Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I thank the usual channels and Cross-Bench colleagues for allowing me and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, to have a third bite of the cherry with our debates, having fallen foul of the non-Prorogation and the general election. I declare my interests as a governor of Coram and as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adoption and Permanence, whose report we are discussing this afternoon.
The adoption support fund, usually abbreviated to the ASF, was introduced in England in May 2015, championed by the then Minister for Children, Edward Timpson—happily re-elected to the House of Commons in December. His personal experience informed his belief in what the fund could achieve. He was brought up in a family with two adopted siblings and his extraordinary parents fostered an additional 90 children. Edward grew up with a deep understanding of trauma because he saw it unfolding all around him. The fund was specifically designed to find alternative and creative—I emphasise that—ways to enable families to deal with the effects of trauma on the behaviour and well-being of adopted children. It was set up with a five-year term, due to end this year.
As our report says, the fund has been, and is, a great success. I congratulate the Government and the Department for Education on making such a positive difference to families and children who were at, or near, breaking point. The Government have invested over £150 million, providing therapeutic support for more than 38,000 families. Since the cost of each child in the care of the state is around £34,000 per annum, one can do the maths: £1.3 billion for children in care, as opposed to eight and a half times less when children benefit from the therapies provided by the adoption support fund. How cost effective is that?
I was fortunate to be present at Coram for the launch of National Adoption Week last October, when the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson—whom I see has retained his job—announced the extension of the fund to 2021, while also revealing his own personal commitment, having grown up in a family with a foster sibling,
So, the Government have a success on their hands. They have extended the fund for a further year and the department has been resolutely consistent in saying no more than that its future will be considered in the upcoming spending review. I shall try to articulate the case for its long-term continuation and measured expansion, and suggest how it can be even more successful in helping to mitigate the effects of trauma, and in so doing transform and improve the lives of adoptees and their families, saving the state a huge amount of money. To borrow from the words of Mark Antony: I come here to praise the Department for Education, not to bury it.
There are six key recommendations in the report. I assume that the department has studied these carefully so I shall not bore the Minister or the House by repeating them in detail. Instead, I will flag up some specific points for the Minister and the department. The first is prevention versus cure, or how to prevent trauma happening in the first place. Harriet Ward was one of the authors of the 2012 book, Safeguarding Babies and Very Young Children from Abuse and Neglect, which detailed the results from following the lives of a sample group of children at risk from birth to three years old. Of that sample, 66% were identified as being at risk before they had even been born. Of the two-thirds of the sample still with their families at age three, 43% were judged to be at significant risk of harm from their own parents. By age three, 50% of the children in this study displayed serious behavioural problems or developmental delay.
This is partly where trauma starts. I urge the Department for Education and the Department of Health to assess and potentially extend initiatives such as the Oxford Parents Under Pressure pathway, the London and Glasgow Infant and Family Team and the Norfolk Parent-Infant Mental Health Attachment Project, and to build the learnings from these into discussions during the spending review about how to present and/or mitigate the onset of trauma.
Secondly, it is time to reassess the target audience. Initially the fund focused on adoptive families, which subsequently extended to special guardianship families. A third group is kinship carers. One size does not fit all, but I urge the Government to develop their understanding of the needs of each group and to target those specific needs as much as possible. This could be achieved partly by providing more effective publicity and information about the availability of the fund, but one might consider renaming the fund so that it can reflect better its target audiences.
Thirdly, it would be good to understand the consequences of the fund’s success. It was designed to find alternative and creative ways of enabling adoptive families to deal with trauma, and its success has, in effect, created a substitute mental health service without normal governance and scrutiny. An unintended consequence is that some NHS child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—use the existence of the fund as a means of excluding adoptees from accessing those services. Can the department, with the Department of Health, please consider the best means of co-ordinating and clarifying services, so that children do not unintentionally suffer?
Fourthly, how do we ensure adequate and appropriate clinical input? How can we resource and embed this better to enable optimal evaluation of need and effective delivery of services? Can the department study best-practice organisations such as the Birmingham Children’s Trust, ably led by Andrew Christie, the chair of the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board? The trust provides a comprehensive and holistic process which analyses need, develops an individual plan for each client and then acts as the advocate for the family in its interactions with the fund.
Please could the department consider hiring and embedding in-house clinical experts within its own ASF team? Please could the department specify a requirement for Mott MacDonald, which does an excellent job of administering the fund on its behalf, to hire and embed clinical expertise within its application processing teams? Please consider recommending that every local authority should have a qualified, designated trauma lead who colleagues can refer to for advice.
Please review why voluntary adoption agencies are unable to apply to the fund directly, or at least consider the practical solution of allowing social workers to delegate applications to those agencies but with the final sign-off remaining with the designated social worker. The current lack of sufficient clinical experts to help social workers evaluate applications is placing an unfair and unreasonable burden on them. They are not clinical experts, so give them access to the real experts to ensure the children and young people get the appropriate assessment and therapeutic help.
Fourthly, how could we future-proof the fund? The fund was always intended to tap into, and to help stimulate, a market in therapeutic support outside the clinical mental health suite of services. As the fund has grown and broadened, assessing and focusing on what works best and what is worth experimenting with has become more challenging. The fund is currently assisted by the aforementioned Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board and by the DfE, local authority and regional adoption authority user group.
Please could the department consider creating a specialist ASF advisory board which would be able to assess, advise and recommend on improvements and adjustments to the fund in real time? This could include creating a formal evaluation process for measuring effectiveness.
