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Children and Families Bill

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 9 October 2013

Committee (1st Day)

Relevant document: 7th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee.

Clause 1: Placement of looked after children with potential adopters

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 8 to 12 and insert—

““(9ZA) Subsection (9A) applies (subject to subsection (9B)) where the local authority are a local authority in England and—

(a) are considering adoption for C, or(b) are satisfied that C ought to be placed for adoption but are not authorised under section 19 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (placement with parental consent) or by virtue of section 21 of that Act (placement orders) to place C for adoption.(9A) Where this subsection applies—

(a) subsections (7) to (9) do not apply to the local authority,(b) the local authority must consider placing C with an individual within subsection (6)(a), and(c) where the local authority decide that a placement with such an individual is not the most appropriate placement for C, the local authority must consider placing C with a local authority foster parent who has been approved as a prospective adopter.(9B) Subsection (9A) does not apply where the local authority have applied for a placement order under section 21 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 in respect of C and the application has been refused.””

My Lords, I shall speak to the government amendment to Clause 1. I start by thanking the adoption Select Committee for its invaluable contribution to the proposals under consideration today. I am also grateful to all those noble Peers who, over the summer, gave me the somewhat backhanded encouragement, “Don’t worry, everybody wants this Bill, it’s fantastic—but you’ll still get plenty of amendments”. They were right. I have also been most struck by the level of passionate, professional and rigorous scrutiny that the Bill—my first—is receiving in your Lordships’ House. The committee’s thoughtful and thorough consideration has helped to shape Clause 1 in a way that will better meet the needs of vulnerable children.

The key aspect of the Government’s adoption reform programme is to reduce delay for children needing adoption so that they are able to move in with their potential adopters earlier than they currently do. Fostering for adoption has the potential to achieve this. Clause 1 imposes a duty on a local authority to consider placing a looked-after child for whom the local authority is considering adoption with foster carers who are also approved prospective adopters. This is a fostering placement that, subject to a placement order or parental consent, may become an adoptive placement. Highly respected organisations in the adoption field, such as Coram, Barnardo’s and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering have expressed their support for this policy.

However, while we have tried to draft the clause in the way we consider most appropriate, concerns about it were raised during the debate in the other place. Many felt that the clause disapplied the duty to give preference to a placement with family and friends and that, as a result, it would encourage social workers to overlook this type of placement. Ministers made it clear that it was not the Government’s policy to exclude family and friends, whose role in caring for these children we highly value. The Government have carefully considered these comments, as the Minister for Children and Families said he would. I now seek to amend the clause to put it beyond doubt that before a local authority considers a fostering for adoption placement, it must have explored placement with relatives and decided that it is not the most appropriate placement for the child. I hope noble Lords will agree that this amendment is appropriate. I beg to move.

My Lords, I must advise your Lordships that if this amendment is agreed to, I will not be able to call Amendments 4 to 8 because of pre-emption.

Amendment 2 (to Amendment 1)

Moved by

2: Clause 1, line 4, leave out “C” and insert “a child who is in the care of the authority”

My Lords, may I welcome the Minister to the first meeting of his first Bill Committee? I thank him for the opportunity to discuss some of these issues in advance. I hope that all of us together can build on the commitments that we made at Second Reading to make these provisions as good as possible because they affect some of the most vulnerable children.

Part 1, as we know, concerns adoption. Clause 1 would enable agencies, as the Minister said, to place a child in a fostering for adoption placement. This would apply to any child coming into care for whom a family placement is not possible and before any decision to move towards adoption has been approved by the adoption panel or the court through a placement order. We certainly share the Government’s concern that where adoption is the best option for a child, any delay in matching and placing the child should be reduced to a minimum. We share the Government’s overall intention. I am also pleased that the Government have listened to the debate on kinship care and brought forward Amendment 1 today, which addresses that issue.

In introducing the amendments from the Opposition Front Bench, I would point out that some of the amendments were placed in respect of the original Clause 1. Those are Amendments 4, 6, 8 and 9. Since then, we have seen the Government’s Amendment 1 and we have tabled further amendments, Amendments 2, 3 and 10. It is to those more recent amendments that I am predominantly speaking at the moment.

While welcoming the Government’s amendment, I still think there needs to be further improvement to the measures proposed in two important respects. The first is kinship care, by which I mean care by a relative, friend or other person connected with the child, as defined by Section 22C(6)(a) of the Children Act 1989. The requirement in government Amendment 1 to consider kinship care as a first step appears to be—I will listen carefully to what the Minister says about this—a weaker prescription than that in subsection (7) of the current legislation, which requires local authorities not just to consider, but to give preference to, kinship placements where they are possible. Furthermore, Amendment 1 still disapplies subsections (7) to (9) in their entirety. These are requirements in the current legislation to place the child near their home, not to disrupt education or training, to enable siblings to live together, to accommodate any disability the child has and to be within the local authority’s area. We think that those are all sensible requirements that enhance the stability of the placement for the child. Therefore, our Amendment 3 simultaneously requires that stronger requirement on kinship care to take preference and retains those other criteria for placement, including keeping siblings together.

However, even with the current legislation, many people share a strong belief that local authorities could do more to explore the potential for kinship care, so Amendment 10 proposes the introduction of pre-proceedings work and family group conferences, designed to ensure that, at an early stage and in a systematic way, the family is encouraged to identify possibilities for the child within the wider family network.

It is easy to understand why family members might not initially come forward at an early stage to suggest options without such structures and support. They might be concerned not to upset the parents who are—obviously, by definition—their relatives. Many often feel, certainly, that they have to wait for the decision of the court as to whether the child is free for adoption, but by then it is too late. Therefore, Amendment 10 would build into the process an early examination under professional guidance of kinship care possibilities.

Our second concern about the clause, as it would be if amended by government Amendment 1, is about the extension of fostering for adoption placements potentially for all children coming into care through whatever route. As currently formulated, Amendment 1 would require the local authority to consider a fostering for adoption placement for every child for whom kinship care was not possible.

I am very much in favour, as we all are, of reducing delay in achieving quality alternative permanent placements for children who need them. I have supported the development of concurrent planning adoption, which is the template for fostering for adoption placements. Concurrent placement has undoubtedly been beneficial for the children placed early on with foster carers approved to adopt. However, we need to be clear that concurrent planning has so far been used only for babies under two born into families where it is already well known that the parents have serious and chronic problems, such as long-standing drug addiction, which interfere with their ability to parent, and who have often already had to relinquish previous children.

In the pilot run by Thomas Coram that the Minister mentioned, 61% of the children were referred for concurrent planning placement at or at about birth and 95% were under one year old, so this is a very special group. In the 11 years of that pilot, only 59 children were placed by this method, so carefully selected are the children for very good reasons. Of those 59, two were returned to the birth family and 57 were adopted, with their original foster carers having been approved for adoption, and they had very good outcomes. However, opening up to the whole diverse range of children coming into care a model conceived specifically for a very small and tightly drawn group of babies seems to be dubious, not least because there is no evidence base as to the possible outcomes for children and families with different characteristics, particularly for older children.

Most particularly, the requirement to consider a fostering for adoption placement would apply also to children placed into care voluntarily by their parents under Section 29 of the Children Act. By definition, these parents have not relinquished their children for adoption, nor have the local authorities applied for a care order. I do not think it is appropriate even to consider placing such children on a pathway to adoption without the fully informed and independently witnessed consent of the parents, as is required by current legislation. That is why our Amendment 2 would make it clear that the requirement to consider a fostering for adoption placement would apply only to children for whom the local authority had a care order. Indeed, I think that the unintended consequences of not exempting from this requirement children who come into care voluntarily may be to deter parents in the future from approaching local authorities with a view to voluntarily placing a child into care when they are in difficulty.

Briefly, there are a number of other issues on which we should like to hear the Minister’s views before deciding whether the Bill might need further amendment on Report. The main issue is that there is still a lack of clarity, including in the draft guidance that the Minister helpfully issued last week, as to when in the process a local authority may be judged to be considering adoption. We welcome the intention outlined in the guidance to require the director of children’s services to approve a decision to use a fostering for adoption placement and to inform parents and prospective adopters in writing. However, as the draft guidance makes very clear, the local authority will be required to consider a fostering for adoption placement even when the first priority for that child is to be rehabilitated with the birth parents. I think that that is very questionable. When will considering adoption come into play? The guidance says that this will vary from case to case. That is not nearly tight enough and a defined trigger may be needed, possibly as suggested in the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

Secondly, there is very little emphasis in the guidance on matching. Thinking about fostering for adoption placements, that is a very important issue. It is worth noting that under the current arrangements it is very often during the fostering phase that detailed knowledge about the child comes to light with professional and expert foster carers. They may learn additional things about a child’s disability or behavioural problems, or the child may disclose experiences to the foster carers that were not previously known, and all this goes into the matching process to try to ensure that the adoptive placement, when it occurs, is as secure as possible. I am concerned that in a fostering for adoption placement, outside of the narrow range of the babies I talked about, of whom knowledge is probably pretty full, issues may come to light during that placement that deter those potential adopters currently fostering a child from proceeding with the placement any further because of the nature of the issues that come to light.

Finally, there is an important issue of timely planning for permanency across all alternative permanent options and I regret that the Bill as it stands does not say very much about those other options. However, we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on these issues. I beg to move

My Lords, we have two amendments in this group. As we are starting in Committee, I begin by declaring an interest as a patron of PAC, which deals with both pre and post-adoption support and care and the Intercountry Adoption Centre. I am joint president of London Councils—of course, local authorities have adoption responsibilities—and I have other interests that are well in the past. I have been informed by the directorship of an adoption agency, membership of a local authority adoption panel and membership of the legal group of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

I enjoyed both the subject and the process of serving on the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. Fostering for adoption is a concept much supported by members of that committee, although we all recognised that it may be of quite limited application. The Select Committee urged the Government to widen the scope of the duty to include it in options for all children for whom adoption is the permanent plan. I appreciate that that is why the Government made an alteration to the original draft clauses, although not the alterations that the Select Committee suggested.

I appreciate that my Amendments 5 and 7 would be pre-empted if the Committee accepts government Amendment 1. However—and I say this for clarity and not too aggressively—if we are not persuaded by the response to the other points raised in this debate, I for one will want to return to the matter on Report to deal with the equivalent issues in the clause that, if we accept the government amendment, will then have been amended.

My first amendment is to probe both the meaning and the weight of the term “consider”. It is not a technical term. When I first saw it, thinking very much as a non-professional, I wondered where on a spectrum of thinking about something—from something casually crossing one’s conscience all the way to making a decision—“consider” comes in terms of considering adoption. I then discovered that many professionals were also concerned. BAAF and the Family Rights Group, endorsed by other organisations, say that there is a wide spectrum between adoption considered as one possibility when all options are open and a formal decision that a child should be placed for adoption. Things follow automatically, step-by-step, when one is in the formal process. This suggestion is made that unless we link this provision to the statutory review process, we are not centring it properly as part of that step-by-step sequence. In defining a more precise trigger point, they suggest it when the local authority considers that adoption is the likely permanence plan. I accept that I have failed to bite the bullet by not offering an alternative.

I wondered whether I was fussing unnecessarily because if one looks at new subsection (9A)(a) of Section 22C, all that will be required is for the local authority to consider placing the child with a foster parent approved as an adopter. However, and this is very central to my point, I worry that a lack of clarity or agreement across the sector as to what is meant by “considering for adoption” may lead to inconsistencies in practice between agencies. That cannot be a good thing.

Given that the Government’s amendment proposes new subsection (9ZA)(b), I am even more unclear now about the local authority being satisfied that the child should be placed for adoption. Why is paragraph (b) required if being satisfied, in the terms set out there, is different from “considering adoption” in paragraph (a)? I hope that in reply the Minister can explain the distinction between the two paragraphs in the first part of his Amendment 1.

Amendment 7 would require the matching process to have been carried out; the noble Baroness referred to this and to issues coming to light which are not necessarily initially obvious. It is a very careful process which should be reflected in the legislation. I was not reassured by what the Minister said in the Commons about this. He said that fostering for adoption should,

“be used where the local authority has not … decided”,

on a “permanence option” and that it is,

“not … appropriate … formally to match the child and carers”.—[Official Report, Commons, Children and Families Bill Committee, 12/3/13; cols. 183-195.]

He also said it would be “premature” because a fostering for adoption placement was generally before adoption was the definitive plan. If permanence is the objective, I do not follow the logic of that.

There is of course an important place for guidance in all this. I thank the Minister for distributing the indicative guidance but it does not seem to deal with this. Surely it should at least be included as an issue, even if one does not go as far as the amendments that I have tabled. What a lot of this comes down to is taking all reasonable steps to avoid placing a child in a situation where disruption or a breakdown of the placement has not been considered adequately.

I know that my noble friend Lady Walmsley will say a word about Amendment 10. I absolutely take the point about work with families being difficult. On the drafting—this is a detail—I was not sure that it was necessary for an emergency to preclude the steps which are spelt out. I also wonder how this would relate to Section 47(5)(a) of the 1989 Act, which requires the ascertainment of a child’s wishes and feelings. I suspect that everything else in that section is subject to that anyway but perhaps the noble Baroness might say a word about that.

I finish by putting on record my huge admiration—and not just mine—for both foster parents and adopters. Above all, to be prepared to foster with a view to adoption, and therefore necessarily with a view also to not adopting, is particularly admirable. In the somewhat technical approach that we may have to take to some of this, it is appropriate that we should not lose sight of the enormous contribution that these families, which are sometimes a family of one, will make.

My Lords, I want to add a couple of comments to those of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, with whose words I totally concur. I have a great deal of sympathy with Amendment 10, and I urge the Minister to consider it and perhaps come back to us at a later stage with some further thoughts about it.

When we are considering all this, we need to bear in mind that adoption is not the only form of permanence, and we must not lose sight of that fact. It is not appropriate for many children. When it comes to considering placement with family and friends, on whatever basis, in my view you cannot do that early enough. A briefing that I received from the College of Social Work pointed out to me—I had not realised this before—that there is currently no duty on a local authority to consider family and friends before the child is taken into care. Given the 26-week limit that we are about to bring in, it would be very wise for the Minister to consider this amendment. It would mean that family and friends were considered even before the child was taken into care, and the concern that people have raised, that 26 weeks may not give family and friends time to come forward, would be averted if family and friends were being considered even before the child went into care. This amendment has merit, and I hope that the Minister will consider it.

