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
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.