Clause 13 — Local authority adoption functions: joint arrangements

Bills Presented — Armed Forces – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education) 4:30 pm, 16th September 2015

I beg to move amendment 19, page 8, line 35, at end insert—

“(3A) The Secretary of State shall lay an annual report before Parliament on the use of the power to give directions under subsection (1), which shall include information on—

(a) how often directions were given;

(b) the safeguards put in place to ensure that voluntary agencies were not adversely affected by actions of local authorities or agencies complying with directions given and an assessment of the impact of the actions and the effectiveness of the safeguards;

(c) the impact of the directions on models of care other than adoption for children in the areas covered by the directions; and

(d) the extent and adequacy of provisions that have been put in place to ensure that post-adoption support, including in respect of mental health, is available for the children and adoptive parents who have dealt with a local authority or agency carrying out the functions within subsection (3) on behalf of a local authority, following directions from the Secretary of State.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay an annual report before Parliament containing information about how she has exercised the power given to her in Clause 13 and the safeguards she has put in place to protect voluntary agencies, other models of care and the provision of post-adoption support


In Committee, the Labour Opposition sought to persuade the Minister that it was wrong of the Secretary of State to take executive power that would lead to fundamental changes in the country’s adoption arrangements without further reference to Parliament. Indeed, we sought to persuade him that such power should be subject to parliamentary orders, rather than under the right to give directions conferred by the Bill. I accept that we were defeated on that argument in Committee, so today I want to focus on safeguards.

If the Secretary of State is given unfettered power to intervene in our adoption arrangements, it is surely right that she should report to Parliament annually on the way in which she has sought to exercise that power and on its impact. In particular, she should report on the impact on voluntary adoption agencies, the whole area of children in care and the question of support for adopted children and their parents, especially in relation to mental health issues, which a great many people and child welfare organisations consider a major cause of concern.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Is this proposal not unnecessarily bureaucratic? If something went seriously wrong, surely the facts would be in the public domain anyway.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education) 5:00 pm, 16th September 2015

In my experience it is amazing how many facts do not get into the public domain and how many times it is Members of this House who question what happened and ask how a power was used. I am therefore not persuaded by the right hon. Gentleman’s argument.

The Minister said in Committee that it was his intention to change our adoption arrangements by consent and persuasion, and that the powers in the Bill were intended as a backstop to be used sparingly. If that is the case, an annual report to Parliament will not involve too many examples of their use and could hardly be regarded as onerous or unduly bureaucratic. Consequently, I hope that the Minister will have no difficulty in accepting the amendment.

An annual report is important because, although I accept the good intent of the Minister for Children and Families, Ministers and Secretaries of State come and go. The powers that we are granting today are extensive and it is not right that Parliament should lose all control over a matter that affects such vulnerable young people. We are the people who should ensure that there are safeguards. We need to have confidence that the new adoption arrangements are fit for purpose and improve on the existing arrangements.

We can deduce that in cases where the Secretary of State uses the powers of direction, it will be because she has failed to achieve the consensus and the voluntary arrangements that the Minister says are his ambition. In those circumstances, is it not right that Parliament should know what happened and what persuaded the Secretary of State of the need to exercise her powers? An annual report would give parliamentarians access to that information.

We discussed the role of voluntary adoption agencies extensively in Committee. The Minister gave assurances that he wanted to protect such agencies and that he recognised their expertise, particularly in finding families for what are sometimes called “hard-to-place children”. That might mean children with disabilities or learning disabilities, or it might cover a situation where there are several siblings. For years, small, specialised voluntary adoption agencies in this country have pioneered that kind of work. I do not want new consortiums to be developed by local authorities to protect their interests if it leads to a squeeze on those small, influential agencies. That concern was raised by several witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee. We know that when adoption agencies were reorganised in Wales into five regional groupings, smaller voluntary agencies were the casualties.

The Minister was not able to tell us in Committee what steps he would take to protect the voluntary agencies. It is therefore important that we are able to see, in a report to Parliament, what has happened to the voluntary sector so that we can judge whether the Minister has taken adequate steps to safeguard that vital element of our adoption service. It is also reasonable that the report should comment on the effectiveness of the monitoring and inspection arrangements for any new adoption consortiums.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the importance of protecting specialist services. My wife and I took advantage of one such excellent adoption agency when we adopted our children, so I speak from personal experience. What concerns me slightly is that if we wait for a report to see what has happened, it could be too late. How quickly does he envisage these proposals being implemented? How early would he want the report to be produced, so that it was not too late to protect the high-quality services to which he rightly refers?

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

I concede the danger that if I ask the Minister to report on the operation of the powers, we will only find out after the event what has happened if agencies have got into difficulty. Obviously, I would much prefer the Minister to come forward today with clearer proposals for the steps he will take to protect those agencies, but without some reporting mechanism, how will Parliament hold the Executive to account?

We heard from witnesses during the evidence session that there is concern about the way that contracts can be drawn up by larger local authorities, as that can have an adverse impact on smaller, voluntary organisations. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering had been going for more than 70 years, but it collapsed during the parliamentary recess with the loss of about 50 jobs—a whole area of expertise wiped out because of the financial climate in some parts of the voluntary sector. The uncertainty created by these proposals is adding to that pressure, so it would be helpful if the Minister demonstrated that he recognised the dire circumstances that much of the voluntary sector is facing.

We must know in an annual report that if the Secretary of State exercises these powers, the expertise of voluntary agencies will not be lost for vulnerable children, that contract arrangements are fair and do not favour larger local authorities, and that they are subject to proper monitoring and inspection. Parliament has a right to such information.

One concern about the Bill is the focus on adoption to the exclusion of all other forms of childcare. In Committee, several Members mentioned special guardianship orders, long-term fostering and kinship care. Many people who work in childcare believe that the Government need to focus more on permanent arrangements, rather than appearing to favour one model of childcare over another.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend mentioned special guardianship orders. I have written to the Minister about the case of Tracy Phillips in my constituency as that highlights the ambiguity in the way that SGOs are treated, affecting things such as child maintenance and so on, and how they fit into the child maintenance system. Could the report cover that, or is there some other way for the Minister and Government to tackle some of the ambiguities between SGOs and other adoption arrangements?