My Lords, I have two brief points. First, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am concerned about the issue of consideration, and I would like to know at what stage this consideration kicks in.

Secondly, I have the greatest respect and admiration for family and friends carers, who do such a remarkable job, sometimes in very difficult conditions, and I take on board the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised about timing. I am curious about the dropping of the preference for looking first at family and friends carers as appropriate to a child. I am surprised that that is not being strongly supported by the Government. I believe that something like 86% of kinship care proceedings are initiated by the prospective kinship carers themselves, not by social workers, and surely that is quite the wrong way round.

I am also surprised that the Government do not seem to consider the costs of kinship care and care by friends. I believe that a foster care placement costs something like £40,000, while the average cost of care proceedings is more than £25,000. I hope that the Government will look again at the whole issue of placing family and friends care at the head of the proposals. I am aware that it is not always appropriate and I accept that, but to have dropped the idea of preference, if appropriate, is a mistake.

My Lords, I have three points. I begin by saying that I believe that legislation should enhance and underpin practice. I declare an interest as being a member of the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, along with my colleagues who have already declared that interest. It was quite clear to us that, were we able to improve practice in a number of areas, the legislation would simply not be necessary.

The Government should return to thinking about that issue, particularly in relation to the practice of social workers and the difficulties they face at the moment, and the pressures of local government. I am sure the Minister will want to concentrate on what he has before him but unless the Government take a more strategic and broader view of children’s needs, we will simply add to the legislation and the difficulties that local authority social workers are experiencing rather than meet the needs of the children.

My second point is that I have twice heard the Minister say something that I have not understood; namely, that the Government wish to enhance kinship care. He said it at the beginning of his speech today and in a meeting yesterday. It may be my lack of comprehension but I cannot quite understand how that links to the amendment. I have not quite gathered the Government’s intention in all that. We should remind ourselves that special guardianship, to which we will come later—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, alluded to the fact that many families come to the court themselves and ask for special guardianship—in some ways has a better position than adoption. We know that the Government wish to maintain family relationships where they can; special guardianship maintains that family relationship, while giving the child permanency. As the Committee goes on, I do not think that it should be under the illusion that there is not a great deal of good, solid, permanent placement happening; it is happening under a different name.

I am deeply concerned about my third point. I do not understand, and nor I think do my colleagues, the suggestion that all children, whether they have come into care voluntarily or under a care order—the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, spoke to this—are included. There must be a fundamental misunderstanding in those who have put this together because the two are so different. If you are a mum in trouble through no fault of your own and you need help, and you ask a social worker for help and they say, “We can take your child into care for a few weeks while you get over having your second child and you are a single mum”, you do not expect that child to be immediately placed in fostering for adoption.

Under these rules, I know what will happen because of the situation in which local authorities find themselves: these children will find themselves placed. When the mum has got herself together and the case comes to court, the child will be settled. A judge may believe that the mother should have her child returned but the court’s responsibility will be to look at the paramount needs of the child. If the child is settled in a placement, a judge will sadly—I know of cases—make the decision against the best interests of the family because they think the child is settled and has relationships. We need to look at that extremely carefully or we will find ourselves placing a large number of children when we have no intention of removing them from their primary family. I do not think that anyone really thought through the fact that the parents of these children are still their parents. They are not sharing care with the local authority. The local authority is accommodating the children on the parents’ behalf, unlike when a care order is in place. There are some fundamental difficulties.

I also endorse the point about matching. You may place a child in a placement for fostering. I have been a social worker for many years and I know how difficult it is to find a placement quickly to meet all the requirements of timescales. You may then discover issues around matching that are not appropriate. I could give examples but I will not waste the time of the Committee on too many anecdotes. I hope that we can look at some of this. I am very unhappy to agree to the Minister’s amendment. I am sorry about that because, like the rest of the Committee, I am committed to improving the speed of adoptions and the placement of children. These are unfortunate ways to take that forward.

I am reluctant to query the noble Baroness because I am aware of her huge expertise in this area and have enormous respect for her, but in my amateur ignorance I do not see in the Bill or the amendment anything which assumes that the local authority must consider adoption. The amendment refers only to where the local authority is considering adoption; it does not say that it must consider adoption. If I have missed the wording somewhere else, I hope that somebody will put me right, but the noble Baroness’s third consideration seems not to appear in the Bill.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his first Grand Committee day of a Bill and thank him for his time over the summer in dealing with some of my concerns. As I listened to the debate, my mind went back to a meeting four months ago with women whose children had been taken away from them in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, they were single women and were strongly encouraged to give their child away. Those women bitterly regretted having done so and were campaigning for an apology from government. It is unlikely that this Bill will result in women campaigning in 20 or 30 years’ time for an apology from Parliament for what is being done now, but we really have to raise our game. It is clear that if we took a more consistent approach towards to some of these vulnerable families and helped a few more parents off drugs and alcohol, as we could well do, we would not need to take their children away. We must not be too optimistic and allow children to be kept in those families and be harmed, but we see through the effectiveness of Louise Casey’s focused work with troubled families and through District Judge Crichton’s work in the family drug and alcohol court that, where a real effort is made and where central government is prepared to step up and take responsibility, we can make a difference with those families. I welcome what the Government are doing, but some of these children would not have to be taken into care if we raised the overall quality of our child and family practice.

This debate highlights the great judgment required of child and family social workers. They are in the position of making that lifetime decision: will a child stay with its birth family in kinship care or will it be removed for adoption? I welcome the huge investment that this Government and the previous Government have made in raising the status of child and family social work through the social work college, the new post of Chief Social Worker and the Munro review. Despite those all being very helpful inputs, a social worker who was training in London—an intelligent woman—said to me last week, “I was bitterly disappointed by my training. I didn’t get the feedback. Many of my fellow students felt the same way. I’m now going to Bristol to carry on my training in social work”. There is therefore an awfully long way to go in the nuts and bolts of getting the social work profession to where it needs to be to serve those families properly.

What progress are we making in the retention of child and family social workers? People are saying—I heard it said again recently—that we are getting the best young English social workers into the profession now and have seen a great improvement over the past two years, but are we succeeding in retaining those young people? Are we managing to retain experienced social workers close to the front line so that they can mentor and support those child and family social workers?

I have one final question for the Minister, which he might care to write to me about. It is a concern raised in the past by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and raised today by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, about the outcomes for children in adoptive placements. We need robust evidence about outcomes for children in adoptive placements. We have them already for children in kinship placements. We need to compare, contrast and make good policy decisions based on those. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that, if that cannot be produced at the moment, research projects will be put in place so that in future we know how stable those adoptive placements are. The worst outcome would be for a child or children to be placed for one or two years, to be settled, and then to be rejected again by their new family. I am sorry to have gone on so long.

My Lords, I declare my interests. I, too, was a member of the Adoption Legislation Select Committee. I have what feels like a lifelong involvement with Action for Children, which certainly goes back to when I was very small and collecting money for the National Children’s Home, which has changed its name a few times. I think I am now an ambassador for it. I also had some experience of supervising adoptions when I was a social worker, but that was a very long time ago so I am not sure that it is really a relevant interest because the legislation and everything else was very different.

One of the things that were different in those days was that most children who were placed for adoption were babies. When I hear the rhetoric about adoption from the Government at the moment, I sometimes suspect that they still think that that is the case. The reality is that most children being placed for adoption now, before the changes, are not babies, and that if the Bill as it stands becomes law, that will be even more true.

I have worked with and still know several people who are both foster parents and adopters; some are just foster parents and some are just adopters, while others have done both. They perform a remarkable job. Far too often we take for granted the work, the commitment and emotional support that they put in and the trauma that their lives and their families are put through, and it is very important that we do not do that.

I have concerns about this issue. Even when I was a social work student, I did an adoption supervision and took it to court. I was very impressed with, and supported, the judgment and the words of the presiding judge. I know that you really have to get the law right. You have to ensure that the family understand their rights, and that the adoptive family understand not only their rights but the rights of the parents who are placing their children for adoption.

We are talking here about going to a further stage, where the parents are not placing the children for adoption but the local authority will decide that there should be permanence, and therefore fostering for adoption should be considered. That is legally a new situation. I need convincing by the Minister that the Government have done the work to ensure that the family court will not then come back and say, “Actually, we are not convinced that the rights of this child and its natural family were properly considered in your decision around permanence and therefore around placing for fostering up to adoption”. That means that when the case gets to court for adoption, the judge may then be tempted to say, “I’m not convinced that this is in the interests of the child or that the process has ensured that the rights of the child, which are expressed very clearly in all sorts of places, including the UN convention, have actually had due attention paid to them”. We would then be putting social workers and local authorities in an invidious position, and we really have to take account of that.

Now, all of us would want children and young people to have permanence and to be sure—certainly more sure than they have been in the past—about their opportunities in the future. My experience in working with adolescents—I happened to specialise in that when I was working—was that they always wanted you to explain. They wanted to know why it had gone wrong; they wanted to know why they could not live back at home; they wanted to know who their father was; they wanted to understand it. When I was talking to social workers in either Germany or Denmark—I cannot remember which—about care, they said that they involved natural parents much more in the care experience. I would go into a children’s home in the morning and there would be parents at breakfast. The social workers would say, “We are not pretending to be the children’s parents”. I think we need to rethink our relationship with children in care, particularly young people in care. They would say, “We are not there in loco parentis; we are there to help them understand what has happened from where they were at home to where they are now and help them to plot how they could carry on from there”.

When we know that many of the children coming into care, for whatever reason, are now older and likely to be much more diverse in what brings them into care than in the past, we have the responsibility—as other noble Lords have said—to be clear about the evidence of how they will react and what the outcomes will be of whatever interventions we are legislating for. That is what we are asking for in the amendments to Clause 1. That clause changes the legal relationship in ways that we have not had in this country before. That is very important: I believe that we should have the confidence to intervene at the earliest point. I spent some of my ministerial career introducing evidence-based early intervention programmes such as the Nurse Family Partnership. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, we demand very difficult decisions from the professionals working with the families. We have the responsibility to make sure that those professionals are confident in the legislation, confident in the process and confident that when they get to the end of that process, they will not be criticised for not having done what the judge or the UN convention—or whatever it might be—demands of our approach to this. We have a responsibility to be much clearer than the clause currently is.

I massively support kinship care. I recommend that the Minister read the recent book by my right honourable friend Alan Johnson about the strength of kinship care. We have the responsibility to make sure that that can happen. We might sometimes have to say, “No, it cannot happen”, but we have the responsibility to examine it. There is a real fear that the Bill’s provisions will mean that it is less examined than it is at the moment, and we know that far too often it is not examined well.

I also caution the Minister: I know very well that one of the things he is trying to do is, in a sense, bring local authorities to heel by threatening them with really draconian legislation. I was Local Government Minister for four years, and I would just say: be cautious and deal with local authorities as partners, not as people you threaten to get them in line. As we always say about working with young people, treat them in such a way that you get the best out of them. From bitter experience, that is how I think you ought to work with local government, too.

The last thing that I want to say is that I really object to this Bill being run at the same time as the Care Bill is on the Floor of the House. There are issues in the two Bills that the Government should see as coming together. This is not a matter for the usual channels, and I say that as an ex-Chief Whip; you cannot go back to the usual channels and say, “That’s what they wanted”. This should be a matter of government determination. These two Bills should be seen as complementary and, therefore, the people who have a commitment to them and an interest in them should be able to contribute and to vote. They are not able to do so at the moment, and I hope that the Minister will take that away and come back with a better answer than we have had to date as to why the two are coinciding in their passage through this House.

My Lords, I want to make a brief intervention. I welcome the Minister to his current position. He is not the only new boy; I am a new boy to this subject, although not to this House. I declare an interest in that I sit as a family magistrate, and I have been doing that for about one year now so I regard myself as new to the subject.

I had not intended to speak to this group of amendments but I want to make one point: in my experience, the use of parallel planning for younger children is extremely beneficial. The far more experienced magistrates and district judges who I sit with have told me many times over the past year how effective parallel planning can be. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said about the problems of extending parallel planning and how it needs to be carefully looked at, but from what I have seen there would be far more benefit in doing that. It is certainly the case, and I am sorry to have to say this, that you come across wider family groups who have a lot of experience of the family courts and—I use this expression deliberately—know how to play the system. They know how to extend it again and again before the courts make their final decision. If you can have an element of parallel planning in this, that is for the benefit of the child. I will leave it there. That is the point that I wanted to make in support of Amendment 10.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their kind welcome as we start our consideration of this very important Bill. I welcome their challenges and questions as we all seek to do our very best for the children who may be the most vulnerable in our society. We have had a very good discussion and I hope that I can provide some clarification on some of the points. I am happy to write to noble Lords about any issues that I do not pick up, of which I am sure there will be a few.

Turning to the first point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, local authorities have a duty to place a child with the most appropriate placement available and one which best safeguards the child’s welfare. If a local authority is unable to make arrangements for the child to return home, then it must look for someone else who is able to care for the child. This might be through a placement with friends and family. At this point, the local authority must give preference to suitable family and friends carers.

Where there are no suitable family or friends carers able to care for the child, the local authority must make alternative plans for the child outside the family. If adoption is a possible option, then the clause requires the local authority to consider a placement with approved adopters who are also approved foster carers. They will foster the child until the court makes a placement order. In some cases, the local authority will be working to rehabilitate the child with the birth family, with adoption as the alternative if that is not successful. If it is successful, the child will leave the FFA placement and return home. The clause specifically requires that the local authority must first consider family and friends care before going on to consider FFA. At this point, the clause disapplies the duty to give preference to family and friend carers because before considering fostering for adoption, the local authority will already have considered whether the child can return home and, if not, have considered suitable family and friend carers.

However, if a family or friend carer emerges at this stage or after the child has been placed in an FFA placement, the local authority must consider them. If placement with these family or friend carers is the most appropriate for the child, the local authority must move the child. We must remember that this is a duty to consider fostering for adoption, not to place. It will not be suitable for all children but for those for whom it is right, it allows them to move in with their potential permanent family much earlier.

In Amendment 10 the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones, propose a duty to seek to identify a family or friend carer when a local authority has concluded that a child should be looked after but before applying for the care order. There is the potential that this could lead to a delay in making a care order application for a child who may be in danger of significant harm. This would be contrary to the duty of the local authority to safeguard and promote that child’s welfare. It is a principle of the Children Act 1989 that the local authority must first look to place a looked-after child with a family and friends carer, as I have said, if they are unable to be returned to their parents. It is of course right that the child should be kept safe while arrangements are made for an appropriate placement.