The organisations that provide and develop the therapies that the fund enables children and their families and guardians to access crave the degree of certainty that will encourage them to invest, innovate and expand. This can come only from confidence that the fund has long-term support.
The Minister will be pleased that I am the end of my wish list of questions. I thank Edward Timpson and his DfE team at the time of the fund’s launch for having had the courage and insight to create the fund. I thank Rachael Maskell, the chair of the APPG, for her passion, humanity and gentle but effective leadership; and give a big thank you to the team which supports the group and makes our work possible.
Above all, I thank the individuals and organisations which gave evidence to our inquiry. We received 1,600 responses, hearing from 247 children and young people, 1,212 parents and guardians, 115 therapists and 74 social workers. We are particularly grateful that the Department for Education participated in the inquiry and it was extremely helpful to hear directly from Christina Bankes, the deputy director of children in care and permanence.
Finally, I thank those who will speak in this afternoon’s debate. We are speaking on behalf of children and young people who have had, through absolutely no fault of their own, early life experiences which can blight their lives and the lives of those who love and care for them. Please listen to their voices and to their heartfelt thanks for what the fund is achieving. They are unanimous in asking for its continuation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Russell, has obtained this debate and has set it out so admirably. I shall not repeat his well-made points and so I shall speak briefly. I am also grateful to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence for its persistence in supporting families and children involved in the adoption process.
Adoption procedures have improved greatly over many years. Adoption agencies have contributed to the dialogue and to the action on it. The adoption support fund, ASF, introduced in May 2015, was a welcome and important development.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, the all-party group is calling for a commitment from the Government to put the ASF on a longer-term basis until 2030. It also calls for more support for local authorities in taking on the administrative burden placed on them by the ASF.
Adoption has been on the agenda in your Lordships’ House and in Parliament generally for many years. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who cannot be here today, has wisely led many initiatives, drawing on a lot of experience of our systems of adoption care for children. I want to recall something she said on 16 May 2013 on a Motion to Take Note of the report of the Adoption Legislation Committee that she chaired. She said that
“we had very much in mind the right of the child to be brought up in his or her birth family, whenever possible, and the right of … children to respect for their family life … sadly, not all children are able to remain with their birth families. The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.”—[Official Report, 16/5/13; col. 594.]
So it is, of course. The noble and learned Baroness had written earlier of the importance of post-adoption support to families. She wrote, very tellingly, that the committee realised that implementing the recommendations
“will take time, commitment and money”.
She went on to say that that money was well spent in providing children with loving, caring homes and keeping them safe by means of adoption. How true, and how much worse the situation would be for children being cared for without structures and funding to enable them to thrive. That is what this debate will emphasise.
The Children and Families Act 2014 was thoroughly debated in your Lordships’ House. It covered a number of issues related to vulnerable children, including adoption and children in care. It put the best interests of children at the heart of decision-making. I repeat that that does not come cheap, but it is vital if we are to support children who may be in serious trouble and who may cause serious trouble without intervention, such as the ASF. This House has always been supportive of doing the best for children, and that tradition is carried on in today’s debate.
I am pleased to see that children were consulted in the APPG report. The messages from children in the report are moving and powerful, such as that the fund
“has helped me in tough situations”,
“I learned to calm my body down”
“I don’t know where I would have been today without it. The fund has helped me stop doing drugs, being violent, feeling suicidal and self-harming.”
I hope that such comments and the report will convince the Government that the ASF is essential to support adoptive children and families. I go back to the regular plea to the Government from so many of us: to spend money on early intervention rather than waiting for problems to build up and possibly become out of control. Not only is it humane to provide such early intervention, it also saves a great deal of money in the long run in relation to anti-social behaviour, educational achievement and health outcomes. Some 79% of parents have said that the ASF is meeting a need not found anywhere else.
I want to turn briefly to the evaluation of the ASF in 2019. I found it very interesting. First, it recorded that the fund has clearly been a positive force in relation to child development, including behaviour, family functioning and the well-being of adoptive parents. Parental comments in the evaluation are significant and indicate a need for more therapeutic support; respite support; more flexibility in the scope of the fund, such as links with education; and improvements in the response of social workers and the fair access limit, which makes some types of support unavailable. Do we have up-to-date figures on uptake of the fund, and by whom? Are there geographical differences? Is take-up more prevalent in certain parts of the country than others? If so, why? Are there socio- economic differences? Are some people—special guardians, for example—missing out? I am aware that the fund is available only where the child was looked after immediately prior to the special guardianship order.
I want to give a specific example. I became aware of the needs of grandparents who care for children some years ago when I was involved in a drugs organisation. I learned that grandparents may take over looking after children when the parents cannot cope, are in prison or dead. Grandparents may become special guardians. The need for support for grandparents in these circumstances is enormous. Some are looking after more than one grandchild, and grandparents are ageing. Many do not take up special guardianship. Many find the bureaucracy of filling in forms, applying for support and seeking help daunting. A grandmother once said to me: “I should be reading to my grandson rather than spending hours filling in forms.” Kinship care is often very successful, with good outcomes, but many such carers feel overwhelmed by administrative detail and form-filling.