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

The Department published a report in August entitled “Impact of the Family Justice Reforms on Front-line Practice Phase Two: Special Guardianship Orders”. I also believe the Minister is planning a more extensive review of SGOs.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

There are two issues: first, there might be evidence that some local authorities are favouring SGOs in circumstances where they were not originally intended; and secondly, there are financial concerns, particularly for grandparents with SGOs. Local authorities have discretionary powers to provide financial support, but it is inevitably means-tested, meaning that some grandparents, having been persuaded by local authorities, sometimes on the basis of limited information, that SGOs are the best route to go down, and thinking they are doing the right thing by the child or children, could find themselves in dire financial circumstances, with the local authority all too happy to wash its hands of it all. As I said, a report in the summer was illuminating on this subject, and I believe the Minister is planning a further review. I hope he will say a bit more about this problem before the end of the day.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I am glad my hon. Friend has raised that point, and I saw the Minister nodding earlier. I have had cases drawn to my attention of kinship carers taking advantage of respite care using foster care, only to say, because of financial hardship, that they are not taking the children back into their family. Does this not highlight how important it is that the Minister address these issues of funding and support, and that adoption is not the only form of permanence addressed in the Bill?

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

I agree. I think it is a mistake to appear to favour one model of childcare over another and that the questions of finance and the use of SGOs need more attention.

We have seen that the courts believe it is the duty of social workers to explore all available options for permanence arrangements when placing children, and that adoption should be favoured only when it is clearly the best option and when it has been weighed against other possibilities. There is an understandable fear that if the Minister creates a new range of Rolls-Royce adoption consortia and we end up with a massive flow of resources to these agencies, adoption will inevitably acquire a new elevated status, especially among social workers and cash-strapped local authorities battling to find permanent solutions with ever-decreasing resources. That would be wrong. It would not be in the best interests of the child, it would fail to recognise the phenomenal success that other models of care can achieve, and it would amount to a form of social engineering that belongs more to a bygone era than to the present day. Parliament will have a right to know what impact the Bill is having on other forms of childcare, so it is only right and proper that there should be a routine report on it.

Perhaps more than anything else, what the House needs to know is that the Government’s measures succeed not only in speeding up adoption and preventing children from languishing in the care system, but in ensuring that the quality of the placements leads to long-term better outcomes for the children.

I am full of admiration for foster parents and those who adopt children. It takes special people to take on children who have been damaged by early-life experiences and to nurture them to a stage when they are able to come to terms with the past, if not entirely put it behind them, and move on to make something of their lives. It is rarely an easy journey for those who take on that role. It will often mean tantrums, sometimes violence and other aggressive behaviour, sometimes criminality and often mental health problems.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central 5:15 pm, 16th September 2015

At risk of drawing too much on my own experience, my hon. Friend has sadly described some of the things that my wife and I have come across, as I know have many other adoptive parents, foster carers and kinship carers. My hon. Friend started to talk about mental health services. Will he join me in making a plea to the Government to make a dramatic effort to improve the quality of mental health services for children and adolescents? The investment and the effort must be made to recruit and train the dedicated staff who are needed. Adoptive parents and foster carers cannot on their own give children—who, as my hon. Friend says, are often damaged—the support and care that they require for their psychological development and other needs.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

I am happy to make that plea, and I hope to say a little more about mental health before I conclude. I say in passing that I certainly welcome the decision of the new Leader of the Opposition to create a Cabinet health post specifically for mental health.

What we need to know is that the Government’s ambitions are not just about speeding up adoptions and presenting us with tables showing an increase in numbers. We need to know that the extent of these problems has been properly appreciated and that the need for continuing support for these children and families is built into the fabric of any new adoption arrangements.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wanted me to table a much broader amendment on children’s mental health. Although I am extremely sympathetic to its ambitions, I concluded after discussion and advice that what we had in mind was probably too broad for the scope of the Bill. If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, it is worth taking a moment to share what it had in mind. The NSPCC asks the Minister to consider amending either the Children Act 1989 or the Adoption and Children Act 2002 by placing a duty on local authorities to ensure that a child receives a mental health assessment at the point they enter care, and to provide immediately the necessary support services to meet the identified needs of the child for as long as necessary, with regular monitoring of the child’s ongoing need for mental health support.

I want to make it clear that I support counselling and proper intervention to address mental health issues as a key element of securing permanence in placements. It is good that the functions to be transferred under the Bill will include the provision of adoption support services, but what these children and their new adoptive parents need is a guarantee from the Government that the necessary support will be available. Having the right to assessment is not enough; what is needed is a right to the treatment, therapy and support identified by that assessment. It seems strange to me that children currently entering our care system are subject to a routine physical health check, but given the trauma that many of them have experienced prior to entering care are not automatically also given access to a mental health check.

If the Minister really wants to make a difference, he will give a commitment today to make it a requirement that all children entering the care system have access to a mental health assessment, and that any treatment, counselling, therapy or support recommended as a result of that assessment will be theirs as of right, and to include those requirements in any new adoption arrangements he makes with local authorities or other bodies.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Conservative, Stevenage

I have a lot of sympathy with the line that the hon. Gentleman is taking. From talking to a number of my constituents, I am concerned that meeting organisations six or seven times a week is seen as support, whereas adoptive families need actual, real support.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

First, I hope the Minister can see that there is a degree of cross-party consent on this point. I certainly agree that what people want is real, practical help. I meet plenty of foster parents and adoptive parents who say they have begged for help and real support. We do not need anything that falls short of that.

There should be a duty on agencies to focus on the mental health needs of these children, and to ensure that their adoptive parents get the real support they need so they are equipped to cope with the enormous responsibilities they take on.

I have some doubts about the proposed legislation: the focus on adoption, perhaps at the expense of other models of care; the risk that smaller voluntary agencies, which are a vital feature of our current adoption arrangements, might find themselves cast adrift by a large, local authority-driven regional consortium; and an anxiety that the monitoring and inspection arrangements might not be all that they need to be. I have a burning sense that the energy being put into the structures should be matched by efforts to address the children’s support and mental health needs.

I hope that for today’s purposes the Minister will feel that he can accept our amendment as a guarantee of the Government’s good faith that they intend to keep Parliament in touch with the developments and changes arising from the Bill. I hope that, in the not too distant future, the Minister will return to the Dispatch Box with proposals to strengthen overall permanence arrangements for children in care and to tackle the legacy of mental health neglect which often persists for children even after intervention by the state in the form of care proceedings.

