are simply not sufficiently innovative in how we use their knowledge and expertise to understand what is happening to children and prospective parents in these most vulnerable families. If we used their work much more creatively, we would be able to take decisions which could well achieve the Government’s ambition of providing more early placements and early decision-making. We have the opportunity to change the manner in which parents behave, or are likely to behave, towards their children. We now know about that from the Nurse Family Partnership; or the Family Nurse Partnership, as we have rechristened it. We know what can be done. We know how we can change the behaviour and ambition of young mothers undergoing their first pregnancy. That should be the overarching ambition in early intervention.

The challenge for the Government is to get the legislation right to ensure that families are given the right support at the right stage to avoid problems of neglect and abuse so that the child’s interests are attended to before damage is done. If that work is guaranteed, if there is no prospect of the parents’ behaviour changing, or of other appropriate kinship carers, families or friends taking on the care of the child, permanent solutions should kick in quickly. We have just not been good enough at this. We have not been good enough at early identification or early intervention to optimise the child’s opportunities. Too often potential carers among family and friends are not investigated at an early stage: it comes as an afterthought. Too often there is insufficient support for kinship carers. Earlier this week, I popped into the Family Rights Group reception in the Palace of Westminster. Members of that body gave evidence to the committee. At the reception we heard about the experience of kinship carers, which was incredibly moving. However, we also heard their pleas for greater support.

I accept that there is, on occasion, risk in kinship placements. Anyone who has listened to the remarkable story of my very good right honourable friend along the Corridor, Alan Johnson, about his experience of kinship care, knows that taking a risk is important. He had a remarkable social worker who was prepared to take that risk and leave him with his sister who was 16. However, such risk should be mediated by the guarantee of support, and that is the issue on which many kinship carers feel we let them down. The Government sort of acknowledge that in their response to the report, but I want more action on that. I would like them to take account of the recommendations of recent research by Oxford University for the Family Rights Group, which gives us a menu of how we might provide that support more effectively.

I know that I have not covered many other aspects of the report. I conclude by saying that sometimes the rhetoric from the Government about adoption overshadows the other things that the committee knows are important—indeed, our chairperson has identified them as being important—such as early identification and the menu of different forms of permanence for children in care. It is important to recognise the complex jigsaw of ways forward, and I know that that is where the Government are, even if the rhetoric sometimes belies that. We have responsibility to ensure that the legislation that we are shortly to consider enhances opportunities for the most vulnerable children. I look forward to that.

My Lords, I, too, sincerely thank our chairman and all who advised and assisted us, who, from where they are sitting probably want to join in this debate. They joined in very helpfully in the committee. They made it an enjoyable and productive process, about which I want to say a word.

I have been involved for some years in judging awards, mostly in the local government field but more broadly, to scrutiny committees and scrutiny branches of organisations. I have been increasingly aware that scrutineers are being involved by their executives in co-operative and forward-looking, not merely reactive, responsive work. I hope that we have fulfilled something of that function in our work. Our chairman has referred to some of the evidence given by children and their carers about their experiences of care and adoption. She, like me, might sometimes put quotation marks around the word “evidence” but they contributed to our consideration. I have been wondering about whether, as Bills come before committees of Parliament, there might be more scope for combining our current work with the sort of post-legislative/pre-legislative scrutiny that our inquiry became. This is done more by the Commons than it is by us. Is there room for more liaison? Perhaps I should pause while I am struck by a thunderbolt for suggesting any such thing. However, I hope that both Houses can continue to explore new ways of looking at what we are doing.

Like other noble Lords, I found the leapfrogging government announcements somewhat frustrating at the time but, with hindsight, I recognise that there was more of a pattern to them than it felt when we were doing it.

I have come across some amazing people in the adoption world. I first became involved with adoption towards the end of the 1970s, and I want to use this opportunity to put into Hansard the names of two couples who formed the agency, Parents for Children, with which I worked. Both couples—Sheila and Michael Crawford and Hilary and David Chambers, who also founded the Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services that later became Adoption UK—were adopters of children with considerable disadvantages. With the first director, Phyllida Sawbridge, some really ground-breaking work was done in this country with, as I said, children who had multiple disadvantages.

Last year, I met Phyllida Sawbridge again, and we reminisced about, bluntly, the advertising of children who needed to be adopted, requiring permanence, and about other mechanisms, such as activity days, when potential adopters met children, involving picnics on Parliament Hill and that sort of thing. I wonder about the wheel sometimes being reinvented.

I was quite young at the time and maturity gives one a different perspective. What it has given me is a perspective on the importance of identity—one’s own identity. The first report that the committee produced dealt with the Government’s proposal regarding changing legislation concerning the place and consideration of religion, race, language and culture. We felt that our proposal gave those matters appropriate weight and an appropriate place, and I am sorry that when the Bill was published it was clear that the Government did not accept what we had to say.

Legislation is not everything—that was something that we felt time and again in our work—but changing the legislation, as the Children and Families Bill will do if it is unamended in this regard, sends a very particular message, and it is not a message that I am comfortable with. A parent’s understanding and a child’s sense of who he is seems to be one of those issues which is rather susceptible to the swings of the pendulum in thinking. The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred to this as a moving target—a phrase that I may adopt at some point.

Another pendulum is where responsibility lies between the local and the national. I am naturally a localist but I found myself thinking again and again during the committee’s work that adoption is in some sense a national service.

The committee has expressed concern about the Secretary of State’s power to direct local authorities to outsource recruitment, and reference has been made to that. We encourage the Government to allow time for the sector to develop alternative proposals. I am not entirely sure what the Government mean in their response by saying that they will not impose a solution,

“unless it becomes clear that the sector as currently constituted is unable or unwilling to address these problems”.

The response goes on:

“We will, however, not hesitate to intervene if the sector is unable to make the urgent changes that need to happen”.

That sounds to me more top-down than I am comfortable with.

The Local Government Association, in its briefing for today—and I have no doubt that it will brief us extensively for the Bill—makes the point that, as many adoptive parents say, the relationship between adopters and their council lasts long after they adopt. It says:

“This is why it is so crucial that we have a joined-up adoption system”.