Are local authorities given the means to make adoptive parents aware of the ASF, and to support them? Who else promotes awareness and supports applications? I repeat my question to the Minister: what detail do we have on the take-up of the ASF? Is this an area to look at and improve on? If he cannot provide an answer today, maybe he could write to me and others speaking in this debate.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss the adoption support fund. I hope that our concerns will be noted by the Government, and that the good work of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and his colleagues in the APPG for Adoption and Permanence is appreciated. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I add my congratulations and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for securing this debate. I declare an interest: mine is one of the 50,000 or so families who have received support from the adoption support fund. I am immensely grateful for that support. It came at a very difficult time after the death of my wife, my children’s adoptive mother, six years ago, when they were very young. It was invaluable. That is the most important thing I have to say this afternoon. It is a privilege to be able to speak from first-hand experience as an adoptive parent and as someone who has benefited immeasurably from the ASF. I am no longer in receipt of the fund but I offer my heartfelt thanks—to the Government for this excellent initiative, to the all-party parliamentary group for its excellent report and to Home for Good, the wonderful charity involved in compiling that report. I add my voice to those asking for the ASF to be continued after the spending review so that others are able to access the crucial help that it gave us.
Being an adoptive parent has brought me untold joy, but the great demands of being such a parent need to be recognised and appropriate support given. My children are not among the three-quarters of adopted children who, according to the Department for Education, have been removed from their birth families because of abuse and neglect. That heartbreaking statistic brings home how vital it is fully to comprehend the necessity for support of the sort we are discussing. That said, it is also crucial to be aware that all adoptive children will face challenges as a result of what adoption specialists term “the primal wound”—being separated from someone to whom they have been attached, not just psychologically but physiologically in the womb.
It is not surprising, therefore, that adopted children and young people are statistically more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and to need mental health support; the complications that some adopted children face at school and at home are very great. We should note that—as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, intimated—any such support will enable considerable long-term savings for the Government in the future by reducing the child’s likelihood of exclusion and engagement with the police.
Feedback from parents and children who have accessed the scheme, like me, has been overwhelmingly positive. According to the Adoption Barometer survey, 94% of those who received support from the fund are likely to apply again in the future, with four out of five parents who accessed it saying that it had a significant positive impact on their child and family situation. Such positive feedback makes it clear that for many parents the fund is a vital service. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, noted, the charity Investing in Families reported that 79% of parents state that the fund is
“meeting a need which cannot be met elsewhere”.
Mental health and family support should be easily accessible to all children and parents, but in this case the vulnerability of the children in question means that the fund is a vital source of support, not only for the health, happiness and well-being of the child but for the parents, many of whom are unprepared for the realities of the complexity that often surrounds the adoption of a child. Many parents go into adoption full of good will but without the skills or training to support their child, and may have only basic knowledge of their child’s background or psychological history.
The ASF not only equips children with the tools to help to look after their own mental health and process their past but equips parents will the skills and confidence needed to support their child. As a mental health practitioner in East Sussex explained, nearly all the parents they came into contact with
“underestimated just how demanding some of these children’s needs were and found themselves at a complete loss on how to parent such challenging behaviour.”
However, the practitioner went on to say:
“Once the family receive therapeutic services it opens up all kinds of opportunities for them. In addition, family life can slowly return to some ‘normality’ once adoptive parents have the skills, knowledge and support for their child.”
The adoption support fund has been found in multiple surveys to prevent or reduce the risk of adoption breakdown. It hardly needs to be said that such breakdown is devastating for everyone involved, particularly the children.
As one might expect, and as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, observed, there is room for improvement in the operation of the fund. Most significant is the impact of long waiting lists, coupled with a general lack of knowledge of its existence. However, it has been working well. In anticipation of this debate, I was in touch with a very experienced and well-respected clinical psychologist in Worcestershire, Dr Kim Golding, who has been working with and supporting families of looked-after and adopted children for over 30 years. She is an expert in the sort of therapy that we received, dyadic development therapy, an excellent and effective intervention. She states that she has witnessed at first hand
“how this fund has helped these families get the support that they need.”
Dr Golding stresses the importance of understanding the needs of adoptive families, not just the children in question. When many think of adoption, they envision a fairytale ending to a story. The reality is of course very different. As she observes:
“Adopting a child from care means adopting a child who comes with a history of trauma, separation and loss of birth family. The impact of this experience is felt by the child and all family members. This can make the parenting of this child extremely challenging. Ordinary parenting does not come near to meeting the complex needs of a child who is grieving the loss of previous parents (birth and foster parents); who has learnt not to trust in the parenting that they are now receiving and who anticipates that they are going to lose this too, often with a sense of identity formed around them being a bad kid who somehow deserved what has happened to them. This can lead to a range of challenging behaviours”
and vulnerabilities. Dr Golding stresses the need for “wraparound support”, where packages of intervention are focused on, rather than single instances of therapy or counselling. The nuanced history of many children in care and adoption means that there are no easy fixes. She says:
“Interventions are needed in a timely manner and for as long as needed”,
and should involve a range of teams and specialists working in collaboration to create and implement a package of interventions for families. She states:
“The impact of trauma does not resolve quickly, and it can reassert itself at critical developmental stages throughout a child and adult’s life.”
This longer-term intervention should be supported and recognised as vital.
Additionally, as I have intimated, Dr Golding says:
“Such therapy will only be helpful if the support needs of the whole family are also met. Therapy and support is needed for the whole family and not just the child.”
As a judge observed at the time of our first adoption, conception is often a biological accident but adoption is always an act of love. That act of love is undertaken by adoptive parents for the child on behalf of all society. They deserve the support of all society as they live it out.