I do not doubt the sincerity or decency of the current Minister for Children and Families. I hope his adoption proposals succeed, but I hope he will make renewed efforts to address the concerns that I, and other hon. Members, have raised today. I hope he will find himself able to accept that this straightforward and helpful amendment is designed to strengthen the Bill.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

May I say how much I agree with what my hon. Friend said, particularly at the end of his speech? I want to see better outcomes for adopted children and I hope the provisions in the Bill will help to achieve that—it is important to say that. As we discussed in Committee, the overall approach to permanence in improving the life outcomes of children, whether they are adopted or in other forms of permanence, must be addressed. I share my hon. Friend’s desire to see the Minister back at the Dispatch Box as soon as possible, proposing improvements in permanence in foster care, kinship care, special guardianship arrangements and residential children’s care, which, as the Education Committee pointed out in its report last Session, has been a cause of particular concern.

Not the least of the issues that the Minister should address is the desperate need for an improvement in child and adolescent mental health services, which the Leader of the Opposition raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time. CAMHS provides vital services. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that the psychological needs of children entering the care system should be assessed and supported every bit as much as their physical needs. I was heartened by what the Prime Minister said today about the importance of addressing people’s mental health needs as much as their physical needs, and I hope that that will be the Government’s direction of travel in health policy generally.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is also concerned about outcomes, particularly in relation to mental health. Is not time one of the key problems? The fact is that 3,000 children are waiting to be matched with parents, and half of them have been in care for more than 18 months. The time factor is having a severe impact on their mental health, which the Bill seeks to address.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

That is an important point. The delay in a child’s being placed permanently, whether through fostering, adoption or any other form of permanence, can certainly contribute to psychological damage, which can be characterised as neglect or in other ways. An improvement in the speed of decision making is essential. We debated that in some detail in Committee. One cause for concern is the problem of delays in the court system, and in the making of decisions on whether or not children should stay with their birth families. I think that professionals, along with the courts, should decide as quickly as possible whether children should stay with their birth families or move into other forms of permanence. The children’s long-term needs must always take priority.

I hope that, as a result of the Bill, the shortage of adoptive parents and the difficulty of recruiting them will be addressed. Perhaps that could be included in the report to which the amendment refers. Perhaps the report could include information about how well the agencies that are envisaged are doing in recruiting in general terms, and also about what has happened to children who have been to some of the specialist smaller agencies that were mentioned by my hon. Friend.

It is evident that unless prospective adopters come forward, very little can be done about adoption, and I hope that that will be one of the outcomes of the Government’s proposals. Approaches such as concurrent planning and fostering to adopt have succeeded in improving outcomes for children who end up in the care system. However, a danger arises from the fact that adoption has been given so much prominence in this Bill—it is the only form of permanence addressed in the Bill. This concern is reinforced by steps such as the closure of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and the loss of jobs in the sector, as well as the hard times faced by the voluntary agencies and by local authorities due to the financial constraints they face. We run the risk of moving in the wrong direction and jeopardising having the support in place through a well-trained workforce, and having the right numbers of adopters and foster carers coming forward to look after children who end up in care and who need the stability and long-term support that should be available to them.

We should bear in mind the numbers of looked-after children who end up in the criminal justice system. If we go into any of our prisons and ask about that, we will find that very high numbers of prisoners were in care as children. Because they have been left down earlier in life, they end up unable to cope with society and turn to crime and end up in prison. It is a very expensive outcome for society as well as for them personally. It is therefore in all our interests to invest early and to try to solve these problems.

Anything that can be done early helps. Investment in mental health services for children and young people is particularly important, and the Government’s comments on that have been encouraging. The all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers—Mr Burrowes is a qualifying member as he came to the inaugural meeting, for which I thank him—has looked in previous Sessions at issues around mental health care, in particular for children and young people in care. No doubt it will do so again, and I hope the Minister will be able to attend an early meeting of that group once it is up and running again, to talk about this Bill as well as other proposals that he might be bringing forward on other forms of permanence.

I would be grateful if the Minister would address in his speech today some of the issues around the workforce, the recruitment of adoptive and foster carers, and support for the profession and the voluntary sector, making sure that the specialisms are retained—a point picked up in the amendment of my hon. Friend Steve McCabe.

I think there is overwhelming support across all the parties to see success in providing permanence for children who end up in the care system. There are opportunities to make a difference for children who end up being adopted, but I remind the Minister that those children for whom adoption is the right form of permanence are only a small proportion of the children who end up in the care system. We must remember that and make sure we look after all the children who end up in care and do not contribute to a widespread perception that adoption is the gold standard and other forms of permanence are not. We must invest in and support all forms of permanence. I hope the Minister will do that both in the remaining stages of this Bill and in what he does over the coming, weeks, months and years.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education) 5:30 pm, 16th September 2015

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for tabling their amendment, and for the other informative and constructive contributions from other hon. Members across the House. The amendment raises the important issue of ensuring that the power given to the Secretary of State in clause 13 is used in a transparent way and takes into account the impact of any action on voluntary adoption agencies, other models of care and the provision of post-adoption support by requiring an annual report to be laid before Parliament. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is in the Chamber to hear the views being expressed on this aspect of the Bill.

It is important to state at the outset that I appreciate the intentions behind the amendment. I agree that we need to be clear about how the power is used and the impact that it has. I can assure hon. Members that the process will be open and fair and that decisions will be transparent. I see that as the main thrust of the amendment, which hon. Members have drawn out during the debate. Be that as it may, the laying of an annual report before Parliament on the use of this power would, in our view, be disproportionate, and I shall explain why we take that view.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on leading the charge towards increasing the number of children who have permanent homes. The record increase in the past year provides the best evidence that we are a party and a Government that support families. In regard to the move towards regional adoption agencies, can he assure me that there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach, and that there will be flexibility in the system? For example, in the borough of Enfield, will there be a cross-over into Hertfordshire as well as into the London boroughs? We need to achieve the necessary efficiencies, but we must also act in the best interests of the children.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, not only for the Bill but for the work that we have been doing in government to improve the adoption system. I can assure him that we will go on to talk about those matters in more detail. This is very much a bottom-up approach to the development of regional adoption agencies. It has purposely been designed to ensure that it has the flexibility that he mentioned, so that local authorities across regions, working closely with voluntary adoption agencies, can come up with the solutions that work best in their areas, based on their collective expertise. Even in the early stages of the process, that is already happening.

Before I set out the reasons why we do not accept the amendment, I want to address the specific issues that have been raised in the debate. At the heart of this has been the way in which adoption fits into the wider routes to permanence for children in the care system. Reforming the adoption system is a key Government priority, but adoption is clearly a solution for only a small group of children who cannot be looked after by their own parents, as Bill Esterson reminded us. That is why, in parallel to improving the adoption system, we have taken—and are determined to continue to take—action in relation to other placement types as well.