I agree that establishing what family support is available is essential in pre-proceedings. Family group conferences are one particular way of achieving this. This Government are committed to the use of family group conferences at all stages of the involvement of children’s services with families. We are currently funding the Family Rights Group over a two-year period to implement a framework of accreditation. However, we would not wish to make them compulsory as they will not be suitable for all families in all circumstances, not least because the families themselves must agree to one.

It is clear, and understandably so, that the noble Baronesses’ proposed clause has been prompted in part by the concern that more rapid proceedings might make it difficult for family members to put themselves forward to care for a child. However, we have put in place the necessary measures to allow for extensions to care proceedings and for them to be resolved justly. There is no limit on the number of extensions that can be granted. I hope that the noble Baronesses will feel reassured by this and consider that a new clause would not be necessary.

On Amendment 8, regarding placements with siblings, I spoke briefly about the first part of this amendment. With regard to its second part and the points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones, about siblings, it might be that in some circumstances it would be in the child’s best interest to be placed with or near a sibling. However, we are talking about the placement of a child with foster parents who may go on to adopt him. It will not always be the case that adoption is being considered as an option for the child’s sibling. It may not be in his or her best interests to be adopted together with a sibling. It must be for the local authority in each case to decide what is in the best interests and what is the most appropriate placement for each child in a sibling group. I hope that the noble Baronesses will agree that Amendment 8 would therefore not be appropriate in this context.

I turn to the trigger point for the duty to consider fostering for adoption. A number of arguments have been put forward about the point at which the duty should bite. Your Lordships will have seen that the government amendment enables a fostering for adoption placement to be considered from the point when the local authority starts to think about adoption as an option for the child to the point at which the local authority is authorised to place the child for adoption with prospective adopters. We believe that this will enable local authorities to consider fostering for adoption for a child at any point during the care journey for children for whom this type of placement is appropriate. This is consistent with other early placement practices such as concurrent planning—a practice that the Select Committee recommended should be promoted more widely.

What is meant by “considering adoption”? The term comes from the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 and its concept is very familiar to adoption agencies. “Considering adoption” means considering it as an option for the child. A local authority may be considering adoption at different stages during a child’s care journey. In some rare cases, it might even be before the child comes into care or, as in a concurrent planning scenario, where the local authority is working with the birth parents to return the child home but has adoption as the alternative plan should rehabilitation fail. In some cases adoption will be the only option being considered and in others it will be one of several.

I appreciate the concerns raised about the term “considering adoption”, which some feel might be misinterpreted and lead to rushed decisions about whether adoption is an appropriate option before all other options have been carefully assessed. The clause requires that when a local authority is considering adoption as an option it also considers fostering for adoption. It will be for the local authority in each case to decide whether the chances of the child going on to be placed for adoption are sufficiently high for a fostering for adoption placement to be the most appropriate one for him or her. Cases where there is robust evidence and background history about the child’s birth family could support the need for such radical intervention. Using “considering adoption” as the trigger would also cover concurrent planning cases.

We have explained in more detail what is meant by the term “considering adoption” in draft statutory guidance, which the Minister for Children and Families promised to provide. We will consult on the draft guidance soon and would welcome all comments on how it could be improved. Amendments 4, 5 and 9 propose alternative trigger points. I hope that the noble Baronesses will agree that the government amendment best delivers on the objective of the policy and will agree not to press their amendments.

On voluntary accommodated children and Section 20 cases, I share the concerns raised about the application of fostering for adoption to this group of children. That is why we are proposing to introduce regulations which will require the local authority to notify the child’s birth parents in writing that the local authority has decided to place the child in a fostering for adoption placement as soon as possible after the decision is made. Underpinning statutory guidance will require that letter to include advice on access to legal advice and on the birth parents’ right to remove the child from local authority care. We will consult on the illustrative regulations and draft statutory guidance, and would welcome any comments.

I now turn to the comments made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, about the importance of the matching process. I share the view of the noble Baronesses that the suitability of a specific placement must be carefully considered and that it safeguards the child’s welfare. In considering a fostering for adoption placement, local authorities will need to consider the carers’ capability to be the child’s foster carers while keeping in mind the possibility that they may become the child’s adopters.

However, we must remember that these are fostering placements, while matching is a feature of the adoption process and a precursor to the child being placed for adoption. It is the process by which the adoption agency’s decision-maker, assisted by the recommendation of the agency’s matching panel, decides which prospective adopter would be the best people to become the child’s adopters once the agency has come to the conclusion that the child should be placed for adoption. For those reasons, we do not think that it is appropriate to require the local authority formally to match the child and the carers in the same way for FFA.

I assure noble Baronesses that the regulations will provide for the local authority’s director of children’s services to approve the decision that the child should be placed in a fostering for adoption placement. That is consistent with the arrangements for fostering placements and expects the local authority to consider the suitability of a placement in the light of the child’s needs. Should the placement become an adoptive placement, the formal adoption matching process must be completed, which provides the additional safeguard that has been a change in the child’s needs.

I hope that the noble Baronesses will feel that these additional requirements address their concerns. I therefore urge them not to press their amendments. That is all I shall say at the moment. Other points, including those made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the strength of retention of child social workers. I will write to noble Lords on all other matters.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate on this important subject, many of which were contributions from positions of considerable expertise and experience in this field, working with children, families and foster carers, and on adoptions. I will not rehearse those contributions as Members of the Committee have heard them. In concluding this debate, perhaps I may draw some threads from them.

I am very grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Walmsley, and my noble friends Lady Massey and Lord Ponsonby, particularly their support for Amendment 10. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked me some specific questions about the phrase,

“unless emergency action is required”.

That is just a reference to the fact that in situations of urgent child protection it may not be possible to make these offers. She also asked me a technical question about the implications for Section 47 of the Children Act, and I would like to get back to her on that if I may.

However, I think all those contributions testify to the importance of trying to maximise the possibility of kinship care and of recognising that, while at the moment the law requires that local authorities give preference to such an option, the reality is that—often for very good reasons, as I and others outlined—those possibilities often become evident, if at all, too late in the judicial process to act upon them. That is why Amendment 10 specifies pre-proceedings work. It is important that that is done in a structured way under the stewardship of an experienced professional. It involves handling very difficult issues within the family, and family group conferencing has been proven to be the safest way to do that.

I would say to the Minister that Amendment 10 does not in fact make offering those pre-proceedings activities and family group conferencing compulsory; it would simply require local authorities to offer them in those circumstances. Therefore, it does not put a compulsion on that issue at all.

While we are on kinship care, the Minister—and perhaps he could write to me about this—did not clarify whether the Government’s wording in the amendment is a weaker prescription for local authorities than the current legislation; that is, whether the requirement for local authorities to “consider” the kinship care option is weaker than “giving preference to”, as specified in Section 22C(6)(a) of the Children Act 1989. Perhaps he could clarify for the Committee in writing whether he regards the current formulation in Amendment 1 as a weaker prescription, because that was one of our most important points.

I turn to the points about fostering for adoption. Again, I am grateful for the contributions from, in particular, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, my noble friend Lady Armstrong and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. They speak from great experience. My noble friend Lady Armstrong made a point, which echoed my own, about concurrent planning. At the moment, it is restricted. You see adverts in newspapers and in the trade press from local authorities offering concurrent planning, and it is all for babies aged nought to two. Coram has a restriction of age two. In fact, the evidence that I cited showed that in practice 95% of babies who have been referred and placed through that route have been under one year old. This is not a situation in which one can imagine that a seven or eight year-old or a teenager will present the same issues. A great deal is already known about the babies who have been placed by that route. They are very young, so they are unlikely to have a lot of negative experiences as older children may have done, and there is therefore a great deal of certainty from the outset about the child whom the fostering for adoption parents are taking on. That would not be the case with older children or children who are known to have had difficult experiences.

The Minister responded to the question of whether we should have a specific trigger for fostering for adoption placements. In relation to that, one issue that we have not touched on is: what is the perspective of the foster carer approved to adopt in all this? Certainly at the moment, the foster carer approved to adopt is hoping for an adoption.

When it comes to placing children, a direction of travel and a change of culture are being signalled here. Putting all children on a pathway for potential adoption is not appropriate. It would be putting children on a pathway to adoption; that is what the adopters themselves hope will be the outcome of this. As my noble friend Lady Armstrong and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, have said, once cases get to court, judges will be very reluctant to disrupt a situation that they feel a child has become accustomed to and embedded in, where they have started to develop relationships.

Secondly, the Minister replied to the comment, “What does ‘consider’ mean?”, by rehearsing the arguments in the draft guidance that it can mean different things to different local authorities in relation to different children. Another way of saying that is that it can mean almost anything at any time. I worry about that, because for the local authority to have to consider a fostering adoption placement for all children, including those going into care voluntarily, is a very serious change. He said that adoption might be one of several options; there might be a list of options and adoption might be on it. Why, then, if there is a list of options, is fostering for adoption the one that the local authority has to consider first? That is the effect of the Government’s amendment.

The comment that concerned me most was what the Minister said about matching. He said—I wrote this down and I hope I have got it right—that in a fostering for adoption placement, the local authority is not required to consider matching in the same way as it does for adoption. If the fostering for adoption placement looks like it might proceed to adoption, then it will undertake the formal matching process—by which time the child will have been there for perhaps six, nine or 18 months. Given that this is supposed to be a device to minimise disruption to children and to place them early with parents with whom they may remain if they cannot return home, that seems to be totally counterproductive. I urge the Minister to think again, certainly in framing the guidance, about what is said about matching. Clearly, if children can stay in a placement that started out as fostering for adoption, then matching needs to take place right at the outset, otherwise there is a real danger that children may then be moved.

I do not feel that I can say we have had a lot of assurance from the Minister on the points raised so far. I hope that he will reflect further on the points that Members have made and on the amendments put forward, and will come back to us before Report with some further thoughts. We will be thinking about what we may want to bring forward on Report ourselves, and it may be that we can come to some consensual agreement on some of these issues. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 (to Amendment 1) withdrawn.

Amendment 3 (to Amendment 1) not moved.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Amendments 4 to 9 not moved.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed.

Amendment 10 not moved.

Clause 2: Repeal of requirement to give due consideration to ethnicity: England

Amendment 11

Moved by

11: Clause 2, page 1, line 15, at end insert—

“( ) In subsection (4)(d) (matters to which court or adoption agency must have regard), after “the child’s age, sex, background” insert “, religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”.”

My Lords, I have a considerable number of interests that I need to declare, not all of which I have to say I can remember. I am a governor of Coram, a patron of BAAF and of PAC, a patron—I think—of TACT and a patron of the Grandparents’ Association. I am very involved with Barnardo’s, the NSPCC and probably many others. I was also chairman of the pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny committees.

I strongly support the Government on the Bill, which in principle is an excellent one. There are, however, as one would always imagine, certain points that need both elucidation and change. Perhaps I may also add how delighted I am with the extra resources that have now been offered by the Government toward the adoption process and post-adoption support. There is an area about which I wish to speak in this debate and that is Clause 2 of the Bill, where it is intended to repeal Section 1(5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

The opinion of the adoption committee that I chaired was that it was right to start with the removal of the words from subsection (5). This is an issue of ethnicity—an issue of race, culture, religion and language. In Clause 2, the Government are removing it entirely from the 2002 Act. That is a step too far. In paragraphs 57 to 83 of the adoption report, we said—putting it shortly—that we agreed that the Government were right to take it out as a separate subsection of the 2002 Act. It was given too great prominence. The evidence that we received as a committee was to the effect that there was a time when social workers elevated subsection (5) to inappropriate heights and therefore they were trying to match in colour in particular where it was not appropriate and moving children from very good families who were not of the same colour, race or background. However, we also had evidence, both from social workers and from the adoption agencies, that that problem had largely receded; it had been far less obvious in recent times and there was a counterdanger that, if it were taken out altogether, the social workers who cared too much about it when it was in would care equally when it was out. They would say, “Now that it’s not in, we have to disregard it. We must not consider race, ethnicity, language, religion or culture”. That is an equally important danger. We had evidence from the social workers and the agencies that there are social workers and other people out there who might take that view. It is a danger and one that must not be disregarded.

We also had informal evidence from children; we had a group of children who had been adopted and a group of children who were looked after who came to talk to me and one or two other Peers at the request of the then Children’s Rights Director. They were extremely interesting groups of children, ranging in age from about seven or eight to about 19. The young ones were very vocal, and at least two of them said to us that the question of ethnicity was extremely important to them, and they were worried about being placed—or the possibility of being placed—with someone who would not understand their background. To me, this was very powerful evidence from the horse’s mouth. I am very concerned about the Government keeping this clause in the Bill, when in fact we made it very clear in our report how concerned we, as a committee, were. Our proposal was that it should not be set out on its own, where it has too important an effect, but in among other matters that have to be considered under Section 1(4) of the 2002 Act.

If my amendment were accepted, Section 1(4)(d) of the Act would require the court or agency to have regard to, “the child’s age, sex, background, religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant”. It is neatly packaged into a number of other matters.

As I understand it, the Government are saying that “characteristics” includes that. It does in a sense but, unless you highlight the relevant points somewhere, there is a great danger that they will be overlooked. If you look at subsection (4) it is interesting to see the various points that are spelt out because a great many of them could be covered by one word or sentence, but the legislators of the day thought it necessary to explain some of them. I urge the Government to think very carefully about including, neatly packaged in subsection (4)(d), those words as part and parcel of a larger package of what the social workers should be looking at. I beg to move.

My Lords, our Amendment 12 is on the same issue and a similar wording to that moved so eloquently by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. We very much support the argument that she put forward and the care with which the adoption Select Committee considered this matter and other issues.

As the noble and learned Baroness pointed out, under the Children Act 2002, the court and adoption agencies must under current legislation give due regard to a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin, culture and linguistic background when making decisions. The Bill removes that wording, but we continue to consider that these are important factors.

No one wants children to be disadvantaged by delays caused by the search for a perfect match, but the evidence of the adoption committee was that while there had been pockets of poor practice in the past, this is not a widespread problem. Indeed, it heard evidence from organisations such as Barnardo’s, which believed that the current legislation was adequate, and Coram, which also argued that, while there might have been a problem in the past, the situation was improving rapidly. The committee also identified that there were several other factors affecting the placement of black and minority ethnic children, including having fewer prospective adopters, the age of the children being put up for adoption and a failure of social workers to promote their availability. We are concerned that too much of the legislation being put forward on this issue is being based on anecdote and there is in fact a paucity of evidence that the wording in the legislation is the cause of black and minority ethnic children waiting longer for placements.