My Lords, I have a similar interest to that of the right reverend Prelate to declare. I am blessed to be the father of an adopted and wholly remarkable young girl, who brings us huge joy. Like the right reverend Prelate, at least in respect of one aspect of her care, we have benefited from the fund’s existence. I know exactly what he is talking about. I also declare an interest as a member of the all-party group and of various self-organised adoption groups—the sort of groups that most adoptive parents find themselves in at one time or another.
I spent some years involved with and learning about adoption. I found that there is always something completely new to learn. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Russell of Liverpool for his outstanding leadership at Coram and for his ability to marshal and explain data that appears obscure to many people but is handled by him with a great deal of elegance and directness, which I value enormously. Although he cannot be here today, I also thank my noble friend Lord Listowel—he has also been a great force in this type of discussion or discussions about children in general—and I thank the other members of the all-party group. They are colleagues of great knowledge and commitment; I am honoured to be associated with them, as I am honoured to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester’s fine contribution.
If noble Lords will bear with me, for the next minute or so I want to try to describe why some of the things that happen feel so difficult. About 20 years ago, I chaired a national inquiry into housing benefit. I recall that inquiry today because, in it, we took evidence on the administration of housing benefit from more than 400 local authorities, from recipients and from those in the voluntary sector. Almost all of the local authorities had developed their own procedures. What they did was completely unintelligible—as unintelligible to them as it was to me. They had managed to wrap it in completely unintelligible language as well. Some of it was mysteriously linked to the procedures in other local authority departments with which they in housing benefit had never spoken—even when we found that their offices were next door to one another. Those other departments, which administered things such as free school meals or whatever, also spoke in equally mysterious codes and had equally labyrinthine processes.
I mention all this because, with the housing benefit, nobody—including its Minister—understood what was intended for some of the most deprived and struggling of their fellow citizens. Benefit recipients and authorities —everyone on both sides of the process—described their experience as like wandering in a strange land through a pea-soup fog. So I asked the inquiry to start again. It would assume the role of an out-of-work single mum of an adopted child in Easterhouse in Glasgow. Who and why on earth would anyone make her life more difficult and more uncertain? The inquiry would do its job in my view only if it could set out the value of housing benefit and the problems that it was supposed to address, so that we and that theoretical mum could understand it at the end of the process. Of course, we failed, but it was worth trying.
Adoption has many of the same characteristics. All the data speak to educational and developmental problems which we need to address. It will not be easy; the issues of attachment are complex. The desperately poor start in life that some children have because of drinking, addiction and instability on the part of their birth parents has already been described—fortunately, I have not experienced it. Those parents were never chosen by the child, but it is in their shadow that the child then lives. The overlapping conditions, the spectrums, can be punishing for any child and confusing for their adoptive parents and schools.
The multiple interventions for someone whom we really can help far better reminds me of that housing benefit experience. The harder your life is, the higher the hurdles we seem to erect for them to clamber over. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, wisely mentioned evidence from children given to the all-party group. They were able to explain their challenges and their appreciation of the adoption support fund. The higher the hurdles, the less resilience and sense of agency we provide for a child. Where we need scaffolding, we run the risk of far too little of it—far too little support for both the kids and their adults at home or in school. Parents and schools need systematic and coherent guidance; otherwise, it is simply too hard, too bewildering and too dispiriting. You want to do better for the child, but you find that you cannot.
It is not my aim today to be negative or to feel dispirited—I am in the same mood as my noble friend Lord Russell on this—but I just want us to do better if we can, very much in the spirit of Edward Timpson. I readily acknowledge the advances that have been made by Her Majesty’s Government, the value of the adoption support fund and the positive ministerial approach of Damian Hinds and of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, in this House. I acknowledge, too, the interventions of a former member of the Government, Andrea Leadsom—who I gather is not a member anymore. Theirs have been key contributions, as have been those from opposition leadership, including Lucy Powell MP and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in our own House.
There is much that has been done which we can admire, but the job is at best part done. What might we learn now, guided by the report that we have in front of us, by leading headteachers such as Stuart Guest in Birmingham and Robin Warren in Camden and not least by the remarkable and unflinching parents who came to the all-party group to give evidence or who write to me—and, I suspect, to others in this House—more or less daily? First, the value and success of the adoption support fund are undeniable. Its continuation was an excellent step. I know all the arguments about spending reviews—as a Minister, I have made most of them in my time and usually felt completely dispirited by being asked to do so—but a childhood is a long-term investment. Being a citizen is a long-term investment. Funding should be a long-term commitment. If we were talking about dialysis, for example, no one would dream of saying, “We’ll consider access to machines just for a year or two at a time.” The case for doing it in the long term has been made enormously powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and others today.
Given what we know about childhood mental health and diminishing personal resilience—subjects on which Matt Hancock MP and others have spoken eloquently —we know that we must back long-term remedial approaches as surely as we know we will face the long-term costs or the dire alternatives if we fail to treat kidney disease properly. No long-term plan is not a long-term option. What guarantees can the Minister give today, aside from saying that there is a spending review, which we all know?
I mention this only briefly, because I do not think it is the meat of this, but can the Minister also give some further guarantees to ensure that children adopted from care abroad will have the same education rights as kids adopted from care in the UK? He may respond by saying that he now knows that there is Private Member’s Bill before the House, but it would have been so much better if the Government had done it themselves.