The reason that the measures in the Bill refer only to adoption is that the adoption system operates on such a geographical scale that the kind of rationalisation envisaged here makes sense. However, if local authorities want to bring together other permanent services voluntarily, they have the freedom to do so. We are also taking action to improve the outcomes of children who have already left the care system. In the last Parliament, we took many steps to improve the support for children in care, including providing funding of nearly £100 million through the pupil premium plus, allowing targeted individual support to be provided for children in care in schools, introducing a new duty on local authorities to appoint a virtual school head, strengthening quality standards in residential settings to make them safer places for children and young people, and launching a cross-Government strategy for care leavers in 2013.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

The Minister mentioned the pupil premium plus. I commend him for that, because it has been a very successful initiative in schools, providing support for individual children in care and for former children in care—so adopted children qualify, too. To come back to the point I was making, the problem has been that we do not have the mental health professionals and qualified child psychologists to do the work that is needed in the timely fashion or to the level that is needed—that goes back to the point made by Stephen McPartland. That is why we need to recruit and train the qualified professionals in those sectors, so that we can make the most of that investment.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair observation, and I will come on to talk a little more about the need to improve mental health services. The Prime Minister was clear that that was a key Government programme of work that will be taken on over the next five years. To ensure that children are receiving the right type of support when they need it, we need good decision making, good planning for them and an integration of those services around them—that is one of the roles the virtual school head has. This is also why we have embarked on an ambitious programme of reform to social work, making sure that those involved have the key knowledge, skills and practice-based learning to ensure that they are making the good decisions that lead to better placements and better outcomes.

To improve practice where the best permanence option is to remain as a looked-after child, we have also amended regulations in April to introduce long-term foster care as a distinct placement type for the first time. As someone who comes from a family who fostered both short term and long term, I think this is a very welcome step, which gives children who find themselves often for a large part of their childhood in the same placement a sense of family and stability. Together, we have made revisions to the wider statutory framework to ensure that those decisions are made very much in the best interests of those children. I could say much more if more time were available, but a lot of work has been done and will continue to be done in government to ensure that whatever the right permanency placement is for a child from the care system, we have the best system, the best people and the best accountability in place, so that they have the best possible start in life.

The issue of the crossover of adoption into special guardianship orders was raised by Richard Burden. He highlighted a case from his constituency, which he has previously raised with me. It is right to say , in response to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, that we have launched a public review of the legislative and practice framework underpinning special guardianships. It is now a decade since they were introduced by the last Labour Government, and it is time for us to have a close and proper look at the consequences of their introduction. For instance, we have seen a sharp increase, of 64%, in the use of SGOs for children under the age of one, which is not what was originally intended or envisaged when the legislation was introduced. We have also seen, through the court judgments of Re B and Re B-S, SGOs often now being regarded as a default option when considering a child’s long-term future. We also have a disparity in respect of the level of assessment that there is of the potential placement for a child in a special guardianship placement, as opposed to adoption. This review is up and running, and is currently out for consultation. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield may wish to know that he has until this Friday to make any comments to that consultation. We will be working carefully with the expert group that we have set up to make sure that, whether in relation to the decision around an SGO or the subsequent support, we make improvements from where we first started.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Will the Minister ensure that he discusses this matter with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, particularly in respect of child maintenance? He will know that the case I raised with him involved two grandparents who ended up getting an SGO but then split up. The grandparent who left ended up with no maintenance responsibility for the child, which he would have had if this had been an adoption. There are arguments on both sides there, but this needs to be sorted out, because the reality in that case is that one grandparent is left with a child with very few means of support. That is clearly something that needs to be sorted out.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

We are engaging Government Departments right across Whitehall to ensure that the implications of SGOs are being properly considered. In the scenario that has just been set out, we will need to consider whether we understand fully the consequences of these types of orders being made, and I will ensure that that is communicated to the relevant Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions and that it is looked at by officials in both Departments as part of the review.

We heard a number of contributions on the importance of tackling mental health for children who are adopted and for those from the care system. Clearly, as we see in the parity of esteem in the NHS constitution, that matter has become a much more important and high-profile aspect of the work that needs to be carried out by health providers.

In relation to mental health services for adopted children and children in care, we issued updated guidance in March on promoting the health and wellbeing of children in care, and that emphasised the importance of mental health alongside physical and emotional health. We have also commissioned NICE to produce guidelines on attachment in children, which is often at the core of their inability to find a placement where they feel comfortable. Those guidelines, which will cover both children in care and adopted children, will be published in the autumn.

The children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing taskforce met between September 2014 and March 2015. It had a specific task and finish group on vulnerable children, which included looked-after children and adopted children. It looked at how we can best focus services around their needs. On the back of that taskforce, the Government reported, through the Future in Mind report on 17 March, how we can work locally to transform plans that have a clear focus on the needs of vulnerable children when delivering mental health services. We are also working closely with the Department of Health and key organisations to develop detailed plans on how best to implement that vision. My Department is hosting a meeting next month with experts from health, local government and the voluntary sector to consider how to improve mental health support for adopted children.

There is no doubt that, right across this House, there is a palpable feeling that more needs to be done. We have finally made it an issue that has risen to the top of many of our agendas. We need to capture that moment, use the money that has been committed to child and adolescent mental health services by this Government and ensure that we deliver the types of services for these very vulnerable children at the time that they need them so that the fall-out that we too often see in their lives can be prevented.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Very briefly, because I wish to move on to the main thrust of my response.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. One of the issues that I have raised is the evidence of the prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders and the very high numbers of looked-after children and adopted children who appear to have that condition. Will he ensure that awareness and support for those caring for those children is part of what he has been talking about?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

An essential element of all of this work is that anyone who takes on a child who has had trauma in their early life understands what it is. I am talking about not just its presentation but its causes. As part of that, we need to look at foetal alcohol syndrome, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work that he and his new all-party group are doing to raise awareness of that issue. I am happy to engage with him on that matter as I indicated in Committee.

As I set out in Committee, the current adoption system is highly fragmented, with around 180 agencies recruiting and matching adopters for only 5,000 children per year. We do not believe that such a localised system can give the best service for some of our most vulnerable children. As well as being inefficient in scale, it also too often leads to ineffective practice across the system. The introduction of regional adoption agencies will help to address those issues in several ways.

