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Looked-after and Adopted Children

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review support for children looked after by local authorities and those children who are adopted.

My Lords, we are committed to undertake a review of the care system. We are already implementing substantial reforms to improve outcomes for this most vulnerable group of children and young people. Alongside the reforms, we are providing councils with an additional £1 billion for adult and children’s social care in every year of this Parliament. The review will allow us to go further in ensuring that children and young people have the support that they need.

My Lords, I am grateful that this much-needed review has been announced and I trust there will soon be details of a specific timetable, not only for the review but for its implementation. In the meantime, what are the Government doing to ensure that 16 and 17 year-olds vulnerable to county lines exploitation are always housed in safe, stable and appropriate accommodation? Are the Government confident that councils have appropriate resources?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right that an increasing number of older children are going into care, and their preference is often to go into less-regulated accommodation. County lines is a phenomenon that has arisen over the last five years and we are now acting strongly to deal with it. In October we announced £20 million of targeted investment to increase our efforts against county lines, and £5 million of that is already in operational use.

My Lords, almost three-quarters of children in care live with a foster family. Those families are the unsung heroes of the system, providing a vital service at minimal cost while saving the Treasury countless millions, something that the Minister might care to acknowledge. Ofsted recently reported that 60% of children in children’s homes are placed there from outwith their local authority area, and research by the Children’s Society highlighted the fact that children in out-of-area homes are much more likely to go missing from care. Surely the interests of the child should be at the centre of all decision-making when it comes to placements, but that seems to be lacking. Can the Minister offer an assurance that when the review to which he has referred takes place, it will take an in-depth look at placement policy?

The noble Lord is right that 73% of children in care are with foster families and that such families are indeed heroes of the system; in most cases they provide stable, loving homes. We have also learned that the longer a child spends in one home in continuity, the better his or her life chances are in future. We are concerned about children being placed out of area, but there are often legitimate reasons for it, such as taking a child out of exposure to a local gang or a difficult family environment that he or she needs space from.

How far have the Government got with their plans to enable more looked-after children suited to a boarding education to gain places in our excellent state and independent boarding schools?

My Lords, this has been a particular passion of mine. We have created a unit called Boarding School Partnerships, which is encouraging local authorities to engage far more with boarding schools. We even have an offer by many of the independent schools of a 40% bursary for looked-after children. A study recently carried out by Norfolk showed the longitudinal outcomes of looked-after children or children on the edge of care, and they achieved far greater educational results and indeed often came off the register completely.

My Lords, as the Minister said, these are the most vulnerable children in our community. They are four times more likely to develop mental health conditions. Surely it is not acceptable that 65% of all looked-after children receive support within local authorities whose services are deemed to fall short of what is expected. Can we have a clear statement from the Minister that this will be tolerated no more?

My Lords, we certainly do not tolerate the failure of children’s services and local authorities. We have made a great deal of progress over the last five or six years. For example, Birmingham was a failing children’s services institution for 10 years but is now out of that. Likewise Doncaster, where we created a trust, is now greatly improved.

My Lords, as a former family judge, I am well aware of the very considerable problems that many adopted children and their families have in settling together. What will the Government do to help adoptive families and adopted children when there are mental health and other serious issues?

My Lords, we have created a large number of initiatives over the last few years. For example, the adoption support fund has provided £136 million since 2015 and has helped some 50,000 families. We have also committed a further £45 million in 2021 to provide therapeutic support for adoptive and eligible special guardian families through the same fund. The regional adoption agencies, through which over 70% of local authorities deliver their adoption services, are creating a system through which children are matched with adopters as quickly as possible and with the matches that are best suited.

The noble Lord did not address the last part of the question from the right reverend Prelate about the adequacy of resources for local authorities to fulfil their duties. Will he answer that part of the question, please?

My Lords, as I mentioned, we have provided interventions when local authorities have failed, and have seen 47 local authorities improve in their Ofsted inspections over the last five years and not revert downwards.

Could my noble friend outline the Government’s plans to increase the number of adoptive and foster families that are prepared to take disabled children, both under and over the age of four?

My noble friend is right that children with any kind of mental or physical disability are harder to place. The key is to try to get these young children placed as early as possible. Our scorecard will be published shortly, which shows the progress that local authorities are making across the country.

My Lords, I declare an interest. Margaret and I adopted a brother and sister; Davina was three and George was eight. Their long-term stay with us depended on a wonderful social worker by the name of Ruth. She visited regularly and was able to talk to our two children and the adopted children. Davina is now 33 and George is 38. They both have good jobs and are working very well. The key is really an increase in the number of social workers who can work closely with adoptive and foster families. However, I have not seen this. If we really want to care for young children who have been fostered or adopted, we need to increase the number of sensitive, able and capable social workers. Without them, relationships tend to go wrong.

My Lords, it is certainly true that we have a huge demand for good social workers. This is also about establishing that as a profession and giving it a higher profile, which we have done over the last few years. We are also using interventions such as the Early Intervention Foundation, a charity established in 2013, to champion and support the use of effective early intervention. We funded this foundation, giving it some £2 million in 2018-20 to assess, evaluate and disseminate evidence. I entirely accept that good social workers are crucial.