New Clause 12
Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]
1:00 pm

Adoption targets

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall not impose numerical targets for the number of children in local authority care who are to be adopted.

(2) The Secretary of State shall not offer local authorities financial incentives for increasing the number of children in care who are adopted.’.—[Tim Loughton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause deals with a rather more weighty subject that has been of concern to many who keep an eye on adoption issues. I flagged up this concern during Committee stage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, when the law on adoption was changed, and the same concern has been raised in the press and by other hon. Members. It is that a perverse incentive arises from the way in which the Government financially incentivise adoption targets, such that some adoptions may be taking place that do not meet the thresholds for an adoption that would normally need to be met. I shall not give reams of categorical evidence that that is happening—

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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

Is there any?

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

I will if the Under-Secretary wants. There is a suspicion—an impression—that needs to be either allayed or dispelled.

Through the use of certain targeted grants, as announced by various Ministers and confirmed in parliamentary questions answered by Ministers, including the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for Local Government, performance reward grants have operated in past years. According to an answer on 3 September last year, the figures for how much grant money each local authority received between 2004-05 and 2006-07 in relation to their performance on adoption targets were released in a table. The figures show that authorities have been incentivised for meeting national adoption targets. The Under-Secretary defined those targets in an answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on 23 July. He said

“A national adoption target was announced in 2000 to increase the number of adoptions of looked after children by 40 per cent. by the year ending March 2005, and to exceed this by achieving, if possible, a 50 per cent. increase by the end of March 2006.”—[Official Report, 23 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 838W.]

Most of us would agree that we need to increase quality adoptions to give damaged children the very best second chance to enjoy the benefits of a stable family life, which might put them back on the straight and narrow, for want of a better phrase. It was particularly envisaged that we would concentrate most on getting children out of the care system who had been there for a long time and ensuring that, if there was no prospect of them going back to their birth parents or kinship family, they would be placed in stable adoptive situations. I think that we all agree with that objective, although there are other countries that take a different approach. The other day I cited Denmark, where in the year before last—the last year for which I have figures—only 20 adoptions took place, but that has much more to do with the flexibility of the system in and out of care, the greater use of residential children’s homes and so on.

I disagreed at the time the 2002 legislation was passed with the use of numerical adoption targets—a very blunt instrument—backed up by financial incentives, which could create a perverse incentive for a local authority that had not met its adoption targets to clamour around desperately at the end of the year to find a few soft targets to boost its adoption figures. Theoretically, that could happen. Although we know that an authority would have to go through all sorts of procedures for the care proceedings and pass the various  thresholds, there could be a perverse incentive to try to find some adoption candidates to meet those targets before a year ends.

The fear that something along those lines may be happening is borne out when one looks at the demographics of adoptions that have taken place. I pluck out the example of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has received about £500,000 as a reward for placing more than 100 children for adoption in three years. It exceeded its goal of 101 adoptions and secured 106 by the target deadline. It is interesting to look at what happened after those adoption targets ended—they no longer exist in their old form. The number of babies placed for adoption by that authority fell substantially. In 2005, there were 21, in 2006 there were 23 and in 2007 the figure dropped to 10. The figures are also likely to be low this year. These are not children who have been in the care system for some time, but new babies who are taken from their mothers at an early stage.

I am not trying to undermine the system of fast-track baby adoption that we approved in the 2002 Act. If a mother with or without another parent is incapable of taking on the responsibilities of caring for her baby, there is a case for that child being placed for adoption as soon as possible, subject to the checks, procedures and appeals. I am not just picking on Hammersmith and Fulham; there are many similar cases. If one looks at the overall figure, the number of babies placed for adoption rather than returned to their parents is very high. It increased during the years when the performance targets were operating.

There is a perfectly justified suspicion that the targets are leading to perverse incentives to adopt more children than would normally be adopted, particularly focusing on babies. That does not do anyone any good. I am not trying to suggest that there is systemic abuse of the process, with social workers going around assuming the role of child snatchers, as many in the more sensationalist media would have us believe. Such views have not been beneficial and have not helped the perception and the image of social workers, which we talked about earlier. One way of dispelling that is to say that these targets should not be allowed.

I know that the targets have changed in the last couple of years, but the principle is wrong. The principle can lead to the wrong outcomes and to all sorts of allegations that are harmful to the adoption process and to the work of social workers. The commission on social workers that I chaired concluded that the Government should not use such targets. That is why new clause 12 states the case quite simply. It is a probing new clause, and the Minister will no doubt tell me that it would not fit into this part of the Bill, but it is useful to have this debate none the less. The Government need to state clearly that they will not use these sorts of targets. They must send out a clear message that they will come down heavily on any authority that appears to be over-enthusiastic in its adoptions. We must ensure that we increase adoptions, but we must do so for the right reasons.