The general view was that the current legislative wording was not a problem per se. We therefore think that the Government have swung too far in the opposite direction by seeking to remove any reference to ethnicity, religion and culture. That is why we believe that putting these factors in the welfare checklist, along with other considerations, strikes the right and proportionate balance in addressing the issue. It would require agencies to have regard to these factors, but they would not be paramount.

In addition, any change in this area would be in direct contradiction to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and, in particular, Article 20 which states:

“Children who cannot be looked after by their own family have a right to special care and must be looked after properly, by people who respect their ethnic group, religion, culture and language”.

We agree with this principle. It is important that parents understand the identity of their child and that they are able to help them feel at ease with that identity. We cannot be blind or neutral to these considerations. I very much take the point that was made in the earlier debates. We sometimes think that we are talking about babies, but we are not. We could be talking about young people—anything up to adolescents—who have a view about these things. That point was made very eloquently by the noble and learned Baroness in her introduction. They have an identity and they want that to be considered and expressed. There may have been overzealous social workers in the past, but there may also have been adoptions that failed because the complexities of a child’s identity were not properly addressed. It is important to get a balance.

The Government have argued that these issues are taken into account in the general welfare provisions in Clause 2, but in fact Clause 2 does not achieve that. It removes the express duty to give consideration to these factors, but we are concerned, in the same way as the noble and learned Baroness expressed, that withdrawing them completely will send a clear message to those involved in adoption that these factors are no longer to be considered.

In his response to the Select Committee on adoption report, the Children’s Minister argued that specifying ethnicity, language and so on would continue to place excessive emphasis on these factors and would therefore distort the way that they were applied. To be fair to the Minister, when we met him the other day he made a similar point. He said that in order to counterbalance the excessive emphasis, we had to go to the opposite extreme to ram the message home to local authorities and adoption agencies.

We do not consider that that is the right way forward. These are important and sensitive issues. Having the factors on the welfare checklist, balanced with other issues, would allow the flexibility needed to make an assessment of all the child’s needs in the proper context, which would achieve the Government’s stated aim. I look forward to other comments and the Minister’s response but we very much support the point made by the noble and learned Baroness in opening this debate and the eloquent arguments that were put in the adoption report in the first place.

My Lords, like many others, I see many good intentions in the Bill and, along with others, I welcome the aim of speeding up the rate at which adoptions take place and are completed. But I also very strongly support my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss in this amendment.

When we talk about a person’s identity—this will come up a number of times in other amendments that we are due to consider, and some noble Lords have raised this issue already—it is a multifaceted affair. It has many constituent parts. It seems like an anomaly to try to say that “characteristics” or “background” could encapsulate all the things that we might mean by identity and which might influence the way in which we feel we are being brought up or looked after by people who are standing in for our biological parents.

I do not understand the argument that there is somehow an excessive emphasis if you mention it. That does not make sense to me, given that we live in a society where there is still racism and discrimination based on religion, cultural background and language. How can it be excessive when we are having to deal with all those different forms of discrimination? We do not have a society where we have the luxury of saying that we do not need to talk about this because it does not matter and it is not something that people consider or talk about.

Last year, I hosted a round-table discussion that had been organised by the NSPCC. It took place while the Select Committee on adoption was still gathering evidence so we were not influenced by what the committee was saying. Present at that meeting were adoptive parents, adults who had been adopted as children, academics, researchers and representatives from major charities and local authorities—everyone working in the field of adoption. We focused on racial origins, transracial adoptions and ethnicity. We referred to case studies and experiences in the UK and overseas, and some DfE officials were also present. By and large, that group of about 20 people also came to the view that it was both important and necessary to consider ethnicity, racial origins and culture when seeking to place for adoption. That is not to say that anyone present thought that transracial adoption should never be undertaken. However, it was considered that in our society cultural identities are key factors that ought properly to be taken into account when a child is to be adopted.

I struggle to see precisely what problem the Government think they are going to address by omitting the terms that have been put forward in the amendment. If the adoption of children from ethnic minority backgrounds is being delayed because social workers are waiting for an exact cultural or ethnic match, perhaps we could see some evidence to support that. All the evidence that I have seen has been anecdotal. Even though many of the people who sat around that table in October were researchers and renowned academics working in the field, none could point to any evidence that could support that contention.

The matter of delayed adoptions for children from black and mixed-heritage backgrounds is very complex and has its roots in a whole number of factors. Perhaps the Government’s desire to effect a better outcome for those children lies in a number of strategies, such as actively recruiting more families from similar backgrounds to adopt or commit to long-term fostering. If the Government want to improve long-term stability for looked-after minority ethnic children, they should also consider how to boost permanent solutions for them outside of adoption—in particular, through guardianship and kinship care.

Where accounts of children being adopted by parents from a differing racial or ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural background are written by the children or adults themselves, many of them state that they had a loving and caring upbringing on a par with, and perhaps better than, others brought up by both their parents. None the less, many of them will also point to a feeling of a lack, a void or an emptiness where a sense of their heritage and identity should be. No matter that these might be constructed by society; they are very real to the people who experience them. Those kinds of experiences are very much heightened if the child is raised in an area where they are highly visible and marked as different at school and in their social life. More support should be offered to adoptive parents and social workers to help their understanding of the needs of minority ethnic children. Practice is very variable around the UK, and improved training and guidance are needed for social workers to ensure that their decision-making in adoption cases is based on clear evidence aimed at meeting the best interests of the child.

I emphasise that the agencies that support this amendment are not seeking some idealised version of a perfect ethnic, racial or cultural match. However, they recognise that it is essential for a child with that background to be placed in a family with knowledge, understanding and networks that will enable the child to feel that they have a place in the world and where their inevitable curiosity about their cultural heritage will be recognised and engaged with. Unfortunately, I am afraid that love on its own is not enough in these circumstances.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch made reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have heard some very powerful arguments in support of these amendments. I simply want to support what has been said with reference to what the Joint Committee on Human Rights said on this, and I speak as a member of that committee.

My noble friend and others have questioned the evidence base for the Government’s position. The Joint Committee looked at the evidence and we asked the Government what evidence they were using. We came to the conclusion that the evidence simply did not support the Government’s position. There is clear evidence of problems with delay. We share the Government’s concern about that and I do not think that anyone is arguing that we do not need action to deal with it. However, the evidence to which the Government referred did not show that these delays were due to ethnic matching. Therefore, we concluded:

“We are … not satisfied that the Government has demonstrated by reference to evidence that the statutory provision it proposes to repeal has been responsible for delays in the adoption process to the detriment of children from ethnic minority backgrounds”.

Perhaps the Minister could explain to the Committee what this evidence is, because what the Government have provided so far is not convincing. The committee continued:

“Even if there were evidence showing that the ‘due regard’ requirement … has led to disproportionate weight being given to a child’s ethnic background”—

and as I have said, we do not think that there is—

“we fail to see why it would be necessary to remove from the legal framework all reference to ‘religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.’ We do not follow the logic in the Government’s argument that including those considerations in the welfare checklist would still lead to them being accorded disproportionate weight”.

I am completely bemused. A lot was said about this at Second Reading. I do not understand why the Government are so resistant to the very sensible recommendation from the adoption committee that it simply should be part of the checklist. No one is arguing that it should be given disproportionate weight any more; that has been accepted. The very fact of taking it out, though, as has already been said, in a sense is giving disproportionate weight to the other view that, “Clearly, we mustn’t take any account of it at all because the Government said that it must not be part of the list”. I cannot believe that that is what the Government want to achieve. Perhaps the Minister will explain why they are so resistant to that simply being part of a list that gives equivalent weight to other factors. The committee stated:

“In our view, removing from the legal framework any reference to ‘religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’ risks those considerations being regarded as no longer matters to which due regard must be paid, which would be incompatible with Article 20(3) UNCRC”.

There could be a challenge to that with reference to the UN convention.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, referred to the need for other actions. The NSPCC suggested that legislation of itself will not address the problems of delay. The Government therefore need to commit to other actions such as paying attention to the need to actively recruit more adoptive families from a range of minority ethnic backgrounds; to give more support to adoptive parents and social workers to aid their understanding of the needs of minority ethnic children and improving long-term stability for minority ethnic children who are looked after; and, as has already been said, to consider how to boost permanency for such children beyond adoption, particularly through a consideration of guardianship, kinship care and long-term foster care.

I endorse what has already been said but I am completely at a loss as to why the Government are so resistant to this proposal from the adoption committee, which the Joint Committee on Human Rights has also endorsed.

I too have my name to Amendment 11. It seems that these issues of religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background have been the subject of a pendulum that has swung considerably backwards and forwards over the years. It may be that these issues are not everything but they are certainly not nothing. As other noble Lords have said, the Government have recognised that these issues should be considered along with all other relevant factors.

I thought what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, had to say about identity was so powerful that I do not want to pursue the issue myself because I could not say it as well. I just wrote down the word “identity” with big marks against it when I was making my notes for this debate. We must not suppress these issues. Our society comprises a huge variety of combinations of these different matters, and an increasing variety as people from different ethnic backgrounds marry one another and different mixes appear. There should not be excessive emphasis.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, used the phrase, which I think the Minister also used, “ramming the message home”. It is not for legislation to ram a message home; legislation should get the measure right rather more calmly. There is a danger that the message that will be taken is that these issues should now be ignored, when what really matters, as other noble Lords have said, is a placement with adopters who understand the issues and can support the child. You might come from exactly the same ethnic origin or religious background but not be able to support the child; they are not the same thing. The indicative guidance that we have received recognises this. I think that it talks—and if it does not, it should—about the need to recruit adopters from a range of backgrounds.

I do not think that there is a difference of view between what we are all saying and what the Government are thinking; it is not about the “what” but more about the “how”. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said that she was at a loss. I do not think that I am at a loss. There has been an oversensitivity, if I can put it that way, to what some parts of the media regard as “political correctness”, and there are better ripostes to that attitude in the media than the change in legislation that is proposed. I strongly support the amendment.

My Lords, I would like to say something about where I think this all came from. We should remind ourselves that in the 1980s racism was rife. When I was working at that time in local authorities, we had people called “race advisers”, some of whom were not the most helpful people. Some changed the whole attitude to racism; some made social workers take a particular view of race. I know that because I was the head of a social work department and was battling to get something rational, while the irrational was being pressed on the workers.

I make this point because I think that this Bill has so much of value and would hate to see one dogma replaced by another, but that is what is happening here. As the pendulum has swung, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, so the Government are feeling that we can stop all this and get placements moved on. However, we need to think about the issues—those points have been made eloquently and I shall not repeat them—and I hope that the Government take a rational rather than a dogmatic view of this issue because it is important for the children. I, too, have talked to young people whose ethnicity is extraordinarily important to them, even though they were placed, and have grown up, in white homes. They need to understand their ethnicity and their links. I hope that the Minister will accept that the welfare checklist is a very straightforward document and that this could be included without any difficulty.

My Lords, the UN convention quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asks for respect for a child’s ethnicity and cultural, linguistic and religious background. If I were putting down an amendment to the Bill, which I am not doing, I would want something that emphasised that. That does not mean that adoptive parents have to be of the same ethnicity or religious conviction as that of the child being adopted, but they have to be the kind of people who genuinely respect that. If I may be allowed an anecdote, although we have just been told not to rely on anecdotes, I can tell the Committee that I lived through such a thing in my own family. When I was a very little girl, my parents “adopted” a child of the Kindertransport. Her parents had sent her away from Hitler’s Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War and my parents, as Christians—my father was a minister—decided that they would open our home and our family to this little girl, Marrianna, who became my sister to all intents and purposes for several years until her own family was able to take her towards the end of the war. I remember well my parents straining every muscle to allow that little girl to keep her religious identity—we learnt in our family to respect all the Jewish customs and festivals—and they were determined, although Christians themselves and very powerfully so, that they would do that. What we are surely asking for is that kind of genuine respect for the child’s religious, cultural or ethnic background, and not for someone who has to be the same. The rationale of the noble and learned Baroness’s amendment reaches towards that, but I would like something that emphasised the wording of the UN convention, which is “respect for” rather than “the same as”.

My Lords, I would like to make two points. First, I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Jones, about the danger of transgressing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I will address the point made about respect by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, when I come to my second point.

I am going to give the Committee an anecdote. I am sorry, but this is why I am so passionate about believing that the well balanced solution of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to the perceived problem is much better than taking the issue out altogether. It is the fact that my son and his wife, in addition to having their own two white, blond boys, have adopted a Chinese daughter. Cathryn is a wonderful little girl and she is much loved by the whole extended family. For the past seven years, she has been very successfully adopted and I very much hope that it continues that way. Of course, when going out in public with her family she might as well have a big sign on her forehead saying, “I am adopted”, because she clearly looks different. It was so important that her adoptive parents were sensitive to difference and its importance, and to the importance of cultural, racial and ethnic identity. They are approaching the adoption of their little Chinese daughter with all that in mind. That is why I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, that we must ensure that where there is transracial or transethnic adoption, the matching is right. That is more important than the child and the parents having the same skin colour.

I would also say to the Committee that ethnicity really matters; I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. That is why it is important that you find the right adoptive family. If the race, culture and ethnicity are different, they have to understand, be sensitive to and take account of that as they help the child to develop into a fully fledged grown-up with an understanding of their ethnic and cultural background. To throw it out altogether puts the Government in great danger of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction and no account being taken at all of the difference in ethnicity. If they did that, they would be in danger of finding adoptive families who, although they were very well intentioned, did not have that sensitivity to difference and to the importance of the cultural identity of the child.

That is so important when you have a transnational, transracial, transcultural or transethnic adoption. The fact is that we are going to have some of those because there is a mismatch between the pool of children of ethnic majorities who are waiting for adoption and the ethnicity of families who are prepared to adopt them. Until we get equal numbers in those two pools, we will have transracial and transethnic adoptions. However, the important thing for the success of the adoption is that the matching is right. The danger is that if you take out reference altogether instead of putting it in the checklist, as has been so sensibly suggested, you will get a mismatch and have unsuccessful adoptions. Alternatively, the adoption will complete until the child is an adult but that adult will be damaged by the lack of consideration having been given to their background.