The first way is through matching. It still takes an average of eight months between placement order and match. We know that delays are often caused by an unwillingness to seek a family outside a local authority’s own group of approved adopters. That is simply not good enough. No child should suffer the lasting harm that we know delays cause because the local authority refuses to look elsewhere for a match. That is why we are making £30 million available to pay the inter-agency fee over 12 months for particular groups of children. That will help to ensure that they are matched quickly in the short term while regional adoption agencies improve things in the long term. Successful matching relies on being able to access a wide range of potential adopters from the very beginning, and regionalising adoption would give adoption workers that choice.

The second way is through recruitment. Although we have adopters approved and waiting to be matched, we have too few who are willing and able to adopt harder to place children, which means certain groups of children wait significantly longer than others to find adoptive families. For example, as at 31 March 2014, disabled children were waiting 7.6 months longer than the average child. The current system is not serving those children well enough, and we cannot just accept that as it is. Regional adoption agencies would be able to take account of the needs of a larger number of children when planning a regional recruitment strategy. Recruitment could therefore be better targeted, leading to the right adopters being approved and fewer children having to wait.

The third way is through adoption support. In too many cases the specialist support that many adopted children so desperately need, including mental health services, has simply not been available. In many areas, the number of adopted children is so small that local authorities are unable to ensure that the right provision is available. Regional adoption agencies will assess more children’s needs and give them a greater understanding of what should be commissioned. Commissioning at a regional scale will allow providers to expand their services, provide better value for money for the taxpayer and help ensure that all adoptive families receive a consistently high quality of assessment and provision. That will build on the adoption support fund that we have set up, which is now running, to the tune of £19.3 million. It is vital that adopted children receive the therapeutic and mental health services they need, which is why we have made that significant investment. Since May it has helped more than 1,400 families and spent £5 million, and all but 10 local authorities have already made a bid to the fund, which demonstrates how essential it is for those children.

I would like to set out what work has already been done to help achieve that regional approach. We want to support and work with local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to help deliver regional adoption agencies. That is why we are providing £4.5 million of funding this year to support early adopters to accelerate their development and early implementation. I am pleased to tell the House that we have already received 30 expressions of interest for that support, covering every region of the country.

I would also like to assure hon. Members that through this process we are carefully considering the impact that moving to regional adoption agencies will have on voluntary adoption agencies, other models of care and the provision of support, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly raised in his contribution. It is worth noting that voluntary adoption agencies are formally or informally involved with consortia across all regions already. We have been very clear that proposals need to look at how links with other children’s services can be maintained and how support functions will be carried out.

We have also been clear that voluntary adoption agencies have an important role to play. In our paper “Regionalising Adoption” we set out that we are particularly keen to consider models that bring together the best of the voluntary and statutory sectors. Proposals for regional adoption agencies that include voluntary adoption agencies will be looked on favourably, even for those that do not see partnership with local authorities as an option for them. The service they provide in recruiting adopters, particularly for some of the most vulnerable and complex children, will still be much needed by the new regional adoption agencies. That is built on our knowledge of the enormous expertise, service quality and excellent outcomes that voluntary adoption agencies have a record of delivering, as well as our desire and determination to ensure that the move to regional adoption agencies does not adversely impact on them. We will continue to monitor that closely as regional adoption agencies take shape.

Our intention is that, as far as possible, the sector will move to regional adoption agencies by itself. As I said in Committee, this power is simply a backstop measure for those agencies that do not rise to the challenge, as well as allowing the Secretary of State to direct local authorities to have a particular function carried out on their behalf by a voluntary adoption agency if an individual council or regional adoption agency is not doing so effectively.

We are confident that the majority of local authorities will seize this opportunity to deliver their services in new and exciting ways. I am pleased to see how the sector has already responded to the move to regional adoption agencies. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services sees this as a sensible development and Carol Homden, chief executive of Coram, stated in her oral evidence that the Bill will help children regarded as harder to place. The move to regional adoption agencies involves real potential to improve the life chances of some of our most vulnerable children, and I believe the majority of those working in adoption will make this a reality.

As I set out earlier, we have already had 30 expressions of interest for the support available this year. It is hugely encouraging that these bids cover all regions and the majority of them involve a voluntary adoption agency. Each expression of interest is currently being fully assessed and funding decisions will be made by the end of the month. It is also important to note that prior to this programme, we had already seen the emergence of some new delivery models for adoption and some growth of consortia and regional collaboration. For example, Wokingham Borough Council, Bracknell Forest Council, West Berkshire Council and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead have launched a combined adoption service, known as Adopt Berkshire.

This is a move that is already seen as beneficial and we will build on this impressive momentum. Therefore, as noted by Sir Martin Narey in his oral evidence, we expect to use this power rarely, if at all. I can reassure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that if the power is required, the decision to use it will be made following extensive and detailed discussions with the agencies involved. These discussions will cover a range of areas, including the role of voluntary adoption agencies, the provision of support and the link with other care options. In addition, I listened carefully to the suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman in Committee, and before making any final decision we will write to any relevant local authority seeking its views and requesting supporting evidence. I can therefore reassure the House that all those involved will have a chance to comment on the proposal before a final decision is taken.

There is no requirement for the Secretary of State to lay an annual report before Parliament about directions issued to local authorities when the direction, as here, is to arrange for another body to exercise a wide range of functions on behalf of the local authority. As such, a more proportionate approach than laying an annual report before Parliament is to discuss directly the use of the power and its impact with those charged with delivering adoption services. We will work with both individual agencies and through the Adoption Leadership

Board and regional adoption boards to ensure the effectiveness of this joined-up approach. As a consequence, I hope the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak will withdraw the amendment.

This has been a good and helpful debate which has drawn out some of the issues that surround adoption, not just what is in the Bill. I will endeavour, of course, to continue to work hard for all children in care, whatever their route to adult life happens to be. This is an important step in making sure that adoption and the adoption services function better, more quickly and in the best interests of every child for whom it is the right future.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

I am sure we will return to many of these issues in the days and months ahead. For the time being, as a sign of my good faith, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Photo of Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for Education 5:59 pm, 16th September 2015

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

First, let me welcome the new shadow Secretary of State, Lucy Powell, to her position. I hope she has now had that face-to-face conversation with the leader of her party about her party’s policies. I was intrigued to discover on reading her biography that she and I share the same birthday. I was less happy to discover that she is two years younger than me. All I can say to her about those two years is that I hope she accrues grey hairs at a slower rate than I have done.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s predecessor, Tristram Hunt, who is in his place. It might be fair to say that he and I did not always see eye to eye on everything, not least because he is several inches taller than me. It is also fair to say, however, that we shared a belief in the life-transforming power of a great education and a desire to give every child the best start in life. While he will be a loss to the Opposition Front Bench, he is, as we have already heard today, not one to shy away from offering his opinions on education in the months and years ahead. [Interruption.] I warn shadow Front Benchers that he has just promised to do so on a range of issues, so I shall leave it to them to debate what that might mean.