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Annette Brooke (Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Children, Schools and Families; Mid Dorset and North Poole, Liberal Democrat)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister explained why there has been little change in the number of adoptions from the older age group while there has been a large increase in adoptions of very young babies? I would sincerely like an explanation for that.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

The hon. Lady makes a key point. That was why I singled out the increase in the baby figures and the fact that we need to make the most progress in getting the hard-core cases, many of which are difficult and challenging teenagers who are not easy to adopt, out of the care system and into some form of permanent adoption if there is no way they can go back to their birth parents or other members of their family. That is where we are trying to get them. The hon. Lady makes a perfectly pertinent point, so I hope that the Minister will address those concerns in his reply. It is a genuine concern that we need to dispel, because it does no one in the business of adoption any good.

1:15 pm
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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

Perhaps I can express a little disappointment with the hon. Gentleman’s contribution on this occasion, just for the sake of symmetry. To be fair, he is usually pretty assiduous in his research and uses real evidence to support his points, but most of what he has just said did not seem to be based on evidence. He used words such as suspicion, impression, hypotheticals and fear, but then proceeded to claim that it does no good to spread suspicion or have those sorts of stories circulating in the wilder corners of the media.

I would like to make a few points absolutely clear. It is wrong to claim that local authorities were incentivised in any way to meet a national adoption target. That is not true and I will explain why later. It has always been and remains the Government’s policy that children should live with their parents whenever possible and that when necessary, families should be given extra support to help keep them together. Naturally, the expectations placed on local authorities through legislation reflect that policy.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was a member of the Committee that scrutinised the Children and Adoption Bill a few years ago, so he knows that the national adoption target, which ended in March 2006, applied only to the number of adoptions of children who were already in care and waiting to be placed for adoption and to the speeding up of that process, which we all agreed had to be improved. Those targets reflected the Government’s desire to reverse the long-term decline in the number of children already in care achieving permanent adoption.

The purpose of those targets was to give hundreds more of our most vulnerable children the chance to benefit from a safe, stable and loving family life and fulfil their potential. That is exactly the right thing to do, so I make no apology for it whatever. Local authorities were neither compelled to meet national adoption targets, nor financially rewarded against them. Having run its course and achieved its purpose, the national adoption target was not extended beyond March 2006 and the Government currently have no plans to reintroduce it.

Local authorities are relevant in this respect because some of them chose to develop local adoption targets as part of the local area agreements, formerly known as local public service agreements. As with the national target, those targets were focused on children already in the care system. In other words, some councils judged themselves weak at helping children find new families in a timely way and chose their own local targets that were linked, in general with other issues, to the rewarding of  funding. The Government never imposed adoption targets on individual local authorities in any way whatever. Indeed, as I think the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham acknowledged, the local government White Paper commitments mean that the Government will now only agree targets with local authorities against indicators drawn from the national indicator set, which contains no indicator for measuring the number of adoptions from care.

The first point is that any targets that existed, whether the national target set by the Government or those that a local authority decided to set for itself, are no longer in place. As I have said, I make no apology at all for the national target set by the Government, because it successfully improved the speed at which children were able to go through the care system when they were already judged suitable for adoption. In the new system there will be no financial incentives for performance against specific targets; instead, local areas will be able to earn limited reward funding based on average performance across a range of targets agreed with the Government and their local authorities, but adoption will not be included.

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Annette Brooke (Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Children, Schools and Families; Mid Dorset and North Poole, Liberal Democrat)

Did that target specify how long the children needed to have been in care? Could they have been in care for just a day or two?

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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

The national target was to increase by 40 per cent.—more if possible—the number of looked-after children who were adopted within a specified time. That target was not quite reached—38 per cent. was the outcome figure. All councils were meant to bring their performance up to that level. If I have not answered the hon. Lady’s question, she might want to come back on that.

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Annette Brooke (Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Children, Schools and Families; Mid Dorset and North Poole, Liberal Democrat)

My question was whether the target specified how long the children that one wished to move out of care had been in care. Could an authority count children who had only been in care for seven days?

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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

I apologise to the hon. Lady. The target was nothing to do with how long the children had been in care, it was about whether they had been in care and judged suitable for adoption. It would be impossible for them to be part of a target if they had been in care for just one day. The target kicked in only after a judgment had been made that adoption was the right route. If they had been in care for only one day, they would not yet have been assessed as suitable for adoption.

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Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich, Conservative)

Will the Minister clarify whether when he says that the child had been judged suitable for adoption he means that the child had then been placed through the adoption panel?

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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

Yes, that is absolutely correct. That is the point at which the target would kick in. When we debated the Adoption and Children Bill in 2001, concern was expressed that too many children were languishing in care when it had already been decided—the paramountcy principle having been considered—that the appropriate way forward for them was to be placed for adoption.  They were not being placed for adoption quickly because local authorities were not being very effective or efficient in finding the right family for them. That was the purpose of the national adoption target, and it was successful.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

Just to be clear on the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, on the back of the accelerated adoption processes for babies in particular—which we enabled through the Adoption and Children Act 2002—more babies could come into the care system and be quickly adopted, and they therefore formed part of the adoption figures that met the adoption targets. That would appear to be borne out by the fact that the biggest increase in adoptions has been in the adoption of young babies. That is the case, is it not?