The committee identified issues regarding social workers’ training and continuing professional development and status following Professor Munro’s report. I was not left with complete confidence that the Government had understood what we were saying in this regard.

I understand that each local authority is accountable for its own performance but we heard interesting and encouraging things about joint working and consortia, to use the term quite widely. I hope that the Government’s response rejecting joint scorecards and joint inspections does not mean that they are rejecting out of hand ways in which authorities can work together. Like others, I was disappointed by the way in which the early intervention grant had been regarded, although we have been given information about new moneys which will become available.

The committee was fortunate to have members directing us to evidence and data. One of the areas in which more information is required is the breakdown of placements. Our chairman has referred to this already. I know that work is being done in this area but I am not clear how breakdown is defined and, in particular, whether any longitudinal work is going on or whether the Government, who I know have already commissioned some work, are looking only at the relatively short term. A problem with a placement arising from a child’s background may evidence itself perhaps only in the teenage years, and it may be quite difficult to untangle the components at that stage.

We have raised the issue of value for money and the costs and benefits of adoption support in this context and we learn from the report—or, at any rate, I learnt; others may have known of this before—of work commissioned from the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre. I have given the Minister notice—not very much notice, I am afraid—that I would be interested to know the terms of reference of that work, how it is being carried out and, in particular, of course, who is being consulted. I have looked at the centre’s website and I notice that one of the partners in the work is part of the Coram Foundation, which has much experience, including in concurrent planning, but presumably a wider trawl is being undertaken.

The committee argued for post-adoption support, not only an assessment of adopters’ needs. I understand there is a lack of information as to how assessments are carried out by local authorities and adopters report varied experiences. There seems to be no model for the assessment—I would not necessarily support a single model—and that means that there is no benchmarking. I wonder how evaluation of the assessments is being undertaken.

The Government’s response to our reports also referred to work on a social impact bond. Again, I hope the Minister will be able to say more about developments for funding mechanisms which the Government are monitoring. I think I have used almost all the words which were applied to this issue in the report. It was a very short paragraph.

Finally, let me raise a narrow point which the noble and learned Baroness had in mind but did not develop—she is leaving it for the Bill—and that is access to information by the descendants of adopted people. We have evidence of the need for a change to the legislation. A woman who was affected was not herself adopted, but her father was, and she made an application to the court. She said:

“I believe that knowing my origin is an important part of who I am, and having access to my father’s birth information would restore my sense of identity and belonging. Society’s attitude towards adoption has been changing for some years, and these are amendments which should reflect a more open approach”.

The Government responded that:

“This is a complex and sensitive issue which needs careful consideration before any change to legislation could be considered”,

and went on to say that they are in discussion with the Law Commission. Can the Minister say today what considerations there are which are greater than or different from those applying in the case of adopted people? I might be able to imagine them, but I would be glad to hear them at this point.

We were asked to look at legislation and of course, as has been said, what we found was that there were issues mostly around practice. For reasons of time, I will not rehearse the arguments about the importance of early permanency, but I want to end by going back to some of my own early experiences, which still apply. In essence, although it is not the whole of it, if permanency is not achieved early, a child becomes a child who is difficult to place.

My Lords, I, too, had the honour of being a member of the committee, although for a large part of the time I was being looked after by the National Health Service, so I can thank the chair for her excellent work more objectively than the other members of the committee and, indeed, I can thank my colleagues. Between them, they have made a superb contribution to the thinking around the needs of vulnerable children in our communities. I want to concentrate today on that wider aspect.

Noble Lords who take part in debates such as this will know the sinking feeling that you get as you listen to the speeches that have gone before—I am sure that those who are to speak after me are having the same thought—and you realise that most of the points that you want to make have already been made, but I would say to the Minister that in this instance I think that that is important, because it reinforces the central message. I felt that the noble and learned Baroness and my computer had been in collusion, but I can assure him that they were not. I have known the noble and learned Baroness down the years because she was president of the Family Division when I had the somewhat mixed experience of being the deputy chair and then chair, like the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services. That experience of children is something else that I bring, apart from being a social worker.

The Government are right to concentrate hard on this aspect of children’s needs because, as the Minister must know, there really is a crisis at the moment in childcare. Care applications in April 2013 were 20% higher than in the previous year. We really cannot continue on that sort of trajectory. To quote the chief executive of CAFCASS, the number of children legally freed for adoption but without an adopter available is increasing relentlessly. As has been said, the figure is just below the 5,000 mark. Not only do we need to ensure speedy but appropriate planning for these children, but we must stem the flow by questioning what it is in our society, our services and our systems that brings so many children into care. What can we do better in order to support children at home?

Apart from the possibility of safe reunification with one or both parents—sometimes it is with one parent if the other parent can be distanced; I will return to that later—children can find secure, loving relationships through kinship care, permanent fostering, special guardianship and good residential care. We have seen that, as special guardianship has increased, sometimes adoption has gone down. That has been seen as a reduction in adoption but what we should be looking for is permanence, not a particular answer. Children often need combinations of care at different stages of their childhood and the development of their family. By overemphasising one—adoption—we may demean the others. Different pathways also require a variety of support services. We acknowledge gratefully what the Government have proposed through the adoption passport, recognising the wide need of adopted children, but we regret that the provision of the services identified is not to be a statutory duty. We hope that the Government will look again at this through the Children and Families Bill.

It has been said several times this afternoon that the committee endorsed the importance accorded to the right of a child to be raised within their birth family wherever possible. If I could say that in bold and underlined, I would do so. I have spent enough of my working life, as many of my colleagues know, developing safeguarding programmes, dealing with the worst of neglect or harm and indeed the murder of children by their parents, to have a more than realistic picture of what life can be like for some children left in unsafe situations. Indeed, we know from consultation directly with children that top of the list of things that they look for is to be safe.

However, I also spent enough years as a social worker involved with families with complex problems to know that, with clear assessment, proper planning and support services such as Sure Start and Home-Start, parents can make changes. We have heard about the NSPCC programme, which has had very good outcomes. All this will lead to positive family life, but it takes skill, time and, especially, good social work intervention, and that is where there is a key difficulty for local authorities at the moment. In this regard, where parents have the capacity to change, the committee was clear that evidence in favour of that early, intensive intervention to address family problems is compelling.

