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My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Russell, has obtained this debate and has set it out so admirably. I shall not repeat his well-made points and so I shall speak briefly. I am also grateful to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence for its persistence in supporting families and children involved in the adoption process.
Adoption procedures have improved greatly over many years. Adoption agencies have contributed to the dialogue and to the action on it. The adoption support fund, ASF, introduced in May 2015, was a welcome and important development.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, the all-party group is calling for a commitment from the Government to put the ASF on a longer-term basis until 2030. It also calls for more support for local authorities in taking on the administrative burden placed on them by the ASF.
Adoption has been on the agenda in your Lordships’ House and in Parliament generally for many years. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who cannot be here today, has wisely led many initiatives, drawing on a lot of experience of our systems of adoption care for children. I want to recall something she said on
“we had very much in mind the right of the child to be brought up in his or her birth family, whenever possible, and the right of … children to respect for their family life … sadly, not all children are able to remain with their birth families. The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.”—[
So it is, of course. The noble and learned Baroness had written earlier of the importance of post-adoption support to families. She wrote, very tellingly, that the committee realised that implementing the recommendations
“will take time, commitment and money”.
She went on to say that that money was well spent in providing children with loving, caring homes and keeping them safe by means of adoption. How true, and how much worse the situation would be for children being cared for without structures and funding to enable them to thrive. That is what this debate will emphasise.
The Children and Families Act 2014 was thoroughly debated in your Lordships’ House. It covered a number of issues related to vulnerable children, including adoption and children in care. It put the best interests of children at the heart of decision-making. I repeat that that does not come cheap, but it is vital if we are to support children who may be in serious trouble and who may cause serious trouble without intervention, such as the ASF. This House has always been supportive of doing the best for children, and that tradition is carried on in today’s debate.
I am pleased to see that children were consulted in the APPG report. The messages from children in the report are moving and powerful, such as that the fund
“has helped me in tough situations”,
“I learned to calm my body down” and
“I don’t know where I would have been today without it. The fund has helped me stop doing drugs, being violent, feeling suicidal and self-harming.”
I hope that such comments and the report will convince the Government that the ASF is essential to support adoptive children and families. I go back to the regular plea to the Government from so many of us: to spend money on early intervention rather than waiting for problems to build up and possibly become out of control. Not only is it humane to provide such early intervention, it also saves a great deal of money in the long run in relation to anti-social behaviour, educational achievement and health outcomes. Some 79% of parents have said that the ASF is meeting a need not found anywhere else.
I want to turn briefly to the evaluation of the ASF in 2019. I found it very interesting. First, it recorded that the fund has clearly been a positive force in relation to child development, including behaviour, family functioning and the well-being of adoptive parents. Parental comments in the evaluation are significant and indicate a need for more therapeutic support; respite support; more flexibility in the scope of the fund, such as links with education; and improvements in the response of social workers and the fair access limit, which makes some types of support unavailable. Do we have up-to-date figures on uptake of the fund, and by whom? Are there geographical differences? Is take-up more prevalent in certain parts of the country than others? If so, why? Are there socio- economic differences? Are some people—special guardians, for example—missing out? I am aware that the fund is available only where the child was looked after immediately prior to the special guardianship order.
I want to give a specific example. I became aware of the needs of grandparents who care for children some years ago when I was involved in a drugs organisation. I learned that grandparents may take over looking after children when the parents cannot cope, are in prison or dead. Grandparents may become special guardians. The need for support for grandparents in these circumstances is enormous. Some are looking after more than one grandchild, and grandparents are ageing. Many do not take up special guardianship. Many find the bureaucracy of filling in forms, applying for support and seeking help daunting. A grandmother once said to me: “I should be reading to my grandson rather than spending hours filling in forms.” Kinship care is often very successful, with good outcomes, but many such carers feel overwhelmed by administrative detail and form-filling.
Are local authorities given the means to make adoptive parents aware of the ASF, and to support them? Who else promotes awareness and supports applications? I repeat my question to the Minister: what detail do we have on the take-up of the ASF? Is this an area to look at and improve on? If he cannot provide an answer today, maybe he could write to me and others speaking in this debate.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss the adoption support fund. I hope that our concerns will be noted by the Government, and that the good work of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and his colleagues in the APPG for Adoption and Permanence is appreciated. I look forward to the Minister’s response.