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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

The key safeguard in all cases is that no child can be adopted unless it has been through the proper procedures, including the court procedures. We all agreed, and it was absolutely the case, that where it was appropriate that a baby be placed for adoption it should happen quickly. What are being conflated in the argument, perhaps deliberately in some cases—not here but in some of the media accounts—are the local area agreement targets and the national target on adoption. There is no evidence at local target level that the policy has resulted in any inappropriate adoptions—none whatever. In fact, the available evidence suggests that local authorities that included time-limited adoption increases as part of their local public service agreement were already well below average in using adoption as a permanent option for looked-after children in comparison to other local authorities. They set fairly modest targets, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham indicated, and even when they achieved those targets in full, the individual local authorities involved rarely became above average performers in terms of adoption as a permanent option, even in the short term while the targets were in place.

I have seen no evidence of inappropriate adoptions resulting from the target. It is very sad that some accounts—not from anybody on the Committee, but elsewhere—have given the impression that Ministers, judges, social workers, lawyers, solicitors, CAFCASS officers and a range of other people are involved in some sort of conspiracy to kidnap babies from otherwise loving families to meet adoption targets. That sort of swivel-eyed nonsense is exactly what contributes to our problems in improving the image of social workers and in ensuring that children in care, whom the Bill is largely designed to assist, have the best possible outcomes. The extent to which we pander to those views is very dangerous to what we are trying to do.

Let us base our deliberations on evidence. There is no evidence of inappropriate adoptions. There are no national targets in place now, the national target having achieved its outcome. Councils set local targets for themselves because they felt that they needed to challenge their poor performance; the Government did not set them. They are no longer in place and there is no evidence whatever that they resulted in inappropriate adoptions. I see no need to adopt an amendment that would tie the hands of future Governments seeking to improve adoption performance, although targets are not currently needed because of the improvements made directly as a result of the 2002 Act and the national target set at that time.

I call for consensus on adoption across the Committee and across the parties in the House, and hope that we can reach it. Given that no targets are in place at this point, and that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham fundamentally disagrees with targets, consensus should be possible without the necessity for his amendment. On that basis, I invite him to withdraw it.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

We needed to have this discussion. I think the Minister and I are entirely at one on what needs to be achieved, which is an increase in adoption, particularly for those who are in the care system for far too long and in many cases spend their entire youth in the care system without the chance of adoption. I have been very careful not to make wild allegations about inappropriate adoptions. One cannot deny, however, that the system is such that they could happen, nor could one say that they would not happen. There would be no question of anybody pandering to the allegations if the Government had not introduced the performance reward grants in the first place, or subsequently allowed local authorities to include any adoption target within local area agreements. That is where the problems come in and that is what we warned about in 2001. A question remains. I am interested in further analysis from the Minister’s Department as to why there has been such a big increase in the adoption of babies, which is part of the targets, but little movement in the adoption of older children, on whom we should be concentrating.

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Kevin Brennan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Cardiff West, Labour)

I will be happy to send the hon. Gentleman some further information on that point. It is true that more children aged between zero and one are coming into care, but the compensating figure for children aged between one and four balances that. In other words, early intervention is working exactly as we want it to. We have learned the lessons about the need to ensure that we intervene early where children are genuinely at risk and the statistics absolutely bear that out.

However, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that for those aspersions to be true in some way—aspersions that the system conspired to put people up for adoption inappropriately—the court system itself and the judges involved in it would have to have been part of that conspiracy?

1:30 pm
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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

I entirely take the Minister’s point and I am not suggesting that there was a conspiracy. However, the evidence supplied by social workers closest to the case will weigh heavily in court and, without there having to be any sort of conspiracy, if a claim is being made by an employee of the local authority and that authority stands to benefit from a performance reward grant, clearly there is the potential for that employee to over-egg the claim when otherwise they might not have done so. That situation does not require a conspiracy.

Part of the problem is the pressure on the courts at the moment. I have sat in family courts where the judge will tell me that there have been changes in social workers and the paperwork is enormous—we will go on to talk about transparency in family courts when we discuss another amendment very shortly—so I know that the scrutiny of some of these cases is not as tight as it might be. On that basis, some of these numbers, hypothetically, could be raised higher than we would like.

The point is that, ultimately, the overall adoption figures have not risen recently and we need them to rise; in particular, we need them to rise more for older children than for babies. That is a real problem that we need to face. However, I hope that when the Minister endeavours to tackle it again—I realise that all sorts of things are happening that are ongoing—he will not revert to coming up with some sort of financial incentive that is based on numerical targets, because that will only give rise to further suspicions that children are being inappropriately adopted at an early age who would otherwise not necessarily justify being adopted.

I do not wish to put this matter to a vote. On that basis, I am grateful for the debate that we have had and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

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Greg Pope (Hyndburn, Labour)

If the Minister is going to write to Mr. Loughton, it might be helpful if that correspondence was copied to other members of the Committee.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.