As I said, local authorities, particularly their social workers, are under severe pressure. It was therefore with deep concern that we learnt that adoption reform is to be funded by taking money from the early intervention grant. I ask the Minister directly: how can good early decision-making based on these clear assessments be achieved, with permanency planning being prioritised one month after entry into care, without the financing of a skilled workforce to carry this out? Social workers continue to have a bad press and remain undervalued in terms of pay and conditions of service, and I wonder sometimes why any person joins the service. But we need teams who can approach every new situation with a broad understanding of children and their families, where adoption is fully integrated into child protection and family support. We need a more rounded approach, which we had at some point in the past.

The Government’s response to our recommendation that,

“the Government need to give further consideration to the practical effect of the proposed change … on social work culture and practice”,

was simply to say that further information to support the Bill’s provisions would be provided. Is the Minister in a position to provide the information or will that come at a later stage? What will be done to support and develop social workers in their practice? As our chair has done, I draw attention to the position of independent reviewing officers and ask what is to be done to ensure that their decisions are independent of their employing authorities and their workloads are manageable. We heard during the inquiry of one case where a reviewing officer really took the brunt of a serious mistake and then discovered that his workload was totally impossible. Anyone carrying that workload was likely to make a mistake.

The committee came to the conclusion that concurrent planning is essential and I am delighted that CAFCASS and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services are undertaking work on early permanence analysis. This approach reflects the concern and commitment of those working for children—people who know that a week in a child’s life is a long time. I welcome the Government’s response to make it a duty of the local authority to place a child with carers who may go on to be their permanent carers at a very early stage. However, I hope that care will also be taken in ensuring the human rights of families, which means having the right length of time for social workers to engage and make their decisions. In saying that, I again acknowledge that there are times when immediate intervention must take place.

It has been said previously that we have no evidence, except anecdotal evidence, of the broad success or failure of adoption. I found this astounding having been involved in childcare statistics for many years. We urge the Government to undertake research that, by gathering statistics of adoption breakdown, would give some basis for planning. While everyone in the children’s social care field welcomes any plans to reduce the time taken by care proceedings, I repeat that there must be enough time to make appropriate plans. Nothing that I have said in support of social work with birth families indicates a lack of value for adoption; it simply indicates a need for a balance. I have direct personal and professional experience of the security that a good adoptive family can achieve, but we must assess each child’s situation on its merits.

To meet the expectation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we must wherever possible ensure that the child is an active participant in their future. We have heard how often children felt that things were being done to them rather than with them. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has recently introduced an advocacy service to ensure that children can be properly heard and their views incorporated into decisions at the child protection conference stage. That is a good deal earlier than family conferences. When the child is old enough, it is essential that their views are known. The NCB only yesterday published a report, Time to Listen, showing how advocacy can enhance children’s involvement. If we are to get the placements right, including adoption, we must know what the children think and feel. It does not necessarily mean that that will the right plan, but how can you make a good professional assessment without listening to the children? Recent events in Oxford surely illustrate what happens when they are not heard. I wonder what else the Government are doing to encourage child participation and advocacy.

I repeat: a week in the life of a child can be a lifetime. Whatever path we take to ensure that each child has a happy and secure permanent placement must be found with skill and application. I look forward to the Children and Families Bill and to the Minister’s response to the issues raised today, but I ask him and his colleagues to remember that, while leaving a child in an unsafe situation and without adequate support can be a death sentence, removing a child from parents is for them a life sentence. Those difficult decisions, keeping the child always at the centre of consideration, require professionals who can deliver what the Government in partnership with local authorities need to do. It is practice rather than legislation that will make the difference. I hope to hear what the Government are going to do to ensure that that practice is adequate.

My Lords, it has been a great pleasure to serve on this committee. One of the things I liked most about it and this subject is that we were more or less able to approach it from a non-party-political angle. No one in this House would not want to see Britain treat its most vulnerable children in a fairer manner. I say that almost as a disclaimer at the beginning before I have a little bit of a go at some of the Government’s approaches to this issue.

Clearly, I welcome the Government’s desire to improve life chances for children in the care system but you have to look at who these children are. I was shocked and must confess my ignorance because I did not realise that when we talk about children in care today in Britain some 56% of them are over the age of 10 and will never realistically be adopted. Although I am evangelical on the subject of adoption—even more evangelical than the Secretary of State in the other place as I have three adopted children—to focus on adoption at the expense of other permanent care solutions would inevitably be to neglect over half our children in care. That simply is not an option.

The best way to help children in care is to change circumstances in their birth families so that they are not taken into care in the first place. That is why every single member of the committee to speak so far has brought up the subject of early intervention and the fact that the grant was raided, manoeuvred or manipulated. Whatever word you want to use, the Government announced they were taking £150 million from councils’ early intervention grants. The Government argued they were doing so because adoption is a form of early intervention. Of course that is true but the whole point of “early” early intervention is to prevent children being removed from their birth families in the first place. In that respect, adoption is not early intervention but an act of last resort when all else has failed.

Worryingly, we heard time and again that either families today are failing more and more often or their failure has now become unacceptable. Whatever the reasons for that, the upshot is clear: we heard again and again that the water table is rising. All the professionals we took evidence from were alarmed by the rising tide of children coming into the care system. If more money is taken out of early intervention then even more children will be put up for adoption. The NSPCC has said:

“Whilst we welcome more support for adoption it simply doesn’t make sense to take the money from the early intervention pot. This funding actually helps stop family breakdown which often leads to the need for adoption in the first place”.

I understand that the Minister will state that early intervention funding is increasing in 2014-15, up from 2011-12, but I have been told by various local authorities that this does not make up for all the money that they have lost.

While we are on the subject of money, I want to mention post-adoption support. This was one of the committee’s most important recommendations. We proposed a statutory duty to co-operate so that families which adopt Britain’s most vulnerable children receive the professional help they need. Of course, they do not know when that help will be required. It might be six weeks after they adopt a child or it might be six or 10 years. We are talking about children who have been abandoned, neglected or abused—whether physically, emotionally or sexually. They may be withdrawn when they arrive at their new families. They may be physically aggressive towards their new parents. I have spoken to many adoptive parents who were literally taken aback at what hit them when newly adopted children arrived in their families. The idea that these new parents should be left to deal with the consequences of early abuse and neglect is unconscionable. It is also financially irresponsible. The costs of adoption breakdown are met by the state and it is invariably more expensive to take a child back into care than to give those families the help they need at the appropriate time.