The mind-boggling complexity that I referred to earlier relates to the fact that so many adopted children receive multiple diagnoses. The issues of attachment are often accompanied by sensory disorders, which may present as autism, attention duration problems, DCD, dyslexia and so on. Some kids may also, on top of that, be naughty. These are all things that happen in normal life. In the literature, misdiagnosis of a condition is frequent. Most significantly for today’s debate, it is the attachment issues that are considered last or not at all in that general mix. Parents may know and say that it is an issue to which they attach the greatest importance, given how much they know their child, but there are too few experienced school staff to recognise the issue properly. Exclusion tends to emphasise a breakdown in attachment. The evidence on rates of exclusion for adopted children should ring every alarm bell for us. I can say with certainty that it does for the parents who write to me.
I remain concerned about the general resilience and confidence of children—and of many of their teachers. You do not have to be a child with a problem to know that there are many challenges in life, but you may need a toolkit to handle the issues or the stress. They need to have those to become autonomous people.
Notwithstanding all that, there is a special and particular benefit that could be achieved. In our debate on 14 May, I suggested that a specific champion for adopted children be designated. The noble Lord, Lord Agnew of Oulton, made a response which is of course in Hansard from that day, saying that there were new systems in place and the Government needed to evaluate them. His officials may be learning from the initiative and studying it closely, but I tell noble Lords today that the overwhelming flow of parents’ reports that I get and the generous time that some schools have given me tell me that it is not working well. A qualified trauma lead in each local authority with real expertise would be a good start, as has been suggested. Some virtual heads do exist, but in many areas they do not. This is not yet an answer. I ask the Minister to return to the idea of having a champion who argues the case consistently and knits together the evidence.
My Lords, I rise as perhaps the only person in this debate who does not have an interest to declare and does not speak with expertise on the matter. Normally in your Lordships’ House, this would be something to be avoided and I did think long and hard before I put my name down to speak, but it was clear that it was important to have somebody from these Benches speak in this debate. The issue of adoption and, in particular, the adoption support fund, is not a party-political matter, and the APPG is obviously cross-party. Equally, it is important that your Lordships be aware that these Benches take the matter very seriously. As my colleagues who had been part of the APPG and contributed to the report could not be here—my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lady Hamwee, and Norman Lamb, who was in the other place—I put my name forward to speak.
As is conventional in such circumstances, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Russell, on pressing for the debate and being third time lucky in securing time for it today. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group for putting together such an extraordinary inquiry, bringing together so many people and getting not just adults to respond but nearly 300 children and young people: so often when your Lordships’ House and the other place do inquiries, whether through all-party parliamentary groups or committees, we talk to the great and the good and we invite people whom we know are experts. In the context of adoption, the experts in many ways are those who have adopted children or who are themselves adopted. The fact that the all-party parliamentary group was able to hear from so many young people is fascinating and very important.
I note that the inquiry explicitly said that it sought to examine the lived experience of families and young people impacted by the fund and to improve the understanding of key issues within Parliament. Therefore, it is particularly important that this debate is happening today and that Parliament, even if these Benches are not very full, is at least able to debate the topic and to have the matter recorded in Hansard. It is also very important for those of us who do not have direct experience of adoption to be able to hear the moving testimony of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, because the ability to understand in more detail how the adoption support fund can work, not just in theory but in practice, is hugely important.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, in his excellent opening speech raised the detailed questions that need to be considered, yet it is important to rehearse some of the issues that we hope the Minister will be able to respond to. In particular, some of the key issues relate to funding. We are due to have a Budget in four weeks’ time. We have a brand-new, untried and untested Chancellor of the Exchequer as of today. Normally, it would be appropriate for the Minister to respond to questions and, if he is not able to respond today, to write to us with the answers. On this occasion I suggest that not only do we ask the Minister to go back to his own department to look for answers, but perhaps it would be timely to see whether the incoming Chancellor of the Exchequer can be persuaded to look at the long-term funding of the adoption support fund. At the moment it is funded through to 2021. It has been going since 2015. The APPG suggested that it should be funded until 2030. So far there has been an additional year’s funding, to 2021.
Year-by-year funding is not desirable and we have already heard this afternoon about the difficulties of funding and of dealing with forms that have to be filled in regularly. Like the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, I have had experience of local government finance, not so much in terms of housing benefit, but I had responsibility for grants going to voluntary sector, where each year forms had to be filled in. Every year, organisations would get deeply concerned about whether they would have their grant renewed. Usually, they were told that their grant would be frozen in real terms. They might see a cut in their grant. That was destabilising and created uncertainty for voluntary organisations. How much more difficult is it for families who have to apply for funding every year and are never sure whether the funding they receive will be ongoing?
Therefore, my first question for the Minister is: what do the Government propose by way of longer-term funding for the ASF? Will Her Majesty’s Government be able to make a commitment up to 2030, as the APPG suggested?
Beyond that, could they look at the rules and regulations that are in place? A centralised system, meaning there is not a postcode lottery, is clearly important. Ensuring that adopted children and young people and their families can have access wherever they are in the country is vital. As we have seen in the report, almost everyone who has had access to the fund has said how beneficial it has been and how they have received support they would not otherwise have had. How much better would it be if decisions could be taken not simply on a year-by-year basis but according to clinical need? If clinicians believe that someone would benefit from therapy for 18 months, two years or three years, or at least beyond a year, surely that should be granted without people having to go back and fill in forms annually. Could that be considered?
