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Adoption Support Fund - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 4:55 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I have a similar interest to that of the right reverend Prelate to declare. I am blessed to be the father of an adopted and wholly remarkable young girl, who brings us huge joy. Like the right reverend Prelate, at least in respect of one aspect of her care, we have benefited from the fund’s existence. I know exactly what he is talking about. I also declare an interest as a member of the all-party group and of various self-organised adoption groups—the sort of groups that most adoptive parents find themselves in at one time or another.

I spent some years involved with and learning about adoption. I found that there is always something completely new to learn. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Russell of Liverpool for his outstanding leadership at Coram and for his ability to marshal and explain data that appears obscure to many people but is handled by him with a great deal of elegance and directness, which I value enormously. Although he cannot be here today, I also thank my noble friend Lord Listowel—he has also been a great force in this type of discussion or discussions about children in general—and I thank the other members of the all-party group. They are colleagues of great knowledge and commitment; I am honoured to be associated with them, as I am honoured to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester’s fine contribution.

If noble Lords will bear with me, for the next minute or so I want to try to describe why some of the things that happen feel so difficult. About 20 years ago, I chaired a national inquiry into housing benefit. I recall that inquiry today because, in it, we took evidence on the administration of housing benefit from more than 400 local authorities, from recipients and from those in the voluntary sector. Almost all of the local authorities had developed their own procedures. What they did was completely unintelligible—as unintelligible to them as it was to me. They had managed to wrap it in completely unintelligible language as well. Some of it was mysteriously linked to the procedures in other local authority departments with which they in housing benefit had never spoken—even when we found that their offices were next door to one another. Those other departments, which administered things such as free school meals or whatever, also spoke in equally mysterious codes and had equally labyrinthine processes.

I mention all this because, with the housing benefit, nobody—including its Minister—understood what was intended for some of the most deprived and struggling of their fellow citizens. Benefit recipients and authorities —everyone on both sides of the process—described their experience as like wandering in a strange land through a pea-soup fog. So I asked the inquiry to start again. It would assume the role of an out-of-work single mum of an adopted child in Easterhouse in Glasgow. Who and why on earth would anyone make her life more difficult and more uncertain? The inquiry would do its job in my view only if it could set out the value of housing benefit and the problems that it was supposed to address, so that we and that theoretical mum could understand it at the end of the process. Of course, we failed, but it was worth trying.

Adoption has many of the same characteristics. All the data speak to educational and developmental problems which we need to address. It will not be easy; the issues of attachment are complex. The desperately poor start in life that some children have because of drinking, addiction and instability on the part of their birth parents has already been described—fortunately, I have not experienced it. Those parents were never chosen by the child, but it is in their shadow that the child then lives. The overlapping conditions, the spectrums, can be punishing for any child and confusing for their adoptive parents and schools.

The multiple interventions for someone whom we really can help far better reminds me of that housing benefit experience. The harder your life is, the higher the hurdles we seem to erect for them to clamber over. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, wisely mentioned evidence from children given to the all-party group. They were able to explain their challenges and their appreciation of the adoption support fund. The higher the hurdles, the less resilience and sense of agency we provide for a child. Where we need scaffolding, we run the risk of far too little of it—far too little support for both the kids and their adults at home or in school. Parents and schools need systematic and coherent guidance; otherwise, it is simply too hard, too bewildering and too dispiriting. You want to do better for the child, but you find that you cannot.

It is not my aim today to be negative or to feel dispirited—I am in the same mood as my noble friend Lord Russell on this—but I just want us to do better if we can, very much in the spirit of Edward Timpson. I readily acknowledge the advances that have been made by Her Majesty’s Government, the value of the adoption support fund and the positive ministerial approach of Damian Hinds and of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, in this House. I acknowledge, too, the interventions of a former member of the Government, Andrea Leadsom—who I gather is not a member anymore. Theirs have been key contributions, as have been those from opposition leadership, including Lucy Powell MP and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in our own House.

There is much that has been done which we can admire, but the job is at best part done. What might we learn now, guided by the report that we have in front of us, by leading headteachers such as Stuart Guest in Birmingham and Robin Warren in Camden and not least by the remarkable and unflinching parents who came to the all-party group to give evidence or who write to me—and, I suspect, to others in this House—more or less daily? First, the value and success of the adoption support fund are undeniable. Its continuation was an excellent step. I know all the arguments about spending reviews—as a Minister, I have made most of them in my time and usually felt completely dispirited by being asked to do so—but a childhood is a long-term investment. Being a citizen is a long-term investment. Funding should be a long-term commitment. If we were talking about dialysis, for example, no one would dream of saying, “We’ll consider access to machines just for a year or two at a time.” The case for doing it in the long term has been made enormously powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and others today.

Given what we know about childhood mental health and diminishing personal resilience—subjects on which Matt Hancock MP and others have spoken eloquently —we know that we must back long-term remedial approaches as surely as we know we will face the long-term costs or the dire alternatives if we fail to treat kidney disease properly. No long-term plan is not a long-term option. What guarantees can the Minister give today, aside from saying that there is a spending review, which we all know?

I mention this only briefly, because I do not think it is the meat of this, but can the Minister also give some further guarantees to ensure that children adopted from care abroad will have the same education rights as kids adopted from care in the UK? He may respond by saying that he now knows that there is Private Member’s Bill before the House, but it would have been so much better if the Government had done it themselves.

The mind-boggling complexity that I referred to earlier relates to the fact that so many adopted children receive multiple diagnoses. The issues of attachment are often accompanied by sensory disorders, which may present as autism, attention duration problems, DCD, dyslexia and so on. Some kids may also, on top of that, be naughty. These are all things that happen in normal life. In the literature, misdiagnosis of a condition is frequent. Most significantly for today’s debate, it is the attachment issues that are considered last or not at all in that general mix. Parents may know and say that it is an issue to which they attach the greatest importance, given how much they know their child, but there are too few experienced school staff to recognise the issue properly. Exclusion tends to emphasise a breakdown in attachment. The evidence on rates of exclusion for adopted children should ring every alarm bell for us. I can say with certainty that it does for the parents who write to me.

I remain concerned about the general resilience and confidence of children—and of many of their teachers. You do not have to be a child with a problem to know that there are many challenges in life, but you may need a toolkit to handle the issues or the stress. They need to have those to become autonomous people.

Notwithstanding all that, there is a special and particular benefit that could be achieved. In our debate on 14 May, I suggested that a specific champion for adopted children be designated. The noble Lord, Lord Agnew of Oulton, made a response which is of course in Hansard from that day, saying that there were new systems in place and the Government needed to evaluate them. His officials may be learning from the initiative and studying it closely, but I tell noble Lords today that the overwhelming flow of parents’ reports that I get and the generous time that some schools have given me tell me that it is not working well. A qualified trauma lead in each local authority with real expertise would be a good start, as has been suggested. Some virtual heads do exist, but in many areas they do not. This is not yet an answer. I ask the Minister to return to the idea of having a champion who argues the case consistently and knits together the evidence.