The Government themselves state that there is a strong moral and financial imperative for providing high-quality adoption support. I welcome that statement, but if they are to stand by it, will they please undertake to review the committee’s suggestion of a statutory duty? If the Minister does not think that a statutory duty to co-operate among the different agencies that provide such services—such as the NHS, adolescent mental health services, or whatever—is appropriate, will he agree to review that advice on statutory support, as it is a lifeline to adoptive families?

I also welcome the Government’s commitment to equalising rights between adoptive parents and non-adoptive parents. I was contacted by an adoptive parent who was forced to return to work early. She was not eligible for statutory maternity pay because her child was adopted and she worked freelance. If you are freelance and you have a baby, you receive SMP, but if you are freelance and you adopt a baby, you do not. I know that that is true because the same thing happened to me. I submit that I am more able to deal with that situation than many freelancers. It is iniquitous and a clear case of discrimination that if you adopt a baby and are freelance, you do not get the same support as if it was a birth baby. That is despite the fact that an adoptive child has an even greater need than a birth child to form healthy attachments with its new parents. I should be very grateful if the Minister would undertake to write to me on the issue, if he cannot give a response at this point.

Social impact bonds have been mentioned by other noble Lords. The Government say that they are monitoring innovative funding mechanisms such as social impact bonds. Do they have any plans to use social impact bonds to fund post-adoption support? What more can the Minister tell us about that?

I end by thanking the chair of our committee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for her excellent leadership. I imagine that her breadth of experience on the subject is almost unparalleled in this House, notwithstanding the many experts we have here. I also thank those who so ably helped the committee in its work. It was an absolute pleasure to serve on the committee, but it will mean something only if the Government can take firm and clear steps in the areas that we have outlined so that our desire to give Britain’s most vulnerable children a fair chance in life becomes reality.

My Lords, this debate has been interesting, stimulating and challenging, as was membership of the committee. I am sure that the debate will continue to be as stimulating. Being on such a committee, so ably led by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was a great honour and pleasure. One felt that one was doing something really worth while. I very much thank her, the members of staff who supported us and all those who gave an enormous amount of time to present us with evidence. It was the evidence to which we listened and responded and which has been produced in our report. If we are interested in evidence-based policy, we should listen carefully to what those people said, which we have reflected in our report.

I have been involved with adoption since I was three years old, because at that point I suddenly acquired a little brother. This was not because my mummy had had a big bump in her tummy. At that age, I did not realise that that was a bit odd. I acquired a little brother through family adoption. A close member of the family died immediately after she gave birth and the baby became my little brother. Subsequently, his older siblings became regular visitors to our house and became sort of second-stage members of our family.

It is because of the great success of that adoption that I very much understand the need and importance of an adopted person to understand their identity, and where they belong in a family and more generally. I very much support what my noble friend Lady Hamwee said as regards the importance of information about the person’s background in aiding their ability to understand their own identity.

I am still involved in adoption because I now have an adopted granddaughter. This is a transracial adoption which so far is highly successful and I am delighted. It has shown me how adoption is a two-way street. The adoptive parents go through all the hassle of being approved and all the decision-making because they want to add to their family. They want to give a child a loving home. However, the child brings something terribly important to that family and we must never forget that when adoptive parents give the wonderful gift of a home to a baby, the child also brings something very important to that family.

It is because of that experience that I shall focus on racial matching. Current legislation on racial matching came in under Section 1(5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It states that consideration has to be given to,

“religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”,

when placing a child for adoption. Of course, with a baby there is not any language, but there is for most children who are adopted.

That was put in legislation because racial issues are an important consideration in the identity of the child. When the Select Committee was taking evidence, we heard pretty unanimous evidence that people felt that there was not a lot wrong with the Government’s intention when that recommendation was put into what was then the Bill. However, there were a few cases—this should not be overemphasised—where there was excessive delay in the system because the practice was not quite right. Some social workers took that part of the legislation as a message to say that racial matching was an overriding consideration when matching a child with a family. Most people told us that that was not widespread but it was accepted that it occasionally happened.

Clearly, the Government are very keen to reduce delay from whatever cause. Therefore, they have looked at this issue and said, “We are going to cut it out completely from the legislation”. The Children and Families Bill before us, which, I imagine will go through in 2013, has removed that consideration. Our Select Committee recommended something slightly different. Accepting that racial matching is an important factor and that the adoptive family must be aware of the needs of the child because of the racial part of his or her nature, we need to put it in somewhere. It has to be taken account of by practitioners. It should not be an overriding consideration but it is important. We suggested that it should go in the previous subsection, subsection (4) of the Adoption and Children Act, as part of the checklist. But I do not see anything like that in the legislation before us to implement that recommendation.

We have to remember that where you have an interracial adoption which involves a visible difference between a child and the rest of his or her family, they might as well have a sign on their forehead saying, “I am adopted”. To me, that is a great thing to have because it means that your family has chosen you. You have not just happened. Your family wants you and there is no doubt about that, which is a wonderful thing. Most of these adoptions are highly successful, but really only when the agencies work with the parents to ensure that the parents understand that this is an element they have to take into consideration when bringing up that child.

That is why our committee, which was remarkably unanimous on most issues, felt that this issue should not be taken out completely but should be in the checklist. I am a little confused because I understand that when this was being discussed in a committee in another place the Minister, Mr Edward Timpson, for whom I have a great regard, assured the committee that it was going to be in the checklist. However, it is not being put into the legislation, so I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can clarify that matter because I think the committee all felt very strongly that while it should not be an overriding consideration, it is a very important one and must be taken into account when finding the right family for the child.

Of course, we have a problem because black and ethnic minority and mixed-race children are overrepresented in the cohort of children waiting for adoption and we do not have enough parents of that kind of ethnicity coming forward and asking to be adoptive parents. One way of solving that problem is to try to get more of those parents to come forward and foster and maybe move on to adoption, or just to go straight to adoption. I am sure that the Government are taking initiatives in that direction, which is very welcome, but we need to do more.