It is clear from the report that social workers who are supposed to give advice and support families in completing forms are in some ways overburdened and, in some cases, feel that they do not have the relevant expertise and clinical knowledge to give the necessary advice. Could the Government consider giving additional support and training to social workers? Might they even put in additional funding support to ensure that the social worker’s job becomes easier? Might they also consider allowing voluntary adoption agencies to apply directly to the fund? All these things should be additional funding to support the administration. The funding should not simply be taken out of the ASF, reducing what is available to families, but rather a way of strengthening the fund and ensuring the great benefits that have already been brought about can continue.
I thank the APPG for all the work it has done and reiterate how important it is for the fund to continue and for the Government to ensure that families can be supported as far as possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said in his opening remarks, prevention is in many ways the most important thing. It is so much better to ensure that children and young people who have been taken out of traumatic conditions are enabled to come to terms with their past, engage with their present and live the best lives they can. We as a society owe it to them to enable them to do so fully and with our support.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, not just for securing this debate three times but for his tireless efforts on behalf of children and families engaged in adoption and other forms of permanence. We are also indebted to all those who contributed to the APPG’s inquiry and to those who prepared the report that followed. It stands as an example of the very best work of which our all-party groups are capable.
We are now approaching the conclusion of the adoption support fund’s first five years. I use that terminology advisedly, because I believe it is simply inconceivable that the Government would, in 14 months’ time, when the current funding runs out, choose to bring it to an end. Such has been its impact on around 40,000 families with adopted children that denying them the vital therapeutic services that the fund enables would be an act of vandalism and an abdication of responsibility that I simply cannot imagine any Government contemplating, not even one as unpredictable as this.
Adoption plays a crucial role in providing support for some of our most vulnerable children, alongside special guardianship, foster care and residential care. It is much to be welcomed that special guardianship families were added to those able to access the fund. Those of us who have never had any direct experience of what it means either to be adopted or to adopt a child cannot readily appreciate the day-to-day existence of families who have taken on that onerous but important responsibility, so it is extremely valuable to have access to the adoption barometer, a comprehensive stocktake of the experiences of adoptive families in the UK during a single year undertaken by Adoption UK.
The most recent barometer reflected experiences in 2018 and was published in July last year. It was based on detailed feedback from 3,500 adoptive parents representing all stages of the process, from approvals and matching to families with adopted young adults. Their views, concerns and experiences are placed firmly in the context of adoption policy and practice in each of the four nations of the UK, with the aim of learning what is working well and what needs to be improved. The data revealed that the majority of families are facing significant challenges and, for too many, the support that would enhance their ability to provide for their adopted children is often difficult to access, with potentially damaging consequences.
The barometer’s conclusions are divided into five categories and one in particular is germane to this debate. It concerns established adoptive families, who were asked to give their assessment both of national policy for established families and of adopter experiences. As regards England, in the first category the assessment was “fair” and in the second it was “poor”. That lays bare the extent of the stress, the strain and, indeed, the frustration that adoptive families feel as a result of the patchy overall support that they receive. My noble friend Lord Triesman—I refuse to address him in any other way despite the fact that he now sits on the Cross Benches—spoke with great authority born of personal family experience of such difficulties. I also pay tribute to his campaign for children adopted from abroad, on whose behalf he has achieved equality of treatment, which is much to be welcomed.
One of the few things that make adoptive families want to carry on—indeed, make it possible for them to carry on—is the adoption support fund, which provides the therapeutic services that have now become a major part of the support available to families. At the same time as the adoption barometer was published, so too was the report of the APPG for Adoption and Permanence. It is a substantial body of work and it is fitting that it should be the subject of debate in your Lordships’ House. The inquiry explored how the fund might be improved so that it better meets the needs of families who benefit from it. I was privileged to attend both the hearings that formed the major part of the inquiry and heard some powerful evidence from both practitioners and parents. The view was very clearly articulated that the fund simply must receive sufficient resources to ensure its long-term future. Those giving evidence to the all-party group warned of catastrophic effects if that were not the case.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, the Department for Education gave evidence in the form of a senior member of staff, who said that in the department’s view, the fund has been “a real success”. I quote that with confidence because it appears in my contemporaneous notes of the hearing. That was most encouraging to hear at that time and I am sure the Minister has been made aware of it.
The inquiry report outlined six recommendations, all well-reasoned and eminently reasonable. I will not repeat them because other noble Lords have already done so, but I encourage the Minister to ensure that they are acted upon by the Government. The first called for the fund to be continued until 2030 at least, and that should be the minimum to which the Minister commits the Government today. As others have said, we know that we are going to hear that the spending review —whenever that may be—will reveal all and no promises can be made until then. That argument might have been plausible under the previous Government, but the current regime frankly has such a robust majority that it could legislate for an eighth day of the week should it so desire and there would be nothing that Parliament could do to stop it. Therefore, the Minister should at the very least tell the House—as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—what he will personally be arguing for with Treasury Ministers in relation to the fund in the meetings that will take place in preparation for spending review decisions. Is he sufficiently convinced of the vital need for the services provided by the fund to argue for its permanence? If not, why not?
Of course, we do not know whether the Minister will retain his position in the reshuffle. I personally hope that he does, and we understand that the Secretary of State has held on to his place. In the four and a half years that I have been in my post, there have been four Secretaries of State for Education. For the sake of the sector as a whole, some stability is certainly welcome. There have also been four Ministers of State with responsibility for adoption in that period—five if you include the one currently providing maternity cover for Kemi Badenoch. Today the Universities Minister changed for the fifth time within that period, even though the incumbent was an academic, so stability is not a word that echoes in the corridors of the Department for Education.
