Children’s Homes etc. Inspection Fees, Childcare Fees, Adoption and Children Act Register (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Regret

– in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Lord Russell of Liverpool:

Moved by Lord Russell of Liverpool

That this House regrets that the Children’s Homes etc. Inspection Fees, Childcare Fees, Adoption and Children Act Register (Amendment) Regulations 2019, in revoking the duty on adoption agencies to provide information to the Secretary of State about children approved for adoption and approved prospective adopters who have not been matched, and in allowing the adoption register for England to lapse from 31 March, have failed (1) to put forward satisfactory evidence to justify these decisions, (2) to offer a timetable for and clarity about a replacement for the register, and (3) to explain how Her Majesty’s Government intend to mitigate the risk of reduced provision for children who may be harder to place (SI 2019/835).

Relevant documents: 49th and 50th Reports from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, I declare my interest as a governor of Coram, which has been looking after the interests of children since it was established as the Foundling Hospital in 1739. I also place on the record the fact that Coram ran the Adoption Register for England on behalf of the Department for Education for the last three years of its existence. I am also an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adoption and Fostering.

I wish to make it crystal clear, however, that I am not speaking on behalf of Coram; I am expressing my own personal concerns. Above all, I am speaking on behalf of a small group of children, a group often described as the hardest to place, who have been waiting to be matched with adoptive parents for 90 days or more—often a great deal longer than 90 days. These are often children with special needs, children with disabilities and sibling groups.

I also wish to make it crystal clear that I do not put forward this regret Motion to try to castigate and embarrass the Government. On the contrary, as I said on the record in this Chamber on 14 May, in the debate on adoption initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, Governments of all political hues must be congratulated for a succession of initiatives which have significantly improved the standards of operation across the adoption sector and the chances of giving children new lives with loving families. It is fortunate that the Minister was at the Dispatch Box during that debate.

Under the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005, adoption agencies were given a duty to register this category of children unmatched after 90 days. During the last year of its operation, over 80% of the children referred to the register were in this category and it succeeded in making 275 matches. Despite it being a statutory requirement for this group of children to be registered, it is an open secret and accepted fact of life within the sector that not all of them have been. We simply do not know, and have never known, exactly how many children there are in this category.

Exactly five weeks ago today, it was brought to my attention that the Minister for Children and Families would be giving evidence to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee about his decision to stop the operation of the national register. I went to listen to the proceedings and was interested and encouraged by the obvious concerns felt by members of the committee. I was equally interested, if occasionally slightly baffled, by some of the explanations given by the Minister. The chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, spotted me lurking in the back of the committee room and kindly asked me if I had any questions for the Minister. I asked specifically about the potential impact of the loss of the register on the group of harder-to-place children, and was left at the end of the session with a nagging concern that the Department for Education seemed broadly satisfied and relatively unworried that there might be any negative impact, without having undertaken any really detailed analysis. This is not helped by the fact that we do not know, and have never known, exactly how large this group of children is, who and where they are and how long they have been waiting to be matched.

The Minister stated that he felt confident that, in particular, the excellent database and matching service provided by the market leader—a social enterprise called Link Maker, created by adopters five years ago—was already taking care of the needs of this group of harder-to-place children. Link Maker uses up-to-date technology which is particularly user-friendly for social workers and potential adopters. It is far fleeter of foot and more focused on customer experience than the somewhat clunky and technically less well-resourced national register. As of today, every English local adoption agency is happy to pay an annual fee of £5,000 to access Link Maker, which also provides the online platform for the Scottish and Welsh adoption registers. I have spoken at length with the chief executive of Link Maker, Mr Andy Leary-May, whom I thank for his help. He shares my concern, and that of Coram, about some children falling through the net. He wrote to me as follows: “The evidence suggests that, where a child’s agency has the resource and the will to proactively seek matches for harder-to-place children, the right tools are in place. However, we know that not all children in this cohort were referred to the register and it is fair to assume that not all are added to Link Maker. There is no mechanism currently in place to enable scrutiny of this, yet such a mechanism is perfectly feasible”. I will return to this theme later.