Personally, I think it is quite dangerous because of the message it sends out to practitioners, which has been mentioned. Those practitioners who took the wrong message from the previous legislation might swing in completely the opposite direction and say, “The Government do not want us to take any notice at all of ethnicity when matching children and families”. We know that is not the Government’s intention. The previous Government’s intention was not that it should become an overriding factor but because of what happened, we need to think very carefully about the message if we take it out completely.

Perhaps I could move on to a couple of other issues in relation to overseas adoption. First, I am very disappointed that the Government have rejected our recommendation to extend priority access to schools for children adopted from care overseas. Why not? This is very mean-minded, as we are not talking about a large number of children. These children, as much as any who have been adopted from care in this country, have gone through difficult situations and if the parents have chosen the school they think is most suitable for them, they should be given their wish.

Secondly, there is the visa applications delay. It is complete agony for parents who have gone through all the processes of being approved to be parents of a child adopted from overseas to then have to wait for a visa application. It comes as no surprise when a visa application is put in for a child to be adopted from overseas; the parents have been going through this process for years. Is there no way in which some kind of conditional visa could be issued, subject to the proper approvals and the adoption going through with the authorities both in this country and the country of origin of the child, so that could then be ratified quickly once the adoption has gone through? It is not a good start to the adoption of a child from overseas to have to be separated from the new parents.

Finally, perhaps I might say a quick word about family group conferencing. Again, best practice is something that we as a Government should be doing everything to disseminate. I noticed that where we recommended that family group conferencing should always happen, the Government’s response to our report said that it is not appropriate in some cases and that the family has to agree to it. You could always make it conditional on the family agreeing to it. At the very least, should we not be saying in guidance that family group conferencing should always be considered as long as the family accepts it? It can reduce delays, which is what we all want. We can avoid situations where family members come forward at the last minute, when all the other processes have gone through, so that we have to do all the assessments and there will be further weeks of delay for that child. We have heard that every week’s delay is bad and contributes to the damage that that child suffers. I hope that the Government will consider those few suggestions.

I add my thanks to the members of the Select Committee and to my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss for their hard work and for this debate. Their work could hardly be more timely or the committee’s membership more expert and authoritative. I declare my interest as a patron of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation, a patron of Voice, which provides advocacy services for looked-after children, the Who Cares? Trust, which provides publications to children in care enabling them to know their rights, and the Caspari Foundation, which provides support for children with learning difficulties in schools.

I thank the Government for their welcome endeavours on adoption. We have been extremely fortunate to have had an outstanding Minister for Children in Tim Loughton MP, and his successor, Mr Edward Timpson MP, seems set to be equally remarkable. The commitment of the Secretary of State, the right honourable Michael Gove, is deep and derives from his personal experience.

I strongly support the Select Committee’s call for stronger rights to post-adoption support and highlight the need for the Government to extend their zeal to the full range of placements and services for vulnerable children and families. I praise the developing policy on children’s homes, which is not mentioned in the report but can be considered one route into placement stability. Will the Select Committee reconsider its recommendations on independent reviewing officers? Having heard what I have heard, I think the committee may well be right, but it is a contentious issue. It is very worrying that IROs have such high case loads. I join the Select Committee in asking the Government to gather more information about adoption breakdown.

On Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the report from the committee, I have mentioned independent reviewing officers. Much has already been said about the comments on post-adoption support, but I shall highlight one area. The Government have commissioned the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to produce materials for health professionals and will be looking to NICE to consider how teachers might be provided with a wider range of resources in this area. I commend the Government’s work in this area. I know its importance from the Caspari Foundation. It is essential that teachers have a better idea of child development and of what happens with children who have experienced trauma. I hope the Minister has a chance to speak with Charlie Taylor, the head of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, about these matters. He is well informed about them as a former head teacher of an EBD school.

The importance of expertise in the family court was mentioned in the debate. I highlight the need for the best expert witnesses to advise the courts in these matters. I understand the Government’s concern that in the past too many expert witnesses have been appointed in the court. This may perhaps have been because of a lack of confidence in judges, but in reducing the number of expert witnesses and saving the courts money I hope the fact that the court still needs to attract the best expert witnesses is not overlooked. As has been mentioned, there is a lot of contention about the judgment of psychiatrist and psychologists. One needs to attract the best of these people, to give the best advice and have the best outcomes for children.

There are concerns about the reduction of payments to expert witnesses. It causes me concern because we need to attract the best experts and get the best evidence for these courts. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, raised the importance of the first two years of life and intervening early to prevent such problems as we are discussing today. She talked particularly about the importance of health visitors and midwives in early intervention. I take this opportunity to say how concerned I am about the need for the best support for children under two. I was pleased to hear the Minister’s recent comments on the changes in childcare ratios, insisting that whatever happens the result will be better childcare. Indeed, it must.

Reflecting on a time not so long past, I recall the noble Earl, Lord Howe, making an eloquent case for the assessment of adopters’ needs and for duties on local authorities to meet those assessed needs in the course of past adoption legislation. I remind your Lordships of the young man I worked with a few years ago in north London. I had a summer placement on a play scheme and this 10 year-old was just about to be placed for adoption. In the lunch hour, he would rock himself in a tractor tyre in the setting. During activities, he would simply walk away and a member of staff would have to trail him on his journeys. He repeatedly got himself into arguments and fights with the other children. One saw in him what one would expect in a child who has experienced multiple trauma, multiple losses of carers, abuse or neglect. He had regressed to a much earlier stage of his development: he was more an infant than a 10 year-old in many ways.

Adopters need to be supported when they adopt such challenging young people. I am grateful for the recognition of this in the Government’s response. The prospect of inadequate support and a further placement breakdown, a further trauma or loss for the child, is unthinkable but not so unusual. As has been pointed out many times today, we simply do not know how often placement breakdown happens, and the details of why. That needs to be addressed.