As the APPG report demonstrates, the adoption support fund has provided life-changing therapeutic support for thousands of families. Indeed, as others have said, nearly 80% of parents said that the fund met needs which, crucially, could not be met elsewhere. Perhaps even more importantly, as parents told the inquiry, the support accessed via the fund has helped them avoid a potential family breakdown or disruption. That view was echoed in many of the 1,600 responses to the inquiry—a remarkable number—and it is perhaps the fund’s greatest strength that it has proved to be a lifeline for so many families, delivering specialist therapeutic support that is not otherwise accessible.
But the report makes it clear that, as my noble friend Lady Massey highlighted, the bureaucracy involved in applying can be daunting for some parents. Despite positivity about the benefits of the fund, and modest, sustained improvements in outcomes, the level of difficulties faced within the families of survey respondents remains very high, reflecting the ongoing need for support in most cases. Suggested improvements included broadening the scope of the fund to include additional types of support, improving co-ordination with education services—a vital aspect—and loosening financial restrictions to permit greater quantities of support to be accessed. I hope the Minister will feel able to comment on these, given the authority which the report carries.
The Government should acknowledge the fact that the fund has prevented or reduced the risk of adoption breakdown, because that underlines how it saves the taxpayer much greater costs further down the line. Last year, a report by the University of Kent—which I think the noble Lord, Lord Russell, mentioned—found that the cost to the state of having a child in care is approximately £34,000 per year. If just 10% of the 40,000 children with families who accessed the adoption support fund had been unable to sustain the adoption without that support, the consequent cost to the taxpayer of those children returning to care would have been in excess of £125 million—each year.
The fund’s budget for the year 2020-21 will be £45 million, which is the highest it will have been in its by then six-year existence. So I say to the Minister: please do not let us hear of financial considerations regarding the future of the fund, because it provides astoundingly good value for money. Indeed, the Government would be guilty of gross profligacy with public resources were they to decide to end the fund—or even underfund it—and revert to the status quo as it was in 2015. Of course, not all families would return their adopted children to care, but I have already quoted the cost of just one in 10 doing so, and the figure could be much higher on an annual basis than has been paid out by the fund since 2015. Quite simply, then, guaranteeing the fund’s long-term future is a no-brainer. What possible argument can there be for failing to do so, short of an equivalent alternative scheme? Answers to that should be sent on a postcard to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid J—oh, wait a minute, Mr Javid stood up to the Prime Minister, so he is now history. Clearly, his successor, Rishi Sunak, is much more pliable.
As I said, the case for making the adoption support fund permanent is unanswerable. I will conclude by quoting one of the adoptive children who benefit so much from the support that the fund provides. The APPG inquiry asked children and young people what they would like to say to the Minister for Children and Families about the adoption support fund. I found the most telling response to be this one:
“Good support is when someone understands and listens to you—all the different bits of you, not just the bits showing on the outside.”
That voice speaks eloquently but with great power, and must be listened to.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, for securing this important debate to discuss the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence’s Investing in Families report on the adoption support fund beyond 2020. I am also grateful to him for his constructive and helpful approach.
The ASF was introduced in 2015 to improve access to much-needed therapeutic support for adopters and their children. It is reassuring to hear that those who participated in the inquiry think that it is largely achieving that aim. Tens of thousands of families have been able to access support that they would not have been able to without the fund.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, queried the longer-term funding outlook for this success story. The Government have increased funding year on year; it has twice the original budget now and that will rise further next year to £45 million. Already, £140 million has been released to support families.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is worried about some of the bureaucracy. It is absolutely part of our approach to continually challenge the structure of these sorts of arrangements, and if any noble Lord participating in this debate has any specific concerns about excessive bureaucracy, asking a question several times or generally being inhospitable to people, I would be pleased to hear of it. It is a personal mission of mine to try to simplify all the government bureaucracy I deal with and make it accessible to as many people as possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also asked about the annual application requirements. It is something we are going to look into beyond 2021. We originally introduced a maximum of 12 months’ funding to ensure the appropriateness of the therapy received and that we are linked to the health service. Another point for the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who is always a hawk on funding, is that today we announced a substantial local authority settlement. It has gone up from £46.2 billion to £49.2 billion for 2021. That is a 4.4% increase and the biggest year-on-year increase in a decade.
The APPG report asked about future funding, which we have just discussed. We committed in our manifesto that adoption would remain a key area and the adoption support fund would continue. As noble Lords are aware, all departmental spending after 2021 is subject to a future spending funding settlement. My right honourable friend the new Chancellor of the Exchequer will be very busy on that from today, but we recognise that this fund is making a difference.
None the less, in line with the approach taken last year, I confirm that, from July 2020, families will be able to start nine months of therapeutic support, even if it does not end until after March 2021. This transitional arrangement will continue until the outcome of the spending review is confirmed. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, rightly says that the feedback on the fund has been good. The evaluation of the fund found that the majority—84% of parents surveyed—felt that the ASF had helped their child and made the adoption placement more stable and less likely to break down. It showed that there has been a statistically significant improvement in adopted children’s behaviour and mental health. This includes parents’ understanding of their children’s needs and meaningful improvements in parents’ well-being.