Nothing better demonstrates this Government’s commitment to delivering real social justice than our approach to education. This Bill has one central principle at its heart: that every child deserves an excellent education; an education that opens their minds and allows them to unlock every ounce of their potential. The Bill makes it clear that we are not only intolerant of failure where it occurs but will not settle for mediocrity either. It is the next step of our ambitious reform programme, started under Andrew Adonis and new Labour, who recognised that the most effective method of transforming failing schools is to put in place strong leadership and to give those leaders the freedom to turn a school around. That programme was turbo-charged in the last Parliament, based on the knowledge that heads and teachers—I should include governors too—know best how to run their schools, not bureaucrats wedded to a one-size-fits-all approach. As a result, 5,000 schools are now benefiting from the freedom to tailor the education they provide to the young people they serve.

These reforms, along with the significant changes that we have made to raise standards, restore rigour to the curriculum and improve the quality of teaching—all issues that have been debated during the passage of the Bill in this Chamber and in Committee—are delivering strong results. The number of young people leaving primary school unable to read, write and add up properly has fallen from one in three under the previous Labour Government to one in five today. The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is closing. The percentage of 16 to18-year-olds not in education, employment or training has fallen to 7.3%—the lowest figure since records began. A million more pupils are in schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and that is a million more pupils getting a better start in life. But none of this should give us cause to stand still. Our work will not be complete until every school in every part of the country is providing its pupils with an excellent education. This is the vision that lies at the heart of this Government’s one nation agenda.

That is in stark contrast to what we now hear from the Opposition Benches, where we see a Labour party that has turned its back on the cause of education reform and instead wants to return to the failed approaches of the past. Rather than trusting teachers and heads, the new old Labour party would seize power back for bureaucrats and politicians, denying parents choice, condemning schools to languish in failure, and trampling on the life chances of our most disadvantaged young people. It seems that whereas innovation, creativity and progress were the watchwords of the Adonis reforms, in today’s Labour party they are taboo. I sincerely hope that Labour Members will prove me wrong by joining us in the Lobby in support of this Bill, but I do not hold my breath.

As the Labour party has turned its back on the aspirations of parents and children, we will be their champion, ensuring that every family has the security that a good education brings, and that is exactly what the Bill will do by delivering on our manifesto commitment to turn every failing school into an academy. As we have heard, the measures will ensure that failing schools receive the support and challenge they need to improve from day one. It will remove the bureaucratic legal hurdles so often exploited by those with ideological objections to school freedoms, which have meant that pupils typically have to spend over a year in a failing school before academy conversion takes place.

This is not about waving a magic wand to change the name and structure of a school and assuming that improvement will inevitably follow. Instead, it is about recognising strong leaders who, with the support of expert sponsors, are best placed to bring about the changes their schools need.

The Bill goes further than simply addressing failure; it tackles inadequate progress too, making it plain that simply treading water is not an option and that just good enough is not enough for anyone’s child. The Bill introduces new measures that will allow us to target coasting schools—schools that are achieving results that clear the floor but that are not enabling every child to make the progress of which they are capable, and schools that are failing to stretch the most able or to adequately support those who are struggling.

Coasting schools will be put on immediate notice to produce an action plan for improvement, with local regional schools commissioners deciding what support is needed to turn those schools around. Let me be clear that, as the Minister for Schools said earlier, not all coasting schools will be required to become academies. Some might have the capacity to improve on their own, and for others the short-term support of a national leader of education might be required, but we think it is absolutely right that when a school is not consistently ensuring children reach their potential—whether it is in the inner city, a coastal town or a leafy suburb—we should have the power to intervene.

The Bill is also concerned with improving the adoption system so that some of our most vulnerable children find loving homes as quickly as possible. The current adoption system is highly fragmented with about 180 agencies recruiting and matching adopters for only 5,000 children a year. Such a localised system does not give the best service for those children. It currently takes an average of eight months between placement order and match and that is too long for any child to wait. The adoption measures in the Bill will help speed that up by supporting the introduction of regional adoption agencies. We are committed to supporting the sector to deliver regional adoption agencies voluntarily in the first instance. That is why we are providing £4.5 million of support this year for councils that lead the way in regional adoption agencies.

Before I conclude, let me thank all Members on both sides of the House who served on the Public Bill Committee and all those who provided oral and written evidence. It is also only right and proper for me to pay tribute to the Minister for Schools and the Minister for Children and Families for skilfully steering the Bill through this House. I also thank my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, and the Committee’s Whip, my hon. Friend Margot James, as well as officials in the Department and here in the House for their support.

The education that young people receive will determine the course of the rest of their life. It has the power to be a great life transformer, to unlock hidden gifts and to develop unique talents. Getting that right is fundamental because for most young people this is the one chance they will get. Everything in the Bill has been written with that simple truth in mind. It is about tackling failure, being intolerant of mediocrity, and speeding up the transition to a loving home. Simply put, it is about giving every child the best start in life. I ask hon. Members to support it tonight.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:09 pm, 16th September 2015

I thank the Secretary of State for her kind words of welcome. It is a pleasure to be the new shadow Secretary of State for Education, a role that I am passionate about. I am sure that she will agree that Secretary of State for Education is one of the great offices of state, and it is great to see two women in these roles today. I was, however, less comfortable with one aspect of being offered this job. Unfortunately, given that I am an October-born, bossy politician who studied chemistry at Somerville, the parallels between Margaret Thatcher and me take another step forward. I very much hope that that is as far as they go.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend Tristram Hunt. He has been a passionate campaigner for education and it is an honour to follow in his footsteps. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for all their hard work on the Bill, and to my hon. Friend Graham Jones, who has served as the Whip on the Bill and who, I am sad to say, will leave the Whips Office after today. I also thank the many colleagues who served on the Committee and contributed to the debate.

For me, education is personal as well as political. With children at secondary, primary and nursery school, I see at first hand the immense value of an excellent education. It truly is the best investment any country can make. Coming from a family of teachers and headteachers, I have the highest regard for all those in education, who do amazing jobs, often in challenging circumstances.

