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

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

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Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench 4:02 pm, 18th June 2019

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.