During his evidence, the Minister said that he agrees with the observations and recommendations of the report into foster care conducted by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers together with the House of Commons Education Select Committee. He said that:

“The work we do for the most vulnerable children in our care is far too siloed; fostering sits in one place and adoption somewhere else. We need to bring together our thinking and that is what the future will look like”.

He went on to describe his ambition to take all the databases sitting in local government, voluntary adoption agencies and fostering agencies and bring them into a single pipeline, so that everybody is looking at the same data, whether in fostering or in adoption. He did not make it clear whether this new capability would be designed to meet the requirement, stated by the chief executive of Link Maker, that all children up for adoption should be clearly and accurately identified. I think it would be fair to say that the Minister’s inability to say in his evidence exactly where this ambitious technology project is today, how long it may take to come to fruition and be in full operation and how much it will cost, did not appear to impress some members of the committee. None of the members, I suspect, are here, because the committee is in session as I speak.

When doing the homework in preparation for today’s debate, those with far more knowledge than me have suggested that the vision of joining adoption and fostering at the hip may be partially impracticable. What Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers actually said in their report was that adoption and fostering should be seen as a continuum. As I understand it, their recommendation is that fostering, which has specific characteristics very different from adoption, should follow the lead of the many improvements in the adoption sector and find the best way to emulate adoption’s success. One person summed this up forensically by saying that specialism is not the same as a silo. The department needs to have another long, hard look at some of the assumptions that appear to be the foundations of the Minister’s vision of the future.

I return to the issue of the potential impact on this group of harder-to-place children. I was somewhat perplexed to read on page 6 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the statutory instrument, under the heading “Impact”:

“There is no significant impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies. There is no, or no significant, impact on the public sector”.

There is no mention or analysis whatever of the potential impact on children. How can one claim to be totally child-centred in one’s approach while simultaneously failing to analyse rigorously what effects one’s actions will have on the child?

It is timely that only yesterday afternoon, several of us met with the Children’s Commissioner for England to be briefed on her forthcoming report on vulnerable children. I want to highlight two of her four key recommendations. The first is that a focus on children should be the starting point of any initiative. The second is that our aim should be children having happy lives and good prospects. I think most of us would find it difficult to disagree with these eminently sensible recommendations. However, I feel that the Government’s approach to the abolition of the national register, in appearing not to have clearly thought through the analysis of its detailed impact—let alone what, when and how some of its duties and activities will be continued—is not in the best interests of that subgroup of harder-to-place children. Some of these children are invisible or not present within the existing registration system.

Coram estimates that some 925 children in this subgroup are waiting to be matched today. The National Deaf Children’s Society is extremely concerned that the particular needs of disabled children up for adoption are best met by looking for matches at a regional or, preferably, national level, rather than at a local level. Given the concerns stated by many that the children will potentially be put at a disadvantage by a system that, today, does not necessarily identify and register them all, and that this state of affairs looks set to continue for an uncertain period of time, to be replaced by a registration system that has not yet been clearly defined, I put it to Her Majesty’s Government that this is a genuine cause of concern and for regret, which is why I have put forward my Motion.

The suggestion put forward by many, which I share, is that the Government should move expeditiously to create and manage one centralised national list of children and adopters, clearly identifying each individual in real time, and then allow the market to develop, without charge, applications that access this data and provide social workers and adopters with different ways of searching for and identifying potential matches. Many believe that an initiative such as this would also help to accelerate the creation and operation of the new regional adoption agencies. The chief executive of Adoption UK, Sue Armstrong Brown, states that a key constraint is how to develop new adopters: “There are examples of councils that turn away would be adopters because they do not fit the immediate needs of children coming on the local list. This might be because of a family’s ethnicity or an unwillingness to consider sibling groups when these features might match children elsewhere in the country”.