Education is our route to a successful, rich, vibrant, tolerant and inclusive society and economy, but with globalisation, the digital age, emerging economies with high skills and a shrinking number of low-skilled jobs, we need to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of the next generation.

Labour is committed to excellence in state education, to raising aspirations for all children and to continued increases in standards. We also want an accountable system with strong local oversight, collaboration and support. That should apply equally to all schools, whether or not they are an academy, free school or local authority school. We cannot support this Bill, because it does nothing to meet those challenges and it takes school oversight, parental involvement and support for headteachers backwards. Yet again, the Government seem to want to apply these measures only to local authority schools instead of addressing failure across the system.

The sponsored academy programme of the last Labour Government brought new resources, leadership, partnerships and higher standards to some of the most disadvantaged schools and it was very successful. However, what we have seen from this Government is the wholesale academisation of schools, with little evidence to show that that in and of itself raises standards. Indeed, Ofsted has raised concerns that the academisation of schools can often be a detrimental distraction for school leaders when they could be focusing on other interventions. What is more, the Bill fails to address the very real concerns about whether the Secretary of State is best placed to offer the oversight and support that the majority of schools require, and it does nothing to address failure in academies or academy chains. No parent wants their child to be in a failing, inadequate or coasting school. We should all be intolerant of failure in our school system, but I am far from being convinced that the Bill’s measures will deal with those issues.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has said, we support many of the Bill’s adoption measures, although we have raised concerns about the threat to specialised adoption agencies.

I shall focus the remainder of my remarks on the schools element of the Bill, which has a number of serious flaws. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West has said, the very narrow definition of coasting schools, which is purely a data exercise, is flawed. It gives no recourse to other information from Ofsted or elsewhere. It could also have serious unintended consequences.

Children not achieving their potential or not being stretched, which may lead one to think that the school is coasting, has long been an issue, but the Bill’s crude measure will potentially exclude many schools that require intervention and include some that do not. That is a major flaw. It also sets up a parallel judgment of schools outside, and often in competition with, the Ofsted framework.

The Bill also fails to devolve powers of oversight and intervention from the Secretary of State; indeed, it concentrates further powers into her hands. Regional schools commissioners are nowhere near an adequate response to that growing problem, which is widely recognised. Although devolution is rightly the agenda of so much public policy, education is going in exactly the opposite direction under this Government and with this Bill.

Another of the Bill’s failings is the exclusion of academy schools and academy chains from required interventions. Many examples have been given, especially by my hon. Friend Louise Haigh. The Bill deals only with local authority maintained schools. There is no parallel requirement on the Secretary of State to take equivalent action against a failing academy.

The Bill’s focus on forced academisation is only justified if the evidence supporting academy status as a path to improvement is overwhelming and unchallenged. In fact, there is no such evidence. The Tory majority on the Education Committee was unable to find any convincing evidence that academy status itself led to school improvement, but the Secretary of State continues to maintain that, rather than a useful targeted intervention in appropriate circumstances, academy status is the single magic bullet that will lead to improvement. We all know that it is much more complex than that, and the Bill does nothing to strengthen and speed up other interventions that we know work.

The views of local stakeholders, particularly those of parents, will be completely removed by the Bill. That is the wrong direction of travel, and we cannot support it. It also fails to address major challenges in our education system, such as the growing teacher shortage as recruitment and retention collapses, and it does nothing to solve the crisis in school places.

The Government should develop policy based on evidence and proper analysis. When using individual examples, I am always mindful of the fact that we can all find those that make our point one way or another. On reading the Secretary of State’s speech on Second Reading, I noticed that she gave two or three examples of school improvement to justify the Bill. One such case, that of the Manchester Enterprise academy, stuck out for me because I know that school well and, dare I say, better than the Secretary of State. She cited the school as a clear demonstration of why academising a failing school works, but the situation is much more complex. I do not want to politicise the school, but it is important further to draw out what is happening there because it highlights all the issues we are debating.

First, given the Secretary of State’s clear belief that local authorities cannot be part of the solution in supporting and turning round poor schools, I was surprised that she chose a school whose sponsor is none other than the local authority, in partnership with Manchester airport. The city council has had a great deal to do with the recent success of the school, as indeed it has with all schools across Manchester, in which standards have risen significantly in recent years. She and her Government seem to think that local authorities can never be part of school improvement, but I beg to differ—as her own example shows.

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to her new position at the Dispatch Box. The school she mentions is in my constituency. It was academised under the previous Labour Government, sponsored by Manchester City Council—a Labour council—as well as Manchester airport and the local Wythenshawe community housing group. It has been transformed under the leadership of James Eldon. The Secretary of State spoke about the Manchester Enterprise academy on Second Reading, so I challenge her to come and see how a local authority has got to grips with turning around such a school.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight such issues, particularly the important role played by the city council. Manchester is at the vanguard of the right hon. Lady’s Government’s programme for devolution. Indeed, some might argue that the leaders of Greater Manchester are closer in outlook to the Chancellor than she is. Why is she not part of that agenda? Instead she is taking education in the opposite direction.

Secondly, had the Secretary of State looked further into the history of the Manchester Enterprise academy, she would have found out what any local representative, such as my hon. Friend, or education professional in the city could have told her—that it took many years after academisation for the school to be turned around. There were leadership changes, financial problems and low attainment for many years after it became an academy. It was not academisation in and of itself that improved the school, but a range of interventions, many of which have been more recent than its academisation.

Thirdly, as the Secretary of State cited this example on Second Reading, I wonder whether she is aware of the school’s results this year. Through no fault of its own—indeed, the school continues to go from strength to strength—its GCSE results this year dropped by 9%. As she may be aware, as in many deprived and challenging parts of the country, the new system of comparative results means that no matter how hard the school works and how excellent the teaching is, results can fall as grade boundaries change, making the gap impossible to close. That comparative results system, with its constantly changing grade boundaries, may result in excellent schools, such as the Manchester Enterprise academy, being labelled as coasting. Has she considered the consequences of that? She will also be aware that schools face a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, particularly in maths and science. That, too, could affect a school’s results through no fault of its own.