This is terribly important. I can tell your Lordships that it can be very happy and successful—because I have personal experience of that—and I very much recommend that it happens where a child needs a loving family. Those considerations really matter, though, and we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

My Lords, I support the amendment. Living in Britain as a culturally diverse person can be very challenging and you need to be well prepared to face the challenges and adversities, which can be never-ending, even if you are living with your birth family. When you are different, you have to be confident about who you are as a person.

Since I spoke about this issue at Second Reading, I have been contacted by those who are for and against my stance that “due consideration” of a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural background when being placed for adoption should not be removed but should be included as an important part of the Bill.

We all agree that adoption between races adds another invaluable dimension to the adoption experience which cannot be ignored, because living in a loving family is priceless. However, the evidence points to ethnic background being a significant factor which cannot be ignored, and this has been said to me over the past few months by both children and adults who have been adopted. That is why I believe that social workers need to ensure that prospective carers can respond positively to the ethnic background of the child and consider what implications this may have as they grow up, especially during their adolescence, reflecting on their identity and heritage.

The British-Chinese adoption study by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering in 2012 found that this was an important consideration among young Chinese people who were placed with families with whom they could not identify, unlike the story that my noble friend has just told about the little girl whom her family has adopted. If a child experiences racism or rejection because of their religion or culture, they may feel isolated and not able to share this with anyone within the family. Being visibly different from family members can also result in a sense of feeling as though you do not belong, along with a loss of confidence, which I mentioned earlier.

I know that the Government recognise this as an important factor, but I believe that we are in dangerous territory if we remove consideration of it altogether from legislation. Do we really understand what the impact of these changes would be? Do we really understand what would happen and the message that we would be sending out? Nothing that has been said to me can convince me that such consideration by a court or adoption agency when coming to a decision relating to the adoption of a child is not important. Social workers need to be sensitive to this factor and to work with parents, who need to be able to understand the identity of the child they are adopting. This should not be a stand-alone but should be included in the child’s welfare checklist along with religion, culture and language, as so passionately put by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and as recommended by the House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation. It should not be the be all and end all, and nor should all the emphasis be placed on it, but it should be considered.

Equally important is the need to encourage more diverse families to become adoptive parents. That is not something that many people from diverse backgrounds consider, but there are ways in which we can make people realise that they can play an important part in our community.

We also need to improve the long-term stability for culturally diverse children by helping to boost permanence for these children beyond adoption, and the consideration of kinship care and long-term foster care. That is why I believe that everyone needs to support this amendment, for the sake of the well-being of the children whom I speak about who feel that they want to be part of this society and feel as if they belong.

My Lords, a number of moving contributions have been made to this debate, particularly by my noble friends Lady Perry and Lady Walmsley. I know that we are all trying to find the right way forward in a difficult area. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is vastly experienced in these matters, and I hesitate to gainsay her. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked for some evidence. I would like to provide some, underline what is behind the Government’s position and reaffirm that my department’s main aim is to ensure that all children, whatever their background or race, achieve the best start in life.

The Government’s concerns about this can best be summed up in the simple equation that once they have entered the care system, white children are three times as likely to be adopted as black children who have entered the system. Some 6% of white children in care are adopted while 2% of black children are adopted. This is a fact.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Six per cent of white children in care are adopted while 2% of black children in care are adopted. That is a fact that should make all of us angry. The average length of time that it takes for a child to be adopted from entering the care system is two years and seven months, but for black children it is three years and eight months. That statistic of course conceals the fact that many children are never adopted at all.

It is worse than that, though, because all the evidence is that, generally, the younger a child enters the care system, the more likely they are to be adopted. Black children in fact enter the care system four months earlier than white children, on average as babies, contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said about the age of children entering the care system. We believe that with the best intentions in the world, social workers are trying too often to make perfect matches and taking the aspect of ethnicity too much into account. As a result of this, the system is leaving—

I am sorry to interrupt. I just want to get this clear, because the Minister seems to be saying that the provisions around ethnicity in the 2002 Act are virtually the sole or main reason why black and mixed-heritage children are being left behind in the adoption queue. I would still argue, as have other noble Lords, that there is little if any evidence to suggest that that is the case—that there is an exact, identifiable causal relationship between the provisions of the 2002 Act and the lack of progress for black children.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for enabling me to clarify this point. I am not saying that it is the sole cause at all. It is one of a number of factors and we believe that our approach will be one element in helping to address this imbalance, which is leaving ethnic minority children short-changed.

Social workers will of course continue to pay considerable regard to ethnicity as they and the courts will be required to have regard to,

“the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant”,

as part of the welfare checklist. These will obviously include ethnicity. We do not accept that our approach means that this will no longer be considered at all, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Hamwee and Lady Benjamin, suggest. Indeed, in her speech the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred specifically to background. “Background” and “characteristics” must include ethnicity. That is a matter of plain English.

There is unequivocal evidence about the negative impact on their development of delay in placing children for adoption. Children need to form attachments with one or two main carers to develop emotionally and physically. There is also clear evidence about delay caused by practitioners seeking a “perfect” ethnic match. Professor Elaine Farmer, in An Investigation of Family Finding and Matching in Adoption, found that of the BME children in the sample who experienced delay, attempts to find a family of similar ethnicity was a factor in delay for 70% of them. A study by Julie Selwyn—

The noble and learned Baroness will get that information in a second.

A study by Julie Selwyn, Pathways to Permanence for Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity Children found that “same race” placements often dominated the child permanence report over and above other needs and that some social workers were so pessimistic about finding ethnically matched adopters that there was little family finding. She said:

“We found that local authorities were much quicker at changing the decision away from adoption for minority ethnic children than they were for white children. There were a great number of minority ethnic children for whom no families were found and the decision was changed away from adoption”.

Whatever the child may want, would they rather not be adopted at all or adopted late in life so that they cannot form those early attachments that we all know are so important?

The answer to the noble and learned Baroness’s question is 2010.

Amending Section 1(5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 does not mean that ethnicity should not be considered. A child’s adoptive family needs to be able to meet the child’s needs throughout his childhood, having regard to all the factors provided for in Section 1(2) and 1(4), rather than simply matching his or her ethnic background or not matching at all. We have published draft regulations on this for your Lordships’ consideration.

We recognise that practice is very important. That is why we are developing a range of training materials and other tools to support the continuous professional development needs of children’s social workers, supervising social workers, team managers and independent reviewing officers working in fostering and adoption. This is part of the Government’s drive to ensure that social workers working in the care and adoption systems have the knowledge and skills they need to get decisions right and weigh the impact of delay appropriately in the decisions that they make about placements for children in care.

Of course, we need more adopters from all ethnicities. That is why we have allocated over £150 million this year to help adoption agencies respond to the pressing needs of children awaiting adoption and a further £16 million over the next two years to expand the sector.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not require children to be placed with someone who shares exactly the same ethnicity but someone who respects it. Section 1 of the Act, as amended, will not prevent this. Many children in our society live with natural parents who do not entirely share their ethnicity. I urge the noble and learned Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken on this amendment with a unanimity of support for it. I acknowledge, however, that Amendment 12 is more accurate since it recognises the different position of Wales, whereas my amendment was entirely devoted to the question of what was taken out and did not address the rest of the subsection, so I apologise for that. I think it should probably be Amendment 12 rather than Amendment 11.

The question of ethnicity, culture and so on is not just a question of black, white or brown. I happen to know Kenya quite well and there are 45 tribes and, I think, 47 languages there. It is totally different from Ghana or Nigeria, and so different from Jamaica. It would be very difficult to put a black child from Kenya with a black family from Jamaica. It would be much easier to put them with a white family. I have experienced the difficulties of a black family of whom the son, who is mixed race, is my godson, of whom I am extremely proud, and his black mother in the Cayman Islands had a very rough time because she came—according to the people in the Cayman Islands—who were black, from the trees. So when we are talking about ethnicity, we are not talking about black, white or brown, or indeed people from south-east Asia, whether they are Vietnamese, Malaysian or whatever it may be. What we are looking at is their cultural background, their ethnicity—and the ethnicity, as I say, of one black tribe. Indeed, those who come from certain parts of the United Kingdom are very different from other parts of the United Kingdom or other parts of Africa or Asia. It is important that we recognise that.

One of the most important points that were made in the speeches was about the issue of identity, and that follows very much from what I have just said. It was well put by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to whom I am grateful. It is underlined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I very much liked what the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said about respect. I am not quite sure how easy it would be to put into a list of what a judge must have regard to. I am not entirely sure whether we could require a judge to have regard to respect, but it was a very attractive idea and one that we should be looking at.

I take issue with the Minister: we are not suggesting for one moment that there should be a sameness of ethnicity, such that a Kenyan child would always have a Kenyan family. That is impossible and not even desirable. What is needed is an understanding by each of those who would wish to adopt of the cultural differences between them and the child whom they may adopt: the origins, language and culture of the child, as well as racial differences. These need to be understood and recognised, and that is the point of these two amendments.

If the Minister thinks that I am talking about same ethnicity—which is what he has just said—then I hope he will read what I have said in Hansard, both now and in my opening speech, because in no way did I intend that to be. There is a real danger, as has also been said, in replacing dogma with dogma—“I pick it up and adopt it with enthusiasm”—because that, I fear, is what this Government are proposing to do. Having come to the view, which I totally understand and with which I agree, that in the past there have been efforts to put a black child with a black family, regardless of their ethnicity, they are now saying that we must not consider it at all. That is a step too far, and I am very concerned about it. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that the Elaine Farmer report was from 2010, but we had evidence last year that that problem with social workers has largely disappeared.

If the amendment is not given the prominence of being in Section 1(5) but is neatly packaged away, as I have suggested, in subsection (4)(d), it will not get undue prominence. I must say respectfully that the Government are wrong in not listening to the unanimity of this Committee in what has been said today. I hope that they will go away and at ask at every level—not only at the level of junior Ministers but right to the top—whether we are really all wrong. I respectfully say that we are not. I shall bring back the amendment on Report and hope that everyone will support me on that occasion if the Government will not listen, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 11 withdrawn.

Amendment 12 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clause 3: Recruitment, assessment and approval of prospective adopters

Amendment 13

Moved by

13: Clause 3, page 2, line 28, at end insert—

“( ) Directions under subsection (1) shall be given in writing setting out the Secretary of State’s reasons which shall be in accordance with regulations.

( ) A local authority to which directions have been given under subsection (1) may at any time—

(a) request the Secretary of State to review the directions,(b) appeal against the Secretary of State’s decision to the High Court.( ) The Secretary of State may at any time rescind directions given under subsection (1).”

This and other amendments in the group take us to Clause 3, which deals with the recruitment, assessment and approval of prospective adopters. That is the heading for the clause, at any rate, but it is in fact about the Government’s possible power to give directions to local authorities to restructure the way in which they deal with adoption matters.

The Government accepted the recommendation by the Adoption Legislation Select Committee in responding to proposals for a government power of direction. Looking back at the report, I thought that the language used by the Select Committee was really very mild, but then we endeavoured throughout to be as constructive, dignified and helpful as possible. We said:

“We … urge local authorities and partners to work together to make progress on these issues”—

that is, recruitment and so on—

“particularly in light of concerns that outsourcing adopter recruitment”—

which is what this would be—

“risks isolating adoption from other services for looked-after children. We strongly encourage the Government to allow sufficient time for the sector to develop viable and achievable alternative proposals, before using the new power”.

That was the bit that I thought was very mild.

The Government state in their response—and I agree with an awful lot of this—that a lot is happening in the sector, with lots of new, good things going on, and that they have invited the sector to consider further how to address its concerns. They further state that they,

“will continue to work with the sector over the coming months to monitor the impact and implementation of their commitments. The Government has told the sector that it will reach a decision in January 2014 about any further action it intends to take”.

If we had not had that date, which is now three months away, I would have felt more optimistic about how the Government might regard this provision. It seems very heavy-handed—a sort of legislative sword of Damocles.

There is anxiety among local authorities, and I shall come back to that, but I have heard that the voluntary sector, too, is anxious about the prospect of the Secretary of State giving directions that would transfer functions, or certainly action—“functions” might not be quite the right word in the context—to the voluntary sector. We might think, “Well, local authorities are going to object to this. They would object, wouldn’t they?”, but for the voluntary sector to be concerned fleshes out the issue. It is concerned about its capacity.

Local authorities recognise the need to recruit more prospective adopters, and there has been an increase in the number of adoptions, as we know. Eighty per cent of adopters are recruited by local authorities, so for the Secretary of State to exercise this power would be very significant. I believe that the Government, too, recognise the sector-led improvements, and I shall quickly mention some of them.

In London, local authorities are working together across the city to identify and implement improvements with both regional and sub-regional partnerships, and that includes partnerships with the voluntary sector. Similarly, outside London there are consortia of local authorities. We heard about some very interesting approaches to work when we were taking evidence on the Select Committee. In north London, the consortium has put together a single point of contact for initial inquiries and a joint database, it has collocated the adoption teams, it has consistent timescales and it is sharing training and publicity and marketing strategies.

As I said, the Select Committee had very good examples of joint working, although it identified some barriers to it as well. However, I do not believe that this is a simple matter of psychology—that a threat of directions will itself lead to improvement. The Minister has said, rightly, that the Government will listen carefully to the points raised on this. I quoted the words used in the response to the Select Committee, but lifting the sword of Damocles for a further three months—I am not even sure that this legislation will be through by January 2014, but that is another matter—does not seem to be the acknowledgement that its other words would indicate.

Amendment 13, which is in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, would require the Secretary of State to give reasons for exercising this power of direction and the reasons would be in accordance with regulations. There is a real lack of understanding about just what criteria the Government are setting and what they would expect local authorities to have achieved so as not to be at risk of such a direction. Local authorities need to know what they are doing wrong, if they are doing things wrong, and they need to know what they are regarded as doing right.

It follows from that—this is the second limb of Amendment 13—that there should be a right to request a review and a right of appeal against the Secretary of State’s decision. I understand the Government to be saying that this is not heavy-handed and that in fact it is a very precise response to the problems in particular local authorities. I am therefore a little puzzled as to why the Secretary of State would need to be able to give directions to all local authorities.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones, have amendments that deal with some of the concerns that I have expressed. I think that that is one of them. My noble friend Lord Storey and I are very concerned about this, but we are happy to look at amendments and to debate issues around this matter and how the provision might be ameliorated. We have an underlying feeling that it will be very hard to get this to a position that would leave us feeling satisfied, which is why we have also given notice of our intention to oppose the question that the clause stand part of the Bill. There is a single group of amendments for debate today plus the stand part. I start this debate in moving Amendment 13.