I urge the Government to consider prioritising the creation of such a national register. It will remove the cloak of invisibility from some of those children who have not been registered at all, highlight those who have been waiting for a match for anything from three months to several years, create a much richer and more diverse pool of potential adopters and, most important of all, maximise the chances of a child, in the words of the Children’s Commissioner, having a happy life and good prospects.

In the adoption debate on 14 May, the Minister, in response to my question about his own experience with vulnerable children when running an academy chain, said:

“One of the things that I did was to insist that we identified all looked-after children in the trust … I required a report on their progress to be made available to all our board meetings simply to raise the profile of these very vulnerable children. It was certainly my intent to go further than that”.—[Official Report, 14/5/19; col. 1546.]

Opportunity knocks. I look forward to hearing the views of noble Lords on these issues and the Minister’s response. I beg to move.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 4:15 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I express my thanks to my noble friend for making this important debate possible. When the Minister responds, I would be very grateful if he could be as explicit as possible in assuring the House that no vulnerable child will have been disadvantaged by the change in policy that my noble friend has enunciated.

We and successive Governments have been very concerned about black, Asian and minority ethnic children, sibling groups and children with special education needs being left behind in the adoption process. To successive Governments’ credit, much progress has been made. Obviously, we are all very concerned that this change in policy is not a step backwards.

My noble friend has talked about the imperative to think about the needs of our children and the importance of their future happiness, but we must also as a society think about the cost to society of failing to intervene early and effectively. I visited a residential school for children with severe trauma on Friday. They told me that it can cost a local authority £1 million to place a child in a residential setting. It is costing local authorities huge amounts of money to intervene very late in troubled children’s lives. I pay tribute to what the Government have been doing, but I would really appreciate it if the Minister could make it absolutely clear that there is no disadvantage to the vulnerable children successive Governments have been trying to serve in this change in policy. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, my father and his brother were adopted into a loving family, and it changed his and his brother’s lives for good, so in a sense I have a vested interest in this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the Motion to Regret and thank the noble Lord, Lord Russell, for moving it.

I am deeply troubled that the Government’s behaviour has made such a debate necessary. I remember that, during the coalition Government, the then Prime Minister David Cameron rightly spoke of the importance of adoption and the need to ensure that children are matched with the right family and that the process is not dragged into bureaucracy of our making.

I paid careful attention to what the Government said in the Explanatory Memorandum about the revocation of the regulations referring to the adoption register, but there is no explanation, merely a statement of what the regulations state, ending with the following sentence:

“These revocations are necessary as the Secretary of State will not be operating or maintaining an Adoption Register from 1 April 2019”.

That is the sum total of the Government’s justification for simply allowing the adoption register to lapse. They have abandoned—or let lapse—plan A without any plan B.

In the letter to the scrutiny committee, the Children’s Minister says:

“I would like to reassure the Committee that this decision was made following careful scrutiny of all the evidence and I am confident that it will not have a negative impact on children and adopters”.

However, there is no information about what “all the evidence” comprised, nor details of the “careful scrutiny” that the Government claim to have undertaken. It is difficult to challenge the Government’s decision, as the Explanatory Memorandum offers no explanation. The Government cannot claim that there will be no “negative impact”—nor, indeed, any other impact—as they have not undertaken an impact assessment of any sort. The adoption register has disappeared without trace and without any transition arrangements being put in place. Worse than that, there is no suggestion as to what the Government intend to do to replace the register.

Later in his letter, the Minister admits:

“It is my understanding that the charity Coram, the former contractor for the Adoption Register, also intends to set up a matching service. They have communicated that to all local authorities, but I do not know when this service is expected to launch … I do not know how many local authorities choose to subscribe to additional services … I am unable to say what the distribution of local authorities across that range is, except to say that around £5,000 is the average. The amount paid is a matter between individual local authorities and Link Maker”.

