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 4:15 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 4:15 pm, 18th June 2019

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.