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 14 to 17 in my name in relation to Clause 3, which, as we have heard, grants the Secretary of State a new power to direct local authorities to outsource their adopter recruitment services to another local authority or to a registered adoption agency by amending the relevant part of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. We understand that the driver for the Government seeking these powers is to tackle the shortage of people approved to adopt. Certainly, we share this starting point with the Government.

I listened with great interest to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and it is clear that there is deep concern about these provisions and where they might be taking adopter recruitment services in the future. For me, that is the key issue, as I will explain. I have no disagreement in principle with the power for the Secretary of State to intervene in individual underperforming local authorities as in subsection (3)(a) of new Section 3A under Clause 3. As a Minister, I issued many such directions. Indeed, my first point is that there already are substantial powers of intervention, including the ability of the Government to outsource services when local authorities are underperforming. Perhaps the Minister will explain why these powers in subsection (3)(a) are necessary.

However, it is difficult to see how intervening in an individual local authority can solve or address the wider problem of the national shortage of potential adopters, which brings me to the powers under subsection (3)(b) and (3)(c) and where our concerns lie. Those powers would give the Secretary of State the power to remove responsibility for adopter recruitment either from entire categories of local authorities or from all local authorities at a stroke completely.

There are both practical reasons and reasons of principle why those two powers are problematic. First, on the practical reasons, local authorities currently recruit and approve about 80% of adopters. Moving many or all local authorities from this task would seriously compromise the adoption system when there is already an acknowledged shortage of adopters.

Secondly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, elegantly pointed out, the voluntary and not-for-profit sector has made it clear that it does not have the capacity to take on the recruitment of the numbers of adopters that would be needed. The third reason is very important. Given that local authorities would retain responsibility for the placement of children and for seeing them through to adoption, it seems to me to be wholly undesirable that they should have no stake in the adopter recruitment process. We actually want local authorities to be more willing to use adopters approved by other agencies. This is more likely to happen if local authorities retain some responsibility for recruitment and are still part of the adoption system so there are some strong, practical reasons that I would like the Minister to address.

In discussion with the Minister this week, he said that the problem of adopter shortage was not in any case primarily one of underperformance by individual local authorities. In his view this was system failure at the national level, particularly because of the disincentives for local authorities to recruit more adopters than they need for their own individual populations and the reluctance, as he perceived it, of agencies to work collaboratively. Again, there have been really positive moves in that direction, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out, albeit perhaps recently. That might be so: it might be system failure, as the Minister said, and if the Government wish to review adopter recruitment and propose a radically different system, they are of course entirely free to do so. But if the Government wish to come forward with a new system that would take responsibility for adopter recruitment away from local authorities and give it to some new or different kind of agency, I put it to the Minister that they should come to Parliament with those proposals now for wider scrutiny and debate.

My objections to subsections (3)(b) and (3)(c) are therefore fundamentally ones of principle. It seems quite wrong to go partway along that path to pave the way for wholesale outsourcing or privatisation of adopter recruitment through the negative resolution procedure set out here without spelling out for Members what the endgame here is. I asked the Minister whether he had a vision of where he would like these services to end up and he said no, he did not. However, I cannot see the point of the power in subsection (3)(c) unless the Government have at least some desire, if not the intention, to move towards providing the recruitment of adopter services in a very different way.

In our view, the powers in subsections (3)(b) and (3)(c) are a step too far unless the Government set out their further vision. Our Amendment 14 would delete them from the clause. Amendments 15, 16 and 17 would address the issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised were the Government to retain the ability simply to intervene in an individual authority by instituting: that it should be by the affirmative resolution procedure; for the Secretary of State to give reasons for direction and to allow the authority to ask for a review; and for the Secretary of State to revoke any direction should he desire so. Amendment 17 would address the point that the direction should be based on the quality or performance of the local authority in providing these services.

With those amendments, this would be a reasonable and proportionate mechanism for the Government to use when they believe a local authority could do much better at adopter recruitment. They would take away the possibility that the Government could slide through an entirely new system on the back of a negative resolution procedure in relation to subsection (3)(c).

My Lords, it really is important that we do what is best for the potentially adopted child or young person. If we consider this carefully, we can see where some—I would use the word “some”—local authorities have been very poor in this respect. That is in the amount of time taken, the lack of care and attention to detail and the way things are organised. Quite frankly, that is not good enough but it is a very small proportion of local authorities. As we have heard, 80% of placements are carried out by local authorities, which themselves recognise the need for changes to be made in how some of them operate. Many have been hallmarks of good practice and have been highly praised by the Government and the voluntary sector. So the notion that the Secretary of State is given the power to say that all local authorities should cease placement is concerning to me, and I wonder why it is there.

I am not sure that I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, that this is some plot by the Government to privatise adoption—surely they would not—or push everything to the voluntary sector, because we know that the voluntary sector has said, “No, we don’t want to do that, and even if we did we wouldn’t be able to cope with it”. I am surprised that the noble Baroness would even consider such a daft notion. No, I think that this is about the Government. I well remember David Cameron, our Prime Minister, saying in the early days, “Look, I am concerned at the time that some potential adopters have to wait before all the paperwork and the processes are carried out”, and he was right to say that. This part of this wonderful Bill addresses that issue by saying, “Yes, we need to ensure that the amount of time taken is proportionate”.

Still, the notion that you give the Secretary of State—maybe Michael Gove’s successor in two, three or five years’ time—the power to come along with these draconian powers is quite concerning, and actually not in the best interests of children. I hope that, if we want to ensure changes, the Government will look at how we learn from best practice in local authorities and in the voluntary sector—not all the voluntary sector is perfect in this, of course; we think that because the tag is “voluntary sector”, they must be fantastic, but not all the voluntary sector is. We must learn best practice from the voluntary sector and from local authorities, and constantly lift the bar and learn and disseminate those best practices so that we do what is best for our children and young people.

My Lords, I endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said. I shall read out again one sentence from the conclusion of the adoption committee:

“We strongly encourage the Government to allow sufficient time for the sector to develop viable and achievable alternative proposals, before using the new power”.

Having said that, I have to say that I am not entirely opposed to the Government having this power. However, it should be a power of last resort, not a power that would be up front. The various amendments, if I may respectfully say so, are overly elaborate. I would have thought that it would be a good idea, if the Secretary of State had to give a direction, that such a direction gave the opportunity to the local authority to judicially review the Government if it thought that the direction was out of order under administrative law proposals. So I am not at all happy about these current amendments. I believe that the Government should have some power, but I do not like the way in which the power is framed at the moment. I hope that some sort of compromise might come on Report.

My Lords, for a number of reasons, I support my noble friends in their Amendment 13 and on clause stand part, failing the amendment—or something—getting through. I think that this is an excellent Bill in many ways, and I am very proud of it and welcome it. It would be a pity if it were spoilt by one particular little bit that, if implemented, would result in complete chaos in the system.

If new Section 3A(3)(c) were implemented, there would be complete chaos in the system and increased delays in the time that it took for a child to be adopted, because the voluntary sector simply does not have the capacity to take up the other 80%, and could not do so in the foreseeable future either. The Government are going too far too fast, particularly in the light of the changes that are currently being made in the adoption system. I would put a caveat next to that comment, because I think that we all believe that an extra month taken to find the “forever family” for a child waiting on the adoption list is a month too long. We do not want to increase delays; indeed, we want to shorten the period as much as possible, while at the same time getting it right. In the light of the fact that so many changes are taking place—local authorities are working together and the Government have already put changes in place—the clause as it stands should not be implemented until those changes have been allowed a reasonable amount of time to bed in. Subsections (3)(b) and (c) need to be taken out.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, that if an individual local authority is really failing, the powers are already there to move those duties to someone else who can do it better in the interests of the children. So I am not sure why we need subsection (3)(a) either, so long as there was some way for local authorities, first, to know what was expected of them and, secondly, to be able to review in some way—it could be a judicial review; I take the point made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss—if they believed that the decision was wrong. In natural justice, you have to have some sort of appeal process. However, the idea of the Secretary of State implementing subsection (3)(b) in a large way—and subsection (3)(c) at all—fills me with horror, because children would suffer.

My Lords, I have listened with great interest to this debate. I remember the last days of the previous Government, when there was a great deal of concern from the Minister responsible at the lack of uptake by local authorities of voluntary adoption agencies. She repeated on several occasions, “The evidence is there; the outcomes are better; but it seems that local authorities have the perception that going down that route is more expensive”. Again, there was some debate about the research, but I think it pointed to the fact that in fact it was no more expensive than using local authority adopters. This is just a detail, but I would be interested to know what progress has been made—maybe the noble Baroness mentioned this and I may have missed it in what she was saying—in making better use of voluntary adoption agencies. There has been a huge amount of change in this area.

In the back of my mind, I also have an idea that it might be helpful for a one-page summary of all that has been done by the Government about adoption since they came into office. Maybe I just need to look back at the Second Reading debate; it is probably all there already in the Minister’s opening speech.

My Lords, much of Clause 3 is perfectly reasonable. It would allow the Secretary of State to take action against local authorities that were failing in their duties to recruit adopters by removing those powers from them—quite rightly, too, as long as that is done in a fair way and takes account of steps that local authorities might be taking to improve. There is, after all, an adoption crisis in the country, which the Minister has pointed out, and some local authorities are not stepping up to the plate.

However, children’s charities such as Barnardo’s—I declare an interest as one of its vice-presidents—as well as the Local Government Association have concerns about the fact that the Bill as it stands would allow the Secretary of State to remove responsibility for adopter recruiting from all local authorities. This proposal has caused alarm, which could lead to chaos in the adoption system. There is no guarantee that external providers would be able or willing to take on these services immediately, and any delays across the system will severely damage the chances of some of the country’s most vulnerable children of being adopted. Of course local authorities should be held to account; it is right that the Government can intervene if they are not doing their job properly. However, Clause 3 as it stands effectively allows the collective punishment of local authorities, and this punishment, as Barnardo’s and others have pointed out, would not even solve the problem but would make it worse. I urge the Government to consider Clause 3 very carefully and remove it from these provisions.

My Lords, there are fundamental problems with this clause. As has been said, there is no appeal against directions; the recipient must comply, and promptly. There is no parliamentary scrutiny of directions, and for these reasons directions are usually confined to failures in administration, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes. I think we all understand that the Treasury is very good at setting out directions about how you should write your accounts. There is not much point in arguing with the Treasury about that matter of administration, but in my view directions are not suitable to implement a change in policy of this type. That is exactly what this clause empowers the Executive to do—change policy. The point has already been made that there is therefore a point of principle here, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s response. Given everything that has gone on, the dissatisfactions or doubts that might emerge between central government and local government could and should perfectly well be settled in the normal course of business. As has been said, Clause 3 goes one step too far, and I could not support it.

I begin with the proposal to remove the clause, but most of what I will say is also relevant to all the amendments. I think that we would all agree that we have an undoubted problem in the narrow but important function of recruiting, assessing and approving a sufficient number of prospective adopters. The statistics are stark. As I have already said, the average length of time that it takes for a child to be adopted from entering the care system is two years and seven months, and of course this conceals many children who do not get adopted.

My noble friend Lord Storey said that there is poor performance by local authorities in only a minority of cases, but I respectfully suggest that the figure of two years and seven months denies that. However, I agree with him that there is good practice: in West Berkshire, for instance, the figure is a year and a month. I question why many if not all local authorities cannot do the same.

At the end of March this year, there were 6,000 children with placement orders waiting to move in with a permanent family. This is 15% higher than a year previously. When compared with the 3,980 children adopted from care last year, one can see that this is a very significant backlog. Indeed, one cannot conclude from this backlog anything other than that the system is broken and we are facing a real crisis.

In order to find families for all the children waiting to be adopted, we have estimated that we would need around 2,000 more adopters than are currently approved and waiting to be matched. We would then need at least a further 700 additional adopters each year to meet the growing demand from children waiting. Ofsted data tell us that in the year ending March 2012 just over 25,000 enquiries about becoming an adopter were received, but these resulted in only around 4,000 applications to become an adopter—a 16% conversion rate, which I suggest is very low.

The size of the recruitment gap requires us to take radical and immediate action to resolve the underlying problems within the system. These were set out in our January publication, Further Action on Adoption. We currently have around 175 adoption agencies, many operating at too small a scale to be efficient, yet they have no incentive to expand and meet the needs of children outside their local area. Even worse, some local authorities turn away prospective adopters because they do not need them themselves.

A further problem is that, while some local authorities work in constructive partnerships with voluntary adoption agencies, too many commission from them only as a last resort. In large part, this is a consequence of local authorities acting as both a provider and commissioner of adoption services. By this, I mean that they are trying to find or commission adoptive parents on behalf of the child while simultaneously trying to recruit or provide those same parents. There are also issues around the level of fees that are paid to voluntary adoption agencies.

These underlying problems have resulted in a system that fails us in national terms; a system that is unable to make best use of the national supply of potential adopters or respond effectively to the needs of vulnerable children waiting for a loving home and a system that provides no incentives to individual organisations to address a national shortage of adopters. These problems are not the fault of the individual adoption agencies concerned. Indeed, many are doing their best to rise to the challenge and we know that there are some good examples of partnership working between different agencies:

Harrow, Kent and Cambridgeshire, for example, have all contracted elements of their adoption service to the voluntary adoption agency Coram. Oxfordshire has brought in the Core Assets Group to run its adopter assessment process. Three boroughs in London—Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham—and three unitary authorities in the north-west, Warrington, Wigan and St Helens, have merged their adoption services in order to save money while improving quality.

The problems result from the flawed way in which the current system is structured and operates. We therefore require a structural solution that tackles these systemic problems; a solution that incentivises and enables the recruitment of a far greater number of adoptive parents. Clause 3 provides for such a solution.

I have been accused of being rather unkind to the Minister in thinking that there might be some plans already as to how to do that. He said that this needs a structural solution to address a national problem and that Clause 3 of itself is that solution. In fact, Clause 3 of itself is not that solution. Clause 3 would pave the way for a solution but we do not yet know what that solution and change of policy might be, as the noble Lord said. Can the Minister indicate the kind of solution that Clause 3 would pave the way for so that we might have some indication of the Government's thinking?

Yes, I did say that Clause 3 provides for such a solution. It is not a solution in itself. As I said to the noble Baroness earlier this week, there is no dark plan and no end game. The fact is that the system is working poorly and erratically. There is good practice and there is clearly bad practice. Adopter recruitment could clearly be done more efficiently and on a greater scale, which may involve working more closely together. Of course, the sector may take time to develop and recognise that, which is why we have funded voluntary adoption agencies substantially in order to stimulate them. The power is necessary to stimulate change and I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for supporting the Government in having a power.

