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
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.