Adopters also need to be supported in managing any contact the child may have with his biological parents and his siblings, and in speaking with the child about his past. Yesterday, I spoke with a care leaver about his experience. He repeated what he had said in the past: good communication is key to a child’s success through care. Adoptive parents need to have the confidence to be honest with their adopted children. The current film release “The Place Beyond the Pines” has a scene in which an adolescent tells his mother that she had lied to him, before he leaves the house to seek revenge for his father's killing. He had been told by his mother that his father had had an accident rather than that he had been shot dead. That moment seems uncanny in its appropriateness to our debate today. The young man says to his mother, “You are a liar”. One would not wish that to happen in any adoptive situation. Unless adoptive parents are really well supported, there may be similar difficulties when adolescence comes.

I will make a few comments on the challenges of adolescence. I have worked with 16 to 23 year-olds over a number of years. I have witnessed a teenager self-harming, have come across girls who may have been at risk of being groomed, have spent time both with young men who can suddenly start an outburst of anger and hatred from seemingly nowhere and with young men who in depression, as has been mentioned already, are unable to stir from the couch on which they lie.

It is generally accepted that children in the course of their development go through a period of latency between the ages of five to 10 years-old and then, as they enter adolescence, a period in which they recapitulate their earliest development, from nought to five, with its jealousy, tantrums and all its uncontrollable feelings. However, in adolescence, they experience this in bodies that can act on these impulses. They can hurt themselves or others, they can take what is not theirs, and they can set the house on fire if they choose to. Adopters need help, therefore, when their child enters adolescence. Early trauma that may have lain dormant will more than likely reappear in these years. Adopters need a right to the assessment of need and to services when their child enters adolescence.

I will now say a few words in praise of the Government’s developing policy on children’s homes. The Select Committee asks the Government to look across all placements for vulnerable children for routes to permanence and not to restrict its attention to adoption. I hope I can reassure members of the committee and the chair that progress is being made in the small but important area of children’s residential care.

There is scarcely time to do justice to this topic. The coverage on the front pages of the Times, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph yesterday on the abuse of girls as young as 12 who were in the care of Oxford local authority illustrates both the need for action and the distance we need to travel. This is just about a year on from the conclusion of the Rochdale case.

I will quote from the website of Ann Coffey MP, who has led work in this area and who refers to information released by the Government on 4 April of this year, which says:

“In future the police will be given the names and addresses of children’s homes in their area so that they can better protect vulnerable children. Rules will also be changed so that children’s homes in unsafe areas—such as in the same street as a bail hostel housing paedophiles—can be closed down or refused registration. There will also be stricter rules on out of area placements where children are placed in homes miles away from their home areas. Almost half of all children are placed in children’s homes out of their areas and this makes them susceptible to sexual predators … In future the government wants a decision to place a child in care away from their home town to only be made by a senior council official, who will have to be satisfied that the placement is in the child’s best interest. The new rules will also set out a requirement for the placing authority to consult with the local area authority before they place a child in a home. There will also be a duty on homes to notify local area authorities when children move in from other local authority areas and when they leave the home. … Better and more intense training will be set up for staff working in children’s homes and rules tightened to ensure that existing staff have completed minimum qualifications within a set period of time”.

I could go on. I pay tribute to Ann Coffey, whose report last year on children missing from care, facilitated by the charity the Children’s Society, led directly to these changes. Indeed, she sat on one of the working groups leading to this policy.

I hope your Lordships will find the Government’s progress on children’s homes encouraging. I am confident that they will feel, as I do, that much more needs to be done. However, the Government should be commended for a good start in this area. I conclude by repeating my thanks to the Select Committee, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the committee for their very impressive work on the adoption legislation.

Both reports that we are debating today represent a thorough and wise insight into the real issues being faced by adoption agencies and families around the country. I was impressed that the Committee has drawn extensively on its witness interviews and the evidence it had received and that, as a result, its recommendations are not based on ideology but on cold, hard facts and real experiences. As such, we see the reports as a genuine opportunity to embrace some fresh thinking in this area.

We remain proud of the fact that the last two pieces of adoption legislation in 2002 and 2006, introduced by the previous Government, genuinely transformed provision and put children’s rights at the heart of the process. However, we also see the need to reflect, learn and move on, and I hope that we can do this today.

I also hope that the Minister is genuinely minded to listen and engage with the debate given the imminent arrival of the Children and Families Bill in your Lordships’ House, which will result in the opportunity for these issues to be debated even more widely. While on this subject, can the noble Lord update us on the proposed timetable for the Bill’s arrival in this House, as there seems to be an ominous silence on that matter?

Having read through the reports again, I was struck also by how little the legislation requires changing. This point was made by a number of noble Lords. The more fundamental challenges that we face are about funding, training, the quality of reports, joint working and improved communication. I hope that these issues will not be lost when we finish debating the Bill, and that we can find a way to return to them. Perhaps a post-post-legislative scrutiny report will be required from the committee. I am sure that it would do a very good job.

I will highlight some issues in the report where there might be differences of approach between us and the current Government. A number of points that I will make echo those raised by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in her excellent introduction to the debate. First, we believe that the benefits of adoption over other permanent care solutions have been overstated. As the report points out, adoption is a sensible route out of care only for a proportion of children, and there is a danger that the current emphasis on this option will skew resources away from those providing equally beneficial forms of care. This point was made eloquently by my noble friend Lady King. Therefore we believe that it is essential, when a child’s future care options are assessed, that all potential provisions are considered on an equal footing, including long-term fostering, kinship care and special guardianship. We would like to see this in the Bill.

Secondly, we believe absolutely in the importance of early intervention. This means early intervention in supporting birth mothers and early intervention if a decision is needed to remove a child into care. This is why we have been so frustrated that the Government have allowed the Sure Start schemes to wither on the vine through lack of funding. This was and is a cost-effective way of providing community support and education to new mothers, particularly in deprived areas. It encourages new mothers to step out of the isolation of a potentially dysfunctional home environment and learn how to nurture their child successfully. It is crucial for identifying family problems from birth. I echo the points made by my noble friend Lady Armstrong concerning the role that health visitors and midwives can play. No other schemes that the Government are proposing come anywhere near the scale and comprehensiveness of the services that are being disbanded.