The Minister goes on to justify the decision by saying:

“The Adoption Register ceased operating on 31 March 2019, and, since then, I have not received feedback from any adoption agency to suggest they are struggling without it”.

I hope that the Government do not think that the lack of feedback within just seven weeks is evidence that there is no problem.

Some people may think that the regulations are just tidying up some unnecessary bureaucracy or getting rid of another length of red tape, but they would be wrong. It is always easier to talk in the abstract, but this is a shameful—perhaps dreadful—example of the Government pulling out of or back from doing something positive. The Government are washing their hands of hundreds of the most vulnerable children.

According to Coram—it ran the adoption register, as we heard—the hard evidence is that 277 of the most difficult-to-place children were found families in the single year up to 31 March 2019. Although I say “most difficult”, the difficulties are not of the children’s own making but their often complex needs mean that they need adoptive parents with the skill, determination and commitment to provide them with a proper home.

The alternative for many of these children is life in an institution of one sort or another—a life that could be transformed by finding the one set of parents in England that could meet their need for a family life, as happened for my father. In her letter to the scrutiny committee, the chief executive of Coram stated:

“The Adoption Register was the only registered, child-focussed pro-active independent service helping agencies to find adoptive homes for children when all other approaches have been tried. It was a vital extra chance for those who wait the longest - those with additional needs, developmental uncertainty, BAME or in sibling groups”.

In its excellent briefing, Coram said:

“Without the Register, agencies may pay to use an alternative product, with the total cost to the sector likely to exceed the value of the Register contract”.

The commercial alternative, depending on the size of the local authorities and the looked-after children population, is typically between £5,000 and £10,000 per local authority. We are all well aware of the dire situation of children’s services and the difficulty in them finding even this relatively small sum. To cover its annual costs, the register needed to help to find adoptive families for just two children who would otherwise have remained in care for the rest of their childhood—a target that has been achieved every year since it was created.

For some children, the adoption register was their last chance. For every child not adopted because the Government have abandoned the register, and for every adoptive parent not matched with an adopted son or daughter, the impact is incalculable. This Government should be ashamed of allowing the register just to disappear.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, due to the announcement in Part 4 to close the national adoption register for England, these regulations are subject to a regret Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, on which I congratulate him. I should also say that we do not believe that the negative procedure is appropriate in this case. It should be used for routine matters; by no stretch of the imagination is the sudden closure of the national adoption register—with no proper replacement identified, far less in place—a routine matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, the Explanatory Memorandum provides no rationale for it.

When a local authority considers placing a child for adoption, it looks for a match with a suitable family, which is often found locally. For some children, it needs to look further afield to families “recruited” by another adoption agency. To facilitate this process, the national adoption register was introduced in 2002. The database included details of children who had been approved for adoption but were waiting to be matched, approved prospective adopters and prescribed information about children for whom the adoption agency was considering adoption. It was used by social workers and approved prospective adopters to seek matches until it was closed down in March this year under these regulations.

Like the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, we find too many unanswered questions associated with the closure of the register. The committee drew the regulations to the special attention of the House on the grounds that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation. It also expressed concern that there was no public consultation on the closure.

Such was its concern that it held an oral evidence session with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families. The committee remain dissatisfied with Mr Zahawi’s responses to its probing about the potential implications of the Department for Education ceasing provision of the register before a replacement system is ready, particularly regarding the impact on hard-to-place children. At that session, the Minister stated repeatedly that his aim was to end what he called the “silo mentality”, saying that he wanted to bring fostering and adoption into one place. That is a worthy aim, but, unfortunately, he offered no suggestion as to how that might be achieved and said nothing at all about when or even if a new type of national register would be established involving children available either for adoption or fostering or both. How the needs of children would be separated if such a register were ever to be established was not left hanging because it was not even mentioned.