Turning to Amendments 14, 16 and 17, Clause 3 is not therefore intended to tackle cases of poor performance or service failure within individual local authorities. Our recruitment problem is not the result of individual failure and, if it was, the Secretary of State already has substantial powers to intervene. We therefore do not consider that the amendments, which would effectively use Clause 3 as an additional intervention power for a small number of local authorities, are necessary.

I am aware that the structural change proposed under Clause 3 would be substantial. I also acknowledge the view of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee concerning the delegation of a power of such scope. With respect to all the amendments, and with particular reference to Amendments 13 and 15, I would therefore like to reassure the Committee that I am keen to continue to listen to views as to how this power could best be used. In due course, the Government will then bring forward their own amendment which is likely to provide greater clarity about the process by which the power might be exercised.

When I write to Members of the Committee following this debate, I will provide a summary of the many steps that the Government have taken to support voluntary adoption agencies, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, requested. Briefly, we have invested £150 million in local authorities through the adoption reform grant and recently announced a £16 million boost package for voluntary adoption agencies which will help to recruit and approve more adopters. In terms of stimulating the system generally, as the Committee will know, we have introduced the national gateway. I therefore urge my noble friends Lady Hamwee, Lady Walmsley and Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes, Lady Jones and Lady O’Loan, not to press their amendments.

My Lords, it is quite distressing—in a Bill that, as noble Lords have said, by and large we welcome very much—to find oneself at the end of a debate even more worried than at the start of it. I do not say that flippantly. Of course I welcome the Government’s assurance that they will be looking to put forward an amendment to give greater clarity about the use of the power but, as others have said, that is only part of the story. I make clear to my noble friend that that was not a pun. A direction may be given, but we are not at all clear—I am certainly not—about what would be put in place if that direction was given. That is the very essence of the problem.

Clause 3, as has been said, is not the solution to the problem. If the Government are going to reach a decision in January about further action, I hope that the Minister will be able to share with the Committee what that action might be before we are legislatively committed to giving them an opportunity to take that action, whatever it is.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to concern about the cost of using voluntary agencies. That indeed seems to be an issue that is around, but it is one that I hope has been satisfied when discussions have been had about it. It may well be that it is a function of the way in which local authorities operate that one budget holder is concerned about an expenditure that at the moment is effectively being covered by another budget holder but, if you looked at the totality of it, you would see that it was cost-neutral.

Perhaps I can have a discussion with the noble and learned Baroness about her response to the amendment. I should know, but I do not, whether other powers of intervention that might be comparable with this require reasons to be given and involve a right of appeal. I am not immediately sure about judicial review—I know that the Government are actually trying to reduce the use of judicial review rather than increase it—or whether it would be appropriate. Its origins were more about process, although it has been used very imaginatively recently. I am not sure.

Generally, the points that have been made about transparency and a better understanding of what the Government have in mind are hugely important. None of us endorses poor practice or failures, but this is certainly something that we will have to return to on Report. For now, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Amendments 14 to 17 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Clause 4: Adoption support services: personal budgets

Amendment 18

Moved by

18: Clause 4, page 3, line 2, after “asked” insert “at any time”

My Lords, this is a small amendment but it concerns an important point. Clause 4 takes us to adoption support services and the proposal for personal budgets. It requires a local authority to prepare a personal budget if asked to do so by the recipient of adoption support. My amendment would simply say: if asked to do so “at any time”. That is because I wanted to put before the Committee the possibility that problems may arise at any time and may manifest themselves at any time—for instance, when a young person who has been adopted as a child reaches adolescence. There are Members of this Committee who are far better qualified than I am to describe this sort of circumstance. My drafting is not very good and I acknowledge that the clause as drafted does not limit the timeframe, but I wanted to raise the issue and to ask the Minister what reassurances he can give with regard to support being available for as long as it is needed.

While I am speaking, perhaps I could comment on Amendment 19, which either the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, or the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, is about to speak to, on the use of prescribed agencies. This amendment proposes regulations regarding agencies from which adoption support services can be purchased. I wondered whether that might be—while showing an understandable concern about quality, which I assume is what this is about—a bit too prescriptive. Personal budgets are about choice and personal responsibility and I was not very clear whether this actually fitted with the philosophy of personal budgets. I also wondered whether paragraph (i), which deals with the conditions that have to be complied with on direct payment, might not cover their concerns. Personal budgets are increasingly used in various areas of social care, but they are still developing as a way of working. It is also right to put on record that the Local Government Association is concerned that the clause is not commenced until findings from pilots are available. I beg to move.

My Lords, we have two amendments in this group, Amendments 19 and 270. Amendment 19 is about the principle of personal budgets. Endorsing the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we welcome the overall approach of making personal budgets available to empower families and adopted children. The idea of personal budgets has been common and has been extending in care packages for children with disabilities for some time. When properly funded and organised, they have the capacity to give families greater flexibility and reduce the administrative burden on local authorities, so we see their advantages.

Our amendment was attempting not to be too prescriptive but to widen the scope of the use of the budgets. I am happy to go away and make sure that we have the correct wording in that respect. We were concerned to ensure that barriers would not be placed by local authorities on how the budgets could be used. While agreeing that this is a positive proposal, we are seeking clarification in new Section 4A(4) as to where the services can be bought from. Many voluntary adoption agencies offer adoption support services to their own adoptive families and presumably to local authority services. Sensibly, Clause 4 would allow these services to be bought by local authority adopters or by voluntary agencies. As it stands, new Section 4A(4)(e) refers to,

“the description of adoption support services to which personal budgets … may (and may not) relate”.

While this indicates that no restriction is intended, it would be clearer and more reassuring if specific reference were made to the use of non-public sector agencies. Again, just for clarification, that is what we are intending to do—to extend the provision. We believe that that would provide greater flexibility and choice for adopters, which is exactly the point that is being made. We will be very happy to look again at the wording at later stages.

Of course, while the use of personal budgets is welcomed in a broader sense, it does not in itself address the lack of adequate available support, which can of itself lead to adoption delays. For example, TACT has been in contact, telling us that it knows of adopters who have delayed seeking a final adoption order as they are unhappy with the support that they will receive afterwards. While the child remains in the care system, they have access to services that are not available after adoption. Therefore, this remains a separate challenge that needs to be addressed.

I echo the point that the noble Baroness made about the pilots that are taking place in other areas of social care. We believe that it is important to take the time to evaluate the impact of the pilots and to see how those lessons can best be applied to adoption services. Therefore, while we have tabled our amendment as a point of principle—we want to offer more choice—we think that time needs to be taken to learn from the pilots. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that a decision on commencing these clauses will not be taken until the findings from the pilots are available and are able to inform the implementation.

We have also tabled Amendment 270, but it very much mirrors the amendment from the Government on this matter, which takes on board the concerns of the Delegated Powers Committee. I think that both amendments attempt to address that issue. We are satisfied that the government amendment achieves what was asked for on that occasion, so we support that amendment.

My Lords, before I respond to the important points that have been raised, I should like to explain government Amendment 20, which will ensure that the first set of regulations made in relation to personal budgets is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her welcome of this.

We tabled this amendment after listening carefully to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and we are very grateful to the committee for its consideration of this matter. It recommended that the affirmative procedure should be used the first time the power in Clause 4 is used. We agree, which is why we have tabled this amendment.

I take seriously the point made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about learning from the pilots. Indeed, these pilots will inform the way the regulations are drawn up.

I turn to Amendment 270, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones. I welcome the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, feels reassured by what we have put forward.

I should now like to speak to Amendment 18, tabled by my noble friends Lady Hamwee and Lady Walmsley. Local authorities are under a duty to carry out an assessment of a person’s needs for adoption support once it has been requested. A request for an assessment can be made at any time. I hope that that reassures my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

The right to a personal budget is a consequence of the local authority’s decision to provide a person with adoption support, following an assessment of need. Clause 4 as drafted therefore enables those persons being provided with adoption support to request a personal budget at any time after the local authority’s decision to provide support. My noble friend is right to point out that support might be needed at a later point, and this follows from that kind of procedure.

I turn to Amendment 19, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. We agree that voluntary adoption agencies play an important role in providing high-quality support to adoptive families. I clarify for the noble Baroness that the law is already clear about who can provide adoption support services. This will apply to personal budgets and to where adoptive parents will be able to purchase services from. These are adoption agencies and adoption support agencies. As the noble Baroness will know, an adoption agency is a local authority or a voluntary adoption agency. An individual can also provide adoption support services if they are under contract with a registered adoption support agency, an adoption agency, a local health board or a primary care trust. I hope that that reassures her in terms of quality.

The Adoption Support Fund announced on 11 September will help voluntary adoption agencies to provide more adoption support. This extra funding should give both local authorities and adopters a sense of security that these important services will be provided. It will also help the market to grow, enabling more voluntary adoption agencies to deliver these specialist interventions to some of our most vulnerable children, as my noble friend Lord Nash referred to just now. We will also be giving adoptive parents the choice to use their personal budget to secure support from the agencies that the law already allows to provide such services. I hope that that is reassuring to my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

In relation to amendments on adoption support, I therefore hope that noble Lords will accept the government amendment, and I am encouraged by indications thus far. I hope that my noble friend will be happy to withdraw her amendment.

My Lords, on the “at any time” amendment, the concern in my mind is that local authorities are bound to be increasingly reluctant as years go on to contemplate having to find funds to deal with a situation that has made itself manifest many years on from a placement. That is just a fact of human nature; I am not imputing any ill will. I wonder whether there might be a place to reinforce the point in the guidance, but I shall just leave that thought there.

On pilots, I appreciate that my noble friend has been involved in the Bill for about 24 hours, so I will leave this question with her as well, rather than expecting an answer. She said that pilots will inform the regulations, and it would be helpful to know whether the Government have any indicative timetable for publishing the regulations and commencing this scheme so that those who have made the point to us about the need to learn from the experience of pilots can be reassured that they will have the space to do so. I wonder whether I might ask her to come back to me following this debate. I see that she assents to that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 18 withdrawn.

Amendment 19 not moved.

Amendment 20

Moved by

20: Clause 4, page 3, line 44, at end insert—

“( ) On the occasion of the first exercise of the power to make regulations under this section—

(a) the statutory instrument containing the regulations is not to be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament, and(b) accordingly section 140(2) does not apply to the instrument.”

Amendment 20 agreed.

Clause 4, as amended, agreed.

Clause 5 agreed.

Clause 6: The Adoption and Children Act Register

Amendment 21

Moved by

21: Clause 6, page 4, line 27, leave out subsections (2) and (3)

My Lords, we have Amendments 21 and 24 in this group and I shall address them both. Amendment 21 arises from our continuing concern that children could be rushed into adoption prematurely. It echoes some of the concerns that we raised in the debate on Clause 1 relating to fostering for adoption and, in particular, the concern that a number of noble Lords expressed about what being considered for adoption means.

We are concerned that the government amendment to the Adoption and Children Act register would allow children to be added to the register before a formal decision was made about their future. That goes back to them being only “considered” for adoption. It is our view that if we are not careful this could add unnecessary stress and anxiety to the families and the children. As we said earlier, we are not necessarily dealing here with babies; we could be dealing with children and adolescents who may well know what is happening to them and that these actions are being taken on their behalf. They may be concerned and distressed if this is happening in a way that they consider to be premature. In other words, our amendment would require local authorities to be satisfied that it was the appropriate action to take and that they had the appropriate authority to do so by putting the children on the register. This would ensure that speed was not at the expense of the child’s interests.

I know that we all acknowledge the importance of stable and caring relationships, and we all understand that too many children are waiting too long in temporary care. They also develop significant parenting relationships with their temporary carers, only to be disrupted, sometimes after many months or years, when they are moved on or subject to a number of temporary placements. We understand the need for fast action where that is appropriate.

Where adoption is the proposed plan for the child, there are particular issues centring on the legal severance of the child from their birth family, which of course has major significance. It is a central principle of current law that only the court can authorise the action of a local authority to place a child for adoption without parental consent and that the local authority should not take any action that might anticipate the judgment of that court. This is to ensure that the welfare of the child remains central to decision-making, and part of the welfare considerations has to include the stability and care of that child.

We are concerned that the Government moving children on to the adoption register more quickly will be disruptive and cause stress, and might perhaps raise questions and concerns when the issue comes to court. Therefore, we seek that the Government reconsider this point. We do not doubt that reconciling the need of the child to be placed in a long-term caring environment in a timely way, with the issues raised in the court, can be challenging and complex. However, we are concerned to ensure that this is done in the proper order and in the proper way, and we do not believe that the Government’s proposals achieve that. Our aim is to provide the child with as much certainty and stability as possible amid the emotional upheaval that surrounds the whole process. We say that it is wrong to place children on the adoption register prematurely.

Amendment 24 deals with the Delegated Powers Committee. We briefly touched on this issue in our debate on the previous clause. On this occasion, the Government have not gone quite as far as the Delegated Powers Committee recommended. The committee took the view that it was not,

“appropriate to characterise the provisions made under section 128A as being operational, administrative or procedural”,

which is how the Government have described it. It continued:

“We believe it constitutes an important change to the operation of the Register in that it will allow access to personal and sensitive information which otherwise only adoption agencies have access to.”

The committee was concerned about the issues raised here. We believe that our amendment goes further and follows the proposals of the Delegated Powers Committee rather than what is proposed by the Government. I therefore hope that noble Lords will support Amendments 21 and 24.

My Lords, I will speak first to Amendment 21, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones. I understand their concerns and must make it clear that these fostering for adoption placements will be fostering placements, not adoptive placements. This clause seeks only to improve the likelihood of local authorities finding a potential fostering for adoption placement for children for whom such a placement has not been found locally. It will remain the case that a child cannot be placed for adoption without parental consent or a court making a placement order.

I reassure noble Lords that the details of children being considered for a fostering for adoption placement will be held in a separate section of the register. This is to ensure that their details can be seen only by the register staff, social workers and approved prospective adopters who have expressed a willingness to care for a child on a fostering for adoption basis. Noble Lords may recall that the 2002 Act provides for the register to assist with placing children for purposes other than adoption, as well as for adoption. The inclusion of children who are being considered for adoption in the register is one way in which this original design can be realised. I hope that the Committee will be reassured by our proposals and I therefore urge the noble Baronesses to withdraw their amendment.