Early intervention also requires social workers with the training, judgment and experience to act decisively when a family is unable to meet the expectations of basic care and nurture. This is inevitably a tough call and should not be made alone. Equally, we should not allow bureaucratic form-filling to get in the way of social workers acting in the child’s best interests, and should not allow parents to play the system and drag out any chance of their child being removed and having a better life. These issues go to the heart of how we value, judge and reward good performance among social workers. I agree very much with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, with her considerable experience.

Thirdly, there has been considerable debate about the status of ethnicity in matching children to potential adopters. We believe that the wording on this in the previous legislation was clear. It made it clear that the interests of the child were paramount, and that in this context due consideration should be given to their religion, race, culture and linguistic background. Since then, there have been a number of allegations that the requirement is being overprescribed, leaving children trapped in care and awaiting a perfect racial match. The extent to which this has happened is difficult to quantify, but if the fundamental principles of placements need to be restated, let us use this opportunity to do so.

We are concerned that the Government have moved too far in the opposite direction by attempting to remove altogether the reference to ethnicity. Again, I echo the point that it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify the Government’s position, because it appears that by denying that we risk causing real hardship and unhappiness to children by placing them in families that do not understand their heritage. That is why we will push in the Bill for ethnicity to be listed as a welfare factor in the checklist to be taken into account in the matching process. This point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

Fourthly, we absolutely understand the argument that there are too many adoption providers in England, which reduces the scope for making successful matches for adoption. Clearly, it is not acceptable that agencies guard information about suitable adopters or children awaiting adoption and are not prepared to share it for the common good. We are pleased to see that consortia and joint local authority working, combined with improvements to the national register, are beginning to address these problems. Further funding and inspection mechanisms could be used to make this the norm.

However, we share the concern of the committee that it is premature for the Secretary of State to take on extra centralising powers, in addition to the swathe of powers that he has already taken across the education sphere, to force outsourcing of adoption services. If anything, this might result in a greater fragmentation of the service at a time when streamlining is required. In addition, we want to be assured that proper measures are in place to scrutinise the decision-making process of the Secretary of State and hold him to account when the outsourcing of services is imposed. This is something that has been missing in other aspects of education provision, and we will return to the issue during the course of the Bill.

Finally, the key to judging how successful any measures are is to look at the outcomes. We know from statistics that looked-after children have worse health, education and employment outcomes than their peers, and this should continue to be a real worry for us. We have also heard that the older the child being adopted, the more likely it is that the adoption breaks down. However, as the report suggests, we need more hard facts on this. We believe that it is our responsibility to compensate looked-after children for the effects of early trauma, including removal from their birth mother, by providing extra investment in their care and support so that they can catch up and have parity with their peers. One way of doing this is to provide all looked-after children with a virtual school head, who will take responsibility for their educational attainment. We are also keen to explore other means by which outcomes can be measured and improved. Again, we will raise these issues during the course of the Bill.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues today as a rehearsal for the issues arising in consideration of the Bill. Again, I thank the committee for providing such a comprehensive prism through which to judge the Government’s proposals, and look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I would first like to congratulate the noble and learned Baroness on securing this debate. I would also like to thank her and other noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to hear the many thoughtful contributions to it. Finally, I would like to thank the noble Baronesses and noble Lords who served on the Adoption Legislation Committee for the authoritative and considered report that we are debating today.

Every child has the right to belong to a family. When they cannot live with their birth parents, we must ensure they are provided with a safe and loving alternative family that can meet their needs. There is overwhelming evidence of harm being done to vulnerable children and inexcusable levels of drift and delay in care and adoption services. That is why, alongside our work to improve outcomes for children in care, the reform of the adoption system is a major priority. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his words about that matter. This reform really matters, for deep, personal reasons, to our education Ministers—to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education, who was himself adopted, and to my honourable friend Edward Timpson, whose parents fostered 87 children and who has two younger adopted siblings. I assure noble Lords that that experience drives Ministers to care equally about all children in care.

I appreciate that the committee is as disturbed as the Government are by the unacceptable delay in matching an adoption for those children for whom adoption is the right decision, as well as about the delays in processes and the shortage of adopters. We are already addressing many of those issues, but the report is extremely valuable and a considerable contribution to the debate on adoption reform, and we will continue to reflect on its recommendations in our work going forward. We will submit a full response to the report before the Children and Families Bill is considered in detail by a Committee of this House.

I should now like to respond to some of the points made by noble Lords. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, thinks that the Bill is in relatively good shape and I look forward to its speedy transition through your Lordships’ House. I believe that our hearts are all in the same place on this matter although we may differ on some of the methodology used to achieve these goals.

We believe that the Children and Families Bill carefully strikes the necessary balance between putting in place a maximum 26-week time limit to tackle delay in all cases while also allowing sufficient judicial discretion to extend time where necessary to resolve the case justly, having explicit regard to the child’s welfare. The Bill also ensures that when making any timetabling decision, including whether to grant an extension, the court must have specific regard to the impact on the welfare of the child. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, a family group conference helps to ensure that all relevant measures are considered.

I am pleased to address the points concerning reform of adopter recruitment. We have identified several problems with adopter recruitment such as the small scale of many adoption agencies and the fact that local authorities look first to their own adopters and then to adopters recruited by organisations with which they have an arrangement. Only if these are unsuccessful, and after an unnecessary delay, might they consider adopters recruited by voluntary adoption agencies. Not only does this create delay for children, but it also artificially narrows the choice of adopters that social workers have when looking for the best match for a child. This is simply wrong. Decisions should legally and morally be on the basis of what is best for the child, not on the basis of organisational convenience. It is for this reason that, while we welcome all improvements in recruitment of adopters, we want to be certain that bureaucratic arrangements do not lock out choice for children. Because of the nature of this problem, while we would like to see the reforms we need being put in place by the sector itself, and we would like, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, to see local authorities working together. We have had to accept, based on historic experience, that it may be necessary for the Government to direct local authorities to achieve changes, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said. We would, though, use this power only if the Secretary of State felt it was absolutely necessary to direct that services be pushed outwards, not to achieve efficiencies or because of ideology but to improve the lives of children now and in the future. This is about opening up services, not centralising power.

Many noble Lords spoke about post-adoption support. I appreciate that the committee considers that the package of reform does not go far enough without a duty to provide support. We are listening carefully to all the arguments on this issue. We published on 3 May an “adoption passport” setting out all the rights of adoptive families. This will improve awareness among adopters and local authorities, particularly of the right to an assessment, remove any stigma from seeking help and improve access to support when parents move to another local authority area and over the lifetime of the child.