However, the Minister did say on numerous occasions, as did the DfE official who also gave evidence to the committee, that no gap would be left by the closure of the register. This was based on what seems to be the rather blithe belief that Link Maker, the commercial provider used by most local authorities, would simply pick up where Adoption Match, the name given to the service provided by Coram in operating the register, left off. The problem is that by far the largest part of the work carried out by Adoption Match was picking up the children that Link Maker and other smaller commercial agencies had been unable to place, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. This is the key issue because the national register was used primarily to deal with children that the commercial adoption agencies found almost impossible to place, particularly at the local level. It was focused on those who wait the longest: those with additional needs, special educational needs, developmental issues, from a black, Asian or other minority ethnic background, or sibling groups. What confidence can the Minister offer that Link Maker, which had hitherto been unable to match many such hard-to-place children and were content to allow Adoption Match to meet those needs, has refocused its efforts and is now able to achieve what it could not previously achieve?

In their evidence, the Minister, Mr Zahawi, and his official seemed to be relying on a wing and a prayer, yet sounded confident that Link Maker would pick up the slack in the system. Can the Minister explain why he believes that Link Maker can continue to do what it has been doing in terms of the service it had been providing but can now somehow find it within its resources to add to that the most difficult part of adoption matching—that is, finding families for this group of particularly challenging adoptees? This is the fundamental and essential question that the Government need to answer because they have not yet done so, and I really do not want to hear the Minister say, “Yes, we are completely confident that Link Maker can now achieve what it could not achieve previously”. Rather, I want to hear the Minister explain why his colleague Mr Zahawi and DfE officials believe that that will happen.

The voice of the child needs to be heard. Were they able to do so, the most vulnerable children would be saying, “What about us, Minister?” As the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, pointed out, they might well ask the same question in relation to the impact of this change.

In case the Minister feels that I am making rather too much of this issue—although agencies with difficult-to-place children may not—I pray in aid the correspondence provided by Link Maker to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which appears as Appendix 2 in the committee’s 49th report and as Appendix 3 in its 50th report dated 5 June. Not once in either submission by the organisation’s chief executive is there any mention of difficult-to-place children or of the fact that, with the closure of the register, the demands placed on Link Maker will increase as a result of assuming responsibility for those children previously placed via Adoption Match. If the Minister is not concerned by that omission, I suggest that he should be.

I want to make it clear that I am not questioning the quality of the service provided by Link Maker in the five years that it has been in existence. What I am questioning is its ability to absorb additional responsibilities without additional resources. Coram’s Adoption Match centre in Leeds employed 11 people, all of whom have now been made redundant. How many additional staff has Link Maker taken on to enable it to perform the functions carried out by Adoption Match? If Mr Zahawi’s aim of a joined-up operation is to come to anything, who will establish a fostering register—a point made forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool? Further, who will pay for its operation?

There are so many unanswered questions, which is precisely why the Government should not have jumped the gun by closing the national adoption register. It should have been maintained until such time as a replacement service was in place, having been properly tested and properly funded. Can the Minister explain why that did not happen and why it was necessary for precipitate action to be taken to close the register—the need for urgent action is not at all apparent? The register enabled matches that otherwise probably would not have happened, and neither the Minister nor his department have been able to offer convincing evidence that the commercial providers will be capable of placing children in those categories that they proved unable to place in the past.

It was at least comforting to read that Mr Zahawi said to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee:

“I am not doing this to save money”.

For the Minister’s sake, that is just as well, because it will have the opposite effect—although he appears oblivious to the fact. In its final year of operation, the national adoption register made 275 matches across England. There is well-founded concern that, in its absence, more than 200 children annually could end up remaining in care rather than being adopted, with local authorities as a result spending an estimated additional £7 million a year supporting those children. The register was operated by the children’s charity Coram at an annual cost of £600,000.