The Secretary of State’s example highlights my bigger point. Despite having a whole Department working on her speech and sourcing examples, no one brought the real situation of the academy to her attention. Local representatives could have told her about it. That only highlights the difficult job that she has in being solely responsible for thousands of schools. This Bill and the Secretary of State miss the most fundamental point: we need to devolve oversight for all schools to a level where support, collaboration and accountability can happen effectively. The Bill rejects that and her regional schools commissioners fall well short.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

There are 2,024 maintained Catholic schools in England and 386 Catholic academies. As the hon. Lady is speaking on behalf of the new Labour Front-Bench team, may I ask her to pay tribute to our faith schools and assure us that the Labour party is fully committed to their continued existence? In the context of the Bill, will she commit her party to ensuring that if, sadly, an interim executive board has to be appointed, the religious nature of such a school will be preserved?

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I reiterate the Labour party’s commitment to faith schools. As he raises the input of Catholic schools, he may be interested to hear that they are opposed to many aspects of the Bill, as we highlighted in Committee. In particular, they are very much opposed to clause 7.

I will spend the coming months listening, responding and developing and setting a course for an ambitious vision for education in this country—something that the Bill fails in. The Bill takes school oversight and parental involvement backwards, and further demonises local authority schools. That is why we will oppose it. It is also a huge missed opportunity for a newly returned majority Government. The Secretary of State has the best and most important job in this country. Is this Bill the best she can do? If I had any doubt as to why the Bill is before us this evening, I do not after reading her interview in The Daily Telegraph this morning. It is clear that the Secretary of State’s primary interest is not raising standards and supporting pupils, parents and teachers; it is narrow political tactics aimed at the Labour party. I am afraid that that is quite a sad and pathetic development.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central 6:22 pm, 16th September 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Lucy Powell, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, on her excellent and passionate speech, and thank the Secretary of State for her kind words.

In a former life, before I joined what Engels would have described as the breezy heights of the Back Benches, I tabled a reasoned amendment to the Bill on Second Reading. I tried to develop, on behalf of the Labour party, some common ground with the Government, because we all share a passion for improvement in our schools and adoption system. However, as my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan revealed, the Government turned down every single one of our amendments in Committee, which shows that they have no interest in the kind of one nation, consensual government we were told they were interested in developing. That is why it is absolutely right that the Opposition Front Benchers will lead us to vote against the Bill tonight.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central said, there are huge challenges in education today. A recent report by the World Economic Forum puts us 27th out of 30 advanced economies in providing access to learning. As she said, there are immediate challenges in the retention and recruitment of teachers; in improving the quality of teaching, day in, day out, across our schools; in providing more school places in areas where they are needed, as a result both of the baby boom and the Government’s immigration policy; and in retaining a broad curriculum when the Government are cutting school budgets by 10% over the course of this Parliament, which will limit pupil choice as teachers are laid off and courses curtailed.

Broader challenges are facing education across the UK. We must tackle inequality in the early years by supporting parenting, attachment, and early years investment, and we must promote the collaboration, partnership and challenge that we need in an era of school autonomy. It is great that my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg has revealed the Liverpool challenge, which is beginning to take his work forward across the country. We must reform the upper-secondary curriculum, and develop a consensus to steer us away from the tired, GCSE model and towards a 14-to-19 baccalaureate model. We must attract high-quality teachers into low-income communities, because that is where they will make a real difference.

Nothing in this Bill—this Government’s first legislative Act in education policy—goes anywhere near addressing those critical challenges for our country. It is, as has been said, a tired, highly political and partisan piece of work and, with great respect to those in the civil servants Box, it has been drawn together rather shoddily over the summer and does not deserve our support. It seeks to resuscitate debates of a decade ago, and I find it sad that Tory thinking on education—which has been rather vibrant in recent years—has now been shown to be dead.

On Second Reading we set out some much needed improvements: action on coasting and underperforming academies and—crucially—academy chains; a quality threshold for new academy sponsors; devolution of power from the Secretary of State to combined authorities; and the end of the assault on free speech among parents. At the heart of this Bill lies dogma. The Secretary of State complained about a one-size-fits-all policy, but what she has brought to the House today is the idea that the answer to every educational challenge is academisation. That is a fallacy. What makes the difference in education is high-quality teaching, strong leadership, a faculty committed to change, and supportive parenting. In many situations a change of structure can afford that, and that was the original vision behind the Labour party sponsored academy programme. However, the debate has moved on, and as the Education Committee recently reported:

“Academisation is not…the only proven alternative for a struggling school.”

It also stated that there is

“no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools”.

It is right to oppose this Bill as it does nothing to challenge coasting academy schools, thereby letting down tens of thousands of schoolchildren on the altar of political ideology. We know what can raise standards in coasting schools: strong systems of partnership and challenge between and among schools; the professional development of teachers, week in, week out; strong leadership by heads. Instead we have blanket academisation, as if that is the only answer.

The Bill fails to address poor academy sponsors. Too many children have been let down in my constituency and those of my hon. Friends by the Department for Education’s “pile ‘em high” approach to academy sponsors. There has been a massive over-expansion in academy chains, and once again children are paying the price. There is an absence of good-quality academy sponsors, and nothing to show that forced academisation will improve quality. I remain of the view that Ofsted should inspect academy chains, just as it should inspect a local authority.

The Bill continues the remarkable programme to concentrate power in education in the hands of Whitehall. Steve Hilton, who used to be a guru for the Prime Minister, recently criticised the Government for their “soviet” command and control approach to education. The Secretary of State rails against bureaucrats, yet she gives more power to bureaucrats at the Education Funding Agency and Whitehall. The Labour party believes in devolution, which is why our amendments to hand real power to combined authorities in education and devolving schools policy were such a good idea. The middle tier is a real problem with the Government’s approach to education. Their vision of regional schools commissioners being able to solve every problem for academies has been shown to be completely wrong, and there is little evidence they are delivering the sustained improvements we need in schools.

Finally, the Bill launches a terrible assault on civil society. We need power closer to communities, but the Bill wrenches it from the hands of communities and once again gives control to Ministers. The Bill must be seen alongside the charities gagging Bill, the attack on trade unions in the Trade Union Bill and the assault on the free speech of the BBC. Time and again, we see an assault on free speech by the Government. It strikes me as wholly wrong not to allow parents to be involved in the conversation about the education of their children.

We generously gave the Government the benefit of the doubt on Second Reading, but they abused that trust in Committee by rejecting amendment after amendment. They have decided to begin this Parliament as they ended the last one, with a stale and tired debate about school structure, when our education system so desperately needs an inspiring, challenging and equitable programme for the future. It is right that we oppose the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House divided:

Ayes 300, Noes 200.

Division number 73 Bills Presented — Armed Forces — Clause 13 — Local authority adoption functions: joint arrangements

Aye: 300 MPs

No: 200 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.