The noble Baroness, Lady King, referred to freelance workers. I am pleased to say that, through the Children and Families Bill, we are bringing greater equality for adopters in terms of rights to pay and leave. I will write to the noble Baroness on self-employed adopters.

Racial matching was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee, Lady Walmsley and Lady Jones. Our view is that an overemphasis on this area has contributed to the delays, such that black children take on average a year longer to be adopted, and that that conceals a number who wait so long that they never get adopted. We believe that a nudge on this is not the way to change behaviour but that we should remove the wording altogether, as is proposed, so that we can change practice, which is what we are after. Of course, we will be looking for social workers to come to a balanced decision, weighing up all the relevant factors, one of which will, of course, be ethnicity. However, as I say, we are convinced that to change practice we should remove the wording as the fact is that for certain children there are just not enough adopters of the appropriate race. If, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, says, the use of the provision is not widespread, why does it take a year longer for a black baby to be adopted? As I understand it, we will not be putting the wording into the checklist. We do not believe that it is realistic that social workers will swing back to no emphasis on ethnicity. It is just not in their nature, particularly if they are better trained, as we intend them to be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, made points about changing the behaviour of parents in early intervention. The points were well made and we have a substantial programme under way across departments on the most challenged families with multiple problems, but I agree that there is more to do. We remain committed to early intervention, continue to be interested in local initiatives, and are pleased that the ADCS acknowledges that local areas are already working hard to address this issue. Ofsted inspections are looking at the effectiveness of early intervention and will share good practice when it is found.

There is no firm data yet on the number of adoption breakdowns, although some research has looked at subsets of adopted children. The Department for Education has commissioned research into the number and causes of adoption breakdowns, and it is expected to be completed early next year. We began collecting data on the number of adoption breakdowns from April 2013, and the data should be available from October next year.

On the points made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about children not being consulted, they are supposed to be, and we will look at sharpening up our guidance on this and what we can do to encourage child advocacy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, raised the question of the status of social workers. We are determined to do something about this. We continue to work to raise their quality and improve their recruitment and retention. We have asked Sir Martin Narey to undertake a review of initial social work training, and his findings will inform further work.

On the point about overseas children referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, we mentioned the matter in our response to the Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny. I have the wording here, which I will send to her and we can discuss it.

We are carrying out work on social impact bonds. I am very encouraged by the progress being made by the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies in the development of a social impact bond approach to finding and supporting families for children with complex needs. This kind of innovative approach has the potential to shift thinking about adoption support, whereby it can be seen as an investment rather than a cost. This could be of great benefit to the increasing number of children with complex needs who are waiting for families. Although not directly involved in the bond, my department is keeping in close contact with the CVAA as plans develop.

I understand why the descendants of adopted people may want to find out more about their relative’s history. We need to balance this, however, against the rights and wishes of adopted adults and, where the adopted adult has died, their birth family. It is open to anyone to apply to the Registrar-General for a copy of any person’s birth certificate, and this includes the birth certificate of an adopted person. However, there are cases in which the applicant does not have sufficient information to apply for a birth certificate. The issue was referred to the Law Commission in 2010, and although at present we have no plans to change the law, we intend to keep it under review.

On our adoption reforms, in March 2012 the Government published An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay, setting out the steps to be taken to streamline the adoption system so that more permanent loving families for more children can be found quickly and effectively. Through the action plan and subsequent policy announcements, we outlined our proposals for tackling delay and improving the involvement of adopters in different parts of the system. Collectively, our reforms are intended to reduce the delays faced by children awaiting adoption and create a system better able to focus on the needs of those children with more active involvement and support from adopters.

The new adoption website and helpline that we have just launched, First4Adoption, is an example. Noble Lords will also be aware that we have recently laid regulations before the House that will bring into force on 1 July this year the new two-stage adopter approval process, the fast-track procedure for adopters and foster carers, and other changes that have been welcomed by the sector.

Noble Lords may also be aware that we have been fulfilling our commitment to publish more and better data on the adoption system through adoption scorecards, so that the progress of those organisations that are doing the most to help the children who need adoption can be recognised, and those that are not can be identified.

Finally, as I have, I hope, made clear, we welcome the committee’s thoughtful and informed contribution to developing adoption policy and legislation. Again, I thank the noble Lords who served on the committee and contributed their thoughts today for the breadth of the issues that have been raised, many of which the Government will consider in more depth over the coming weeks and months. I look forward to debating the Bill in your Lordships’ House, and that is likely to be in July.

I know that noble Lords share our commitment to improving the lives of children and I hope they will agree that we are addressing many of the issues raised in the committee’s reports. We will, none the less, continue to reflect on the committee’s extremely helpful recommendations as we continue to reform and improve adoption. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s important debate.

My Lords, I thank all those who have contributed to the debate for the absolutely fascinating speeches that we have heard this afternoon. They have ranged widely over all sorts of areas of child need and welfare.

I say to the Minister that I personally accept the very good work that is already being done by the Government on adoption and, indeed, fostering, as well as in dealing with children’s homes, as my noble friend Lord Listowel said. However, will the Minister, and particularly his officials, look at the very cogent evidence that we received on the danger of entirely excluding ethnicity from the legislation? We got that evidence from people whom we thought were worthy of listening to and whom we would have thought the Government would think were worthy of listening to. My recollection is that Coram and BAAF were among them. As I think the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, there is a danger that social workers who make ethnicity too important a consideration will say, “Well, now it’s gone, we have to ignore it”. That is what the people on the ground who know about it were telling us. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister’s officials would have a look at the evidence that we received. They have all that evidence and it is well worth looking at.

In this debate there have been some preliminary shots across the bow concerning what is likely to be coming in the Children and Families Bill. As we heard from the Minister, that is now likely to be in July—and, I assume, well beyond July. The Minister is likely to be challenged by me, among others, over several issues to which I have not yet referred. I look forward to those opportunities and hope that the Government will be a listening Government on matters which we will press and on which the Government might be well advised to listen carefully.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.13 pm.