Vulnerable children need access to all the chances for a better future, and the national adoption register service was the last chance for some. The part of these regulations that closed the national adoption register for England was ill thought out and will not help agencies find adoptive homes for children in care when all other avenues have been tried. The Government could not convince the scrutiny committee that they had acted responsibly in closing the register. The House deserves the opportunity to decide whether it agrees with that verdict.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 4:30 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, for tabling this Motion. I understand that he has a strong interest in this area, so I appreciate his desire to have this debate.

Every child deserves a loving and stable home. For the majority of children, that is with their birth family. For others, it may be with extended family, foster carers or adoptive parents. Indeed, thousands of adoptive families have had their lives transformed by adoption, which can give vulnerable children the opportunity of a caring and stable home. I am proud of the work this Government have done, and continue to do, to support adoption.

The time it takes for a child to be adopted has fallen. Since 2012 the average time between a child entering care and being placed with a family has reduced by seven months to 14 months. This is encouraging, but of course more can be done. We are creating a network of regional adoption agencies across the country to help ensure that children are placed without delay and that high-quality adoption support is available nationwide. There are 80 local authorities in 18 live regional adoption agencies, which are reporting the benefits of working together. We expect all local authorities to be in a regional adoption agency by 2020.

Since launching it in 2015, we have provided almost £120 million through the Adoption Support Fund, helping adopted and special guardianship children and families adjust to their new lives. By March 2020 the total investment will reach almost £150 million.

These regulations do a number of things. However, I appreciate that the primary concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, relate to revoking the duty to refer children and adopters to the adoption register. As we have heard, the register was an online database that sought to match children and adopters who had not been matched locally. In August 2018 the Government announced their decision not to re-procure. The contract for its running ended on 31 March this year. As a result, we wish to revoke the duty to refer children and adopters. Not revoking this duty would cause an unnecessary burden on adoption agencies to fulfil a redundant duty to refer to a register that is no longer in operation. I reassure noble Lords that these regulations do not seek to do more than this. All other legislation relating to the adoption register remains.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, raised the issue of exchange days. The register contract part-funded exchange days and activity days. It is my understanding, from information provided by Coram, that it intended to continue them. These tend to be on a commercial basis, funded by local authorities. Central government funded them as part of a discovery phase to ensure that they worked—and in many cases they do.

The Government have considered these changes to the adoption register for some time, gathering evidence on its use. In late 2017 we completed specific research on the adoption register. To answer the specific question from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about how we reached this decision, the research found that although the register had been useful in matching children with adopters over its period of operation, practitioners did not favour it, instead wanting to be provided with up-to-date, accessible information. A clear theme arising from the research was the difficulty of using the register and views on its effectiveness. Over recent years the vast majority of adoption agencies—93%—have chosen to pay for subscriptions to alternative services, despite the adoption register being free. I understand that all local authorities now subscribe to an alternative.

Feedback from adoption agencies suggests that often the adoption register was used only because the agency was under a legal duty to do so. Before the register closed, we understand that the majority of children and adopters appeared on alternative matching services. In March 2019, the main commercial provider had active profiles for more than 1,500 approved adopters, while the register had around 400 active profiles.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, was concerned about a lack of compliance with the duty to refer. He is correct that, although there was a statutory duty on adoption agencies to refer children and adopters to the register, this did not always happen. I appreciate the concerns that the Government did not do enough to fix this. I assure noble Lords that we did take measures to address it: we regularly discussed the matter with Coram, the contractor, monitoring data or referrals and then speaking to the agencies when Coram had identified a recurring issue. My colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, also wrote to all local authorities to remind them of their obligation. It should be remembered that around 70% of adoption matches are not made using matching systems; they are made locally. The adoption register contributed around 7.4% of matches in 2017-18, with other services contributing the remainder.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is exactly the point: some 257 matches were made in 2018-19, and hard-to-place cases are the ones that we are concerned about. The Minister has not so far mentioned hard-to-place children. I hope that he will come on to that.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I assure the noble Lord that I will specifically address the issue of harder-to-place children in a moment.