On Amendment 24, which was also tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones, I can understand the desire to ensure that there is a parliamentary debate before the regulations are made enabling approved prospective adopters to search information on the register. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that regulations made under proposed Section 128A in Clause 6(4) should be subject to the affirmative procedure. The Government have listened to the concerns of noble Lords. We have responded to the recommendation from the committee by introducing government Amendment 22, so that the affirmative procedure is used to make regulations for the first use of the power. The safeguards relating to arrangements for approved prospective adopters to access the register are included in the first set of regulations that we intend to make, which I have published for your Lordships to consider. This means that under the Government’s proposal, noble Lords will have the opportunity to debate them in full.

The Government believe that any subsequent changes to these regulations should be subject to the negative resolution procedure because those changes should be minor in nature and will not represent significant reforms. The reforms that we are introducing are in fact an extension of arrangements already in place elsewhere in the adoption system. Approved prospective adopters are already able to access the details of children through hard copy and online publications such as Be My Parent, published by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, or Children Who Wait, published by Adoption UK. Professor Elaine Farmer’s investigation into family finding and matching identified that in 30% of cases, delay was associated with unwillingness to seek a family outside a local authority’s own group of approved prospective adopters. We believe that these improvements to the register, which allow approved prospective adopters to be actively engaged in the matching process, will lead to a greater number of matches being made more quickly, particularly for those children who may be harder to place. The register already generates around 10% of all matches nationally.

The DPRRC has today indicated that is not persuaded that restriction to the first set of regulations, where we are content to use the affirmative procedure, is sufficient. This is because the DPRRC considers that substantive changes may be required in the light of the pilots. We will consider this advice and return to the matter on Report. I therefore ask the noble Baronesses not to press their amendment.

Finally, I would like to return to Amendment 21. The Committee will be aware that we gave an undertaking to Parliament that we would introduce access to the register by approved prospective adopters on a piloted basis initially, to ensure that the process worked effectively in practice. This minor amendment will ensure that the regulations to be made piloting approved prospective adopters’ access can apply only to discrete areas. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the amendment is necessary and I urge the Committee to accept it.

I think I understood the Minister to say that the Government were taking the delegated powers point away to have another look at it, which I welcome. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about Amendment 21. We have common ground, in that we all want to speed up the process of adoption, but our concern is that if children are being placed on the register when no final decision has been made, for those children there may be a period of stress and unhappiness that premature decisions are being made on their behalf. I am not sure that the Minister really addressed that matter. It is about the psychology as much as the organisation of the register. We are keen to make sure that people know their rights, are clear that decisions are being made appropriately and at the right time and are being followed through in the right way. We may want to return to this matter and explore it in further detail. I want to have a look at what the Minister said in Hansard. For the moment, I am content to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 21 withdrawn.

Amendments 22 and 23

Moved by

22: Clause 6, page 5, line 9, at end insert—

“( ) On the occasion of the first exercise of the power to make regulations under this section—

(a) the statutory instrument containing the regulations is not to be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament, and(b) accordingly section 140(2) does not apply to the instrument.””

23: Clause 6, page 5, line 12, at end insert—

“( ) In section 140(7) (power for subordinate legislation to make different provision for different purposes) after “purposes” insert “or areas”.”

Amendments 22 and 23 agreed.

Amendment 24 not moved.

Clause 6, as amended, agreed.

Amendment 25

Moved by

25: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—

“Pre-commencement adoptions

(1) Section 98 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (pre-commencement adoptions: information) is amended as follows.

(2) For paragraph (a) of subsection (1) substitute—

“(a) assisting—(i) persons adopted before the appointed day,(ii) the descendants of persons adopted before the appointed day,who have attained the age of 18 to obtain information in relation to the adoption of the adopted person,”.”

I am sorry that we are coming to this amendment late on the first day. I understand that we started at 3.45 pm and intend to finish not before 7.45 pm. I am sorry, but not so sorry that I will cut down very drastically what I want to say because this is the moment to say it.

The amendment would introduce a new clause and I am grateful to be noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, for adding their names to it. The issue of information available or not available to the descendants of adopted persons was a matter brought to the attention of the adoption legislation Select Committee. We recommended that the Government amend legislation in order to bring direct descendants of adopted persons within the scope of the provisions that allow access to information or, more accurately, to intermediary services related to seeking information about the adoption.

Those who are entitled to seek information cannot simply go straight to the records without advice about the possible implications and the impact of their having information. They are required—and there are regulations dealing with this—to seek the services of an intermediary agency. Quite a lot of people can seek intermediaries’ services—a lot of relatives, but not necessarily those who are close to the adopted person. The birth mother’s half-sister and her husband can seek information and so can the birth mother’s stepfather and the birth father’s wife, when that wife is not the birth mother, but not an adopted person’s child.

The noble and learned Baroness and I first became aware of this from the situation of a lady in her 60s who discovered that her father had been adopted. She discovered this after his death when she found his birth certificate. She realised that it gave no details of his parents or the place of his birth, saying only “England”—a so-called amended certificate. Her reaction was to sympathise with him, as he had probably found out that he was adopted very late in his life, but she also felt annoyed and cheated,

“as if my relationship with him had been a lie”.

She said:

“Why hadn’t he told me? Why hadn’t he told my mother? She’d been married to a man for 50 years she hadn’t really known. I felt I owed it to her to find out”.

This lady started a very energetic search, all of which led to dead ends. She made an application to the court that the Registrar-General should disclose the information. The judge was very sympathetic—I have read the judgment—but, because of how the law stands, was unable to grant the application. She started a support group.

I have warned the Bill team that the Minister’s answer to this amendment is going to be considered very keenly by a lot of people outside this House who are affected by this situation—far more people than I think anybody had expected when this issue started to raise its head. I am obviously not going to give the Committee all the examples that I could of how people are affected but I shall mention one which came to me yesterday.

It concerns a social worker working with a man in his early 30s who has no birth information in relation to his father. His father died unexpectedly a few years ago aged only 48. He had started the process of looking into his adoption but died before he was able to access any information, and his stepmother had cleared out all the paperwork. I am told that in the light of the father’s unexpected death, this young man would like to continue the search on his father’s behalf, and he would also like to access any medical information. Of course, there are a lot of reasons why someone might want to have information. It is not just that adoption has become much more transparent over fairly recent years—it used to be a case of “leave well alone”. It is understood not just that there are practical or medical reasons but that the understanding of one’s relationship with one’s parent is very important. Family dynamics are important, and it is important to be able to pass on a proper family history to one’s children. We talked about identity earlier this afternoon; this is an issue of identity as well.

BAAF, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, is very supportive of a change. The social worker who supported the lady to whom I have referred, who made an application to the court and gave evidence herself, said:

“Descendants can benefit a great deal from accessing information about their genetic origins. It can help people feel more connected and rooted, and provide a sense of belonging, helping bridge the past, present and future. It can help them understand why they have certain physical attributes and particular skills and abilities. It can also help people understand some of the adversities they have faced in life, for example, if someone suffered from depression and learned that their great grandfather committed suicide”.

The change that the amendment proposes is supported by many agencies, including major ones such as Coram, Barnardo’s and the Salvation Army. In 2010, BAAF asked the Law Commission how various aspects of adoption information—and this was one of them—might be considered by the commission. I understand that the commission saw it as a worthwhile project but lacked the resources to undertake the work.

I asked a Written Question earlier this year and the Answer from the Minister was that he understands why descendants of adopted people want to find out about their relatives’ history, but that there is a need to balance this against the rights and wishes of adopted adults and the adults’ birth family. It is a complex and sensitive issue which needs careful consideration before any change in legislation is considered. Let me emphasise again that I am not seeking direct access to information; I am seeking access to intermediary services, which will be provided on a case-by-case basis.

Before today’s debate, I sent the Minister and other noble Lords a question and answer sheet provided by BAAF, which I will not attempt to read into the record. However, I asked him to tell the Committee of any points that they have made with which the Government disagree. I suspect that one of those may be the numbers who will be involved. The Government at one stage estimated as many as 2 million people. BAAF has set out the calculation it has made, which falls far short of that figure. I would be grateful, therefore, if the Minister could tell the Committee whether the Government have an authoritative basis for the numbers that might be involved or a best guess. I accept that this is a question of cost, although the applicants will bear the cost by paying for the services.

Just as the Minister responded to me, in response to the Select Committee the Government referred to the sensitivities involved. It would be helpful if the Minister could spell these out and, in particular, how they differ from those already managed by the intermediary agencies providing intermediary services.

Finally, the Government have referred to the possibility of the Law Commission including the issue in its next programme of law reform. Reference to the Law Commission would not be unwelcome but, however sympathetic it may be, am I right in thinking that the Government cannot guarantee that the Law Commission will take on this work? I am sorry to have taken up the Committee’s time late in the day, but I think it was important to spell out a good deal of what lies behind this amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, I put my name to this amendment. In paragraph 274 of our post-legislative scrutiny committee we said:

“We believe that the exclusion of descendants of adopted persons from the definition of relatives in section 98 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 creates an unfair anomaly in the legislation. This can be a cause of significant distress”.

Indeed, we had evidence to that effect. We continued:

“We recommend that the Government amend section 98 of the Act to bring within its scope the direct descendants of adopted persons. The Adoption Information and Intermediary Services (Pre-Commencement Adoptions) Regulations 2005 should be amended accordingly”.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has already said, there are a number of people in respect of whom this small but important amendment really matters. It came to my attention through a friend of mine who is a lawyer—he is actually present in this Room. He wrote to me including the letter from the lady to whom the noble Baroness has referred. There are others out there; it may be that there will be a number of people who will benefit from this, and we know there are. There may be cost implications, except that they will be likely to pay so it would be their cost.

Perhaps more importantly, this is an anomaly. Other people out there who are related to those who are adopted, and to birth parents and so on, have the right to this information. The issue is not whether it is sensitive or whether people should know. It is why so many groups should be allowed to find out and this group not be allowed to find out. The amendment cuts through this sensitivity and complexity. There is actually no complexity; it is an anomaly which requires to be put right. For the Government to hide behind reasons of sensitivity and complexity when all the information is there anyway for everybody else seems at the very least disingenuous. I strongly support the amendment.

My Lords, I think that most of the points have been made, but I want to go back to the days when some of us were engaged in the 2002 legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, will remember that when we were trying to get some of these provisions through, this cohort of people were among those who had not been prepared in the same way as those who have been prepared thereafter. However, the world has changed significantly since 2002, particularly in relation to health information, as both my colleagues have pointed out. It is a human right for an individual to know about their genealogy and therefore to be able to trace issues relating to health. This will be particularly true of girls and breast cancer, when different kinds of medical intervention will be available. Although I understand the sensitivities, we are not asking for access for absolutely everybody, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out; we are asking for an intermediary. When that route is not taken, individuals attempt to find out by other ways. I have a story of a man turning up at the gate of his birth father—a very eminent man—and saying, “I am your son”, having found out by other ways, and being told, “You may be, but I don’t want to know you”. One can see how an intermediary could have made a real difference to that relationship and the hurt that can come from that kind of situation.

This anomaly needs to be put right. It is absurd that everyone else can find out except the descendants—so you can go and get someone else to do it for you. It just needs ironing out, and the arguments that I have heard so far have passed.

I thank my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, for bringing this important matter to the Government’s attention, both earlier this year through the report of the Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation and through this proposed clause.

I entirely understand why the descendants of adopted people may want to find out more about their biological heritage, particularly where there may be a hereditary medical condition. The Government are open to the possibility of reform in this area, but we believe that more detailed thought is needed about the implications and practicalities of any legislative change. For example, we must think carefully about how more information might be provided to descendants, and we need to balance this against the rights and wishes of the adopted adults themselves and their birth families.

This is a complex and sensitive area which needs careful consideration before any change to legislation is considered. That is why the Government are exploring with the Law Commission whether this issue might be included within a possible project as part of the commission’s 12th programme of law reform.

The amendment would enable descendants of an adopted person to find out about the adopted person’s background. It applies to those adopted before commencement of the 2002 Act. Such adoptions were carried out privately and secretly, with very little information shared with the adopted child or his or her birth parents. If a mother, who may never have told anyone about an adoption, was approached out of the blue by her son asking about his adoption, that could have a devastating effect on the individual and the whole family.

We fully appreciate the wishes of descendents and there will be examples—

I apologise to the Minister. Under this proposal, there is no suggestion that there should be any direct relationship between the person seeking the information and the person who has been adopted. It would be done through an intermediary, which is the whole purpose. I urge the Minister not to go down that line because that is not what we are asking for.

I assure the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that we are not seeking to be disingenuous about this and we do regard the issues as complicated. My noble friend Lady Hamwee asked what evidence the Government have to suggest that if we make this provision it could open the floodgates or that the new clause would lead to unwelcome contact. The answer is that we do not have any evidence, which is why we would like the Law Commission to consider it and are prepared to provide funds. I hope that I have provided sufficient reassurance on the amendment and I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

My Lords, perhaps I may reinforce, if it is necessary because I think that it will be clear enough in Hansard, the point made by the noble and learned Baroness. The Minister’s scenario is exactly that which we are seeking to avoid with this amendment. I am sorry that the Minister has not been able to explain the points about sensitivity and complexity on which the Government are relying. He has told the Committee that the Government will give the issue more detailed thought. I think I have got it right that the Government will consider how detailed information should be made available to the descendant of an adopted person. I do not believe that it is for the Government to think and advise how information should be made available to that person. Quite rightly, in 2002, the Government set up the structure of involving an intermediary.

Of course, I cannot press the matter to a vote tonight because we do not do that in Grand Committee. It would be remiss of me not to ask the Minister if it might be possible for me to meet him following this stage to reinforce and perhaps explain better than I was able to do in what I appreciate might have been a rather rushed introduction. Perhaps we may meet before Report to see if there is a way in which we can work with him to be as persuasive as possible to the Law Commission, if that is the way it is to go, that it should take on this work. I do not know what private as distinct from public communications there may be with the Law Commission. I certainly would not ask the Minister to say so tonight, but it is morally and practically wrong not to sort out what the noble and learned Baroness so rightly describes as an anomaly.

I should be delighted to meet the noble Baroness. It seems to me that there is a clear misunderstanding and it is essential that I meet her.

Amendment 25 withdrawn.

This may be a convenient moment to adjourn the Committee and to suggest that we meet again on Monday 14 October at 3.30 pm.

Committee adjourned at 7.39 pm.