I am particularly pleased that the report draws heavily on the lived experience of children, young people and their families, social workers and therapists. It is always important to hear how the policies we make affect those on the ground. Ninety per cent of children and young people said that the fund had helped them significantly. It is encouraging to hear that the fund has literally been life-changing for many young people and their families.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked what the Government are doing about the problems of children with potential multiple diagnoses. It is important that children who have experienced trauma and loss have access to high-quality specialist assessments that result in an agreed support plan. In recognition of this, we have made an additional £2,500 per child available this year, through the ASF, for specialist assessments. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, also asks about overseas adoption. We have included new duties for virtual school heads, specifically to look after that cohort of vulnerable children. In 2016, we extended the eligibility of the adoption support fund to families who had adopted from overseas.
The report shows how the fund has been working and what more we can do to improve it. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked about take-up of the fund. So far this year, 88% of applications have related to adopted children and 12% to special guardianship children who were previously in care. We have seen an almost fourfold increase in applications involving special guardianship children since the fund was opened to them in 2016. The fund does not collect data on income. However, I will write to the noble Baroness with any more detail we have in the department.
The APPG has identified a number of areas that are being considered carefully, as we think about the fund’s future in the context of the spending review process. The noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Watson, raised a few of these issues today, and I will attempt to give the House some initial views. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, stressed the need to improve prevention in families, and I wholly agree. This links to comments from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on general improvements and is one of the purposes of our £84 million innovation programme. We certainly do not intend to stand still in any of these areas.
I will not be able to cover all the recommendations, but I can assure the House that they are all being considered. We are taking immediate action on some of them. For example, we are increasing awareness of the fund among eligible special guardianship families and an information leaflet that has been developed in partnership with the Family Rights Group, Adoption UK and Home for Good will be launched shortly. This will be made available for all local authorities to share with the families they are working with.
On the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about extending access to the fund to new groups of children, we will look at the report’s recommendations. However, we do not want to duplicate support that should already be provided elsewhere—for example, when a child is in the care system. We will have to consider the consequences for the fund’s budget of any extension to new groups, and that is why we will consider those issues as part of the forthcoming spending review. The noble Lord also raised the issue of establishing a board of clinicians in the Department for Education to provide clinical oversight of the support provided by the fund. We have always consulted clinicians on what therapies can be provided and we will carefully consider whether setting up a new board would be helpful in that process.
Ensuring that the application process is as streamlined as possible has been a priority for us. The number of applications has quadrupled in the five years since the launch of the fund. Recently we put in place a new, improved application system designed in conjunction with feedback from users, but I also refer to my earlier points on continually challenging that process.
Our annual survey of local authorities about the system showed that 78% are satisfied or very satisfied with it as compared with just 26% last year, which is an impressive 300% improvement. Another issue raised in the report is that of the delays in getting initial assessments completed or services in place. These issues are being addressed through the regional adoption agencies. The report rightly identifies that the fund alone cannot meet the needs of all families. It should form part of the support offer for children and families. We agree that more work is needed to ensure that a genuine multi-agency approach is taken when providing support.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, mentioned siloing. This is a problem across the whole of government, but I am delighted to report that we are seeing growing success through the regional adoption agencies. We now have 22 up and running, and between them they cover 109 local authorities. We are actively working with the remaining 45 or so to encourage them to join in and participate.
This debate has highlighted the success of the fund since its launch five years ago. It also highlights the need for practice around the fund to continue to evolve and improve. Nationally, we will endeavour to increase awareness among special guardians, and as I said earlier, we are already taking action to address this.
Lastly, I want to take this opportunity to look at unregulated settings, which is a key issue for some children who remain in care. These can be an important step towards independence for older children, but we are concerned that they are not always good enough. That is why yesterday the Secretary of State published a consultation to invite views on a set of new measures. The proposals include introducing new checks and balances into the system, including national standards for providers and measures to drive up the quality of provision. We are keen to hear views on these proposals and the consultation will be open until 8 April.
I was certainly very moved to hear the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester about his personal experience of the fund. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, was right to end his comments by reminding us that these children did not choose their circumstances, so we must do everything possible to improve their lives.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. We may be few in number but we speak for an awful lot of children and families who are not able to reside on these red Benches, albeit that I gather that we may have a few new arrivals imminently. The Minister commented that I had taken a positive approach in my speech. I return the compliment and thank him for being unusually positive and even effusive in his comments about the fund. I think that the department really does deserve a pat on the back—I am looking at the advisers in the Box—for having been responsible for a true, apolitical success which is making an enormous difference to people who need and deserve help.
I thank the right reverend Prelate in particular for taking part. He is a living example of the danger of finding oneself sitting opposite me at lunch. We started a conversation about something quite different. Once he had found out a bit about me and I had discovered about his personal experience, he very kindly altered his diary to be with us this afternoon. We are all enormously grateful to him for giving us his direct, personal experience.
This subject deeply affects a lot of people—often people you do not necessarily know have these issues. I was contacted this afternoon by an adoptive parent who works down the other end for quite a well-known opposition MP. She called me today to say, “I think there is a debate today. Is that true?” I said yes, and asked her, “Is there anything you would like me to say?” She simply said, “What I would like you to say is that if it hadn’t been for the fund, my family would have had adoption breakdown. I think we would have lost our child, and we might well have lost our marriage.” One can have no better celebration of the fund’s success than that. With that, I wish everybody a therapeutic Recess.