Since we announced the closure back in August 2018, the Government have not received any feedback to suggest that local authorities and adoption agencies are having difficulties matching children. In fact, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that,

“local authorities continue to take responsibility for our children who need adoption and the adopters we approve, and have never relied on one system alone in the matching process”,

and ahead of the closure, the sector leaders spoke out about their support for the decision.

On harder-to-place children, the noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Watson, sought reassurance that such children would not be more vulnerable or drop out of the system because of the loss of the register. The adoption register was never intended to be solely for harder-to-place children. Rather, it was to provide an alternative source of potential adopters for all children. To some extent, all children who are not placed locally, so needing a matching service, could be regarded as harder to place. But “harder to place” is generally understood to mean sibling groups, ethnic minorities, children over five years-old and children with a disability. One of the commercial alternatives contains a high number of hard-to-place children. I understand that its recent child cohort included 50% in a sibling group, 12% aged over five, 27% who did not identify as white British and 15% who had multiple health or emotional needs. I hope that that also addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey.

In a recent survey by Link Maker, the alternative provider that was discussed, 67% of respondents said there had been no change to their ability to find matches for harder-to-place children, 14% suggested that it was now harder and 17% suggested that things had improved. Indeed one of the comments said,

“by far the most matches for the harder to place children, siblings groups etc, came via Link Maker rather than through the Adoption Register”.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked how many children were likely to miss out on placements. That is the most crucial question in this debate. I would like to reassure noble Lords that children are not being left behind following this decision. There is no gap in provision; children are and will continue to be matched with loving families. The Government will of course continue to monitor this and robust action will be taken if this changes.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked about a lack of proactive searching. I understand that there is concern that the alternative provider offers only a system, whereas the register provided an additional service. As the noble Lord said, the register employed 10 regional business partners to search for links. In 2018-19, it found 120 matches. During the same period, the main commercial alternative found 967 matches. If a child has been waiting for a long period, the main commercial provider system will proactively contact the social worker to provide assistance.

Alongside the register, agencies have used a range of other services and also use the exchange and activity days that I have already mentioned, including commissioning them for their areas. It is important to acknowledge the important work of Coram in this area. I recognise the important work that the noble Lord, Lord Russell, does with Coram and the support he provides to it.

Naturally, I understand concerns when we talk about commercial providers, but I assure noble Lords that we are not talking about large organisations making a profit at the expense of children and adopters. The main commercial provider, Link Maker, is a social enterprise run by a group of adopters. It monitors the progress of children added to the system, and if a child has been on the system for an extended period, an email is sent suggesting ways of finding matches. I understand that another service is being launched and will be run by Coram, which, as I said, is respected for its work.

For the main commercial provider, subscriptions by local authorities are paid on an annual basis, not per child. There is no reason—in particular, no financial reason —why a commercial service would ignore harder-to-place children. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child they are looking after, and I trust that they will continue to fulfil this duty.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about the cost of Link Maker. I appreciate the concern about the cost of commercial alternatives. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said to the committee, on average it costs a local authority about £5,000 a year for the subscription. I appreciate the concern when considering that the adoption register was a free service, but it is important to state that the majority of adoption agencies—around 93—were already paying for a subscription.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked about our future plans. The Motion refers to work we are undertaking on the feasibility of a future digital infrastructure to support this area. This brings us to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about the Select Committee and Sir Martin Narey. Both reports suggested that the Government’s work for the most vulnerable children in our care is too siloed. The reviews found that considering the component parts of the care system, for example fostering and adoption, in isolation,

“creates an unhelpful divide in the way we approach a child’s experience in the system and his or her routes to permanence”.

In response to this, we are trying to improve support across the sectors with better information and better systems. Agencies hold and share a lot of data and need to ensure that it is managed appropriately. We are exploring the feasibility of introducing a system that can bring it together to support better communication and present it in one place in a user-friendly way. We agree that this makes sound sense and we are actively considering the implementation of a single list.

Reflecting the findings of these recent reviews, we want to work with the sector to think through the best digital infrastructure to support adoption and fostering. My colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, will write to colleagues to provide more detail on this work following the spending review.

Beyond the adoption register, I shall also say a few words about what else these regulations cover. They make changes to inspection fees for social care providers and childcare providers. They introduce a 10% increase to the fees payable to Ofsted by some social care providers to move closer to full cost recovery. This increase has been made annually since 2010. As well as this, Ofsted charges an annual registration fee to childcare providers on the early years register. This statutory instrument maintains the current registration fee of £50 for a specific group of providers that operate for only a limited number of hours each day, reducing the potential burden on childcare providers of a fee increase.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to the procedure used for these changes to the regulations. I understand that there has been some concern. We are advised that the negative procedure was correct for this type of change, and it is the procedure set out in the primary legislation. We spoke to the sector extensively, and it was comfortable with the adoption register coming to an end. We wanted to revoke an unnecessary duty; indeed, we were asked to do so by the sector. There was therefore a feeling that this was routine and that we were attempting to tidy up regulations so as not to leave a redundant duty. I reassure noble Lords that there was no attempt to hide this or slip it through under the radar.

I welcome noble Lords’ interest in these regulations. I want to provide reassurance that the Government have spoken to the sector extensively regarding changes to the adoption register and that that dialogue continues. Feedback shows that users of the register are comfortable with the decision to end its operation. We have not received any feedback to suggest that agencies are struggling without it. I accept the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that it is early days; however, had it been crucial to the operation of local authorities, within three months we would have heard something from them.

I hope that I have been able to provide more context to these changes and to reassure noble Lords of the focused and necessary attention of these regulations. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Russell, to withdraw his Motion.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, I thank everybody who has taken part in this brief discussion and thank the Minister for his response. I felt on occasions slightly as though I were sitting in an echo chamber and going round and round in circles. I appreciate that the ministerial response is written for him, but I still have genuine concerns about the fact that Her Majesty’s Government do not know, and have never known, the exact number of children—particularly harder-to-place children—who are waiting to be matched. We have never had a definitive figure; that is an abrogation of our duty. We have a duty to know who those children are, where they are, what sort of condition they are in, and to be able to track what is being done to help them find a match to transform their lives—for example, keeping sibling groups together, or helping a deaf or blind child to find a loving family who will understand how to respond to and look after their needs.

Despite the briefings that various organisations have provided, I decided to do my homework and have spoken directly to some of the people who provided the briefings, asking some awkward questions of what is behind the fine words. The answer is that, while much in the adoption sector is going well and has definitely improved over the last two decades—I take my hat off to various Governments for achieving that—we still do not know how many of these vulnerable children there are or exactly what is going on. I do not find that satisfactory.

I will not myself push this to a vote. If any other noble Lords wish to do so, that is up to them. I make it clear that, should it be put to a vote, I will abstain. My view is that this is a matter divorced from party politics; we have quite enough of that going on at the moment, including as we speak, with—to plagiarise Oscar Wilde—various members of the unspeakable classes in pursuit of the unachievable. But that is another matter. So I am not going to push this, but I hope that the Minister and his officials will read what I have said carefully; I hope that they will speak to various people in the sector to find out what is really going on, ask awkward questions rather than just listen to the answers one might hope to hear, and do everything possible to identify those vulnerable children. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Some Lords objected to the request for leave to withdraw the Motion, so it was not granted.

Ayes 217, Noes 132.

Division number 1 Children’s Homes etc. Inspection Fees, Childcare Fees, Adoption and Children Act Register (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Regret

Aye: 215 Members of the House of Lords

No: 130 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Motion agreed.