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My Lords, I rise as perhaps the only person in this debate who does not have an interest to declare and does not speak with expertise on the matter. Normally in your Lordships’ House, this would be something to be avoided and I did think long and hard before I put my name down to speak, but it was clear that it was important to have somebody from these Benches speak in this debate. The issue of adoption and, in particular, the adoption support fund, is not a party-political matter, and the APPG is obviously cross-party. Equally, it is important that your Lordships be aware that these Benches take the matter very seriously. As my colleagues who had been part of the APPG and contributed to the report could not be here—my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lady Hamwee, and Norman Lamb, who was in the other place—I put my name forward to speak.
As is conventional in such circumstances, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Russell, on pressing for the debate and being third time lucky in securing time for it today. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group for putting together such an extraordinary inquiry, bringing together so many people and getting not just adults to respond but nearly 300 children and young people: so often when your Lordships’ House and the other place do inquiries, whether through all-party parliamentary groups or committees, we talk to the great and the good and we invite people whom we know are experts. In the context of adoption, the experts in many ways are those who have adopted children or who are themselves adopted. The fact that the all-party parliamentary group was able to hear from so many young people is fascinating and very important.
I note that the inquiry explicitly said that it sought to examine the lived experience of families and young people impacted by the fund and to improve the understanding of key issues within Parliament. Therefore, it is particularly important that this debate is happening today and that Parliament, even if these Benches are not very full, is at least able to debate the topic and to have the matter recorded in Hansard. It is also very important for those of us who do not have direct experience of adoption to be able to hear the moving testimony of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, because the ability to understand in more detail how the adoption support fund can work, not just in theory but in practice, is hugely important.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, in his excellent opening speech raised the detailed questions that need to be considered, yet it is important to rehearse some of the issues that we hope the Minister will be able to respond to. In particular, some of the key issues relate to funding. We are due to have a Budget in four weeks’ time. We have a brand-new, untried and untested Chancellor of the Exchequer as of today. Normally, it would be appropriate for the Minister to respond to questions and, if he is not able to respond today, to write to us with the answers. On this occasion I suggest that not only do we ask the Minister to go back to his own department to look for answers, but perhaps it would be timely to see whether the incoming Chancellor of the Exchequer can be persuaded to look at the long-term funding of the adoption support fund. At the moment it is funded through to 2021. It has been going since 2015. The APPG suggested that it should be funded until 2030. So far there has been an additional year’s funding, to 2021.
Year-by-year funding is not desirable and we have already heard this afternoon about the difficulties of funding and of dealing with forms that have to be filled in regularly. Like the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, I have had experience of local government finance, not so much in terms of housing benefit, but I had responsibility for grants going to voluntary sector, where each year forms had to be filled in. Every year, organisations would get deeply concerned about whether they would have their grant renewed. Usually, they were told that their grant would be frozen in real terms. They might see a cut in their grant. That was destabilising and created uncertainty for voluntary organisations. How much more difficult is it for families who have to apply for funding every year and are never sure whether the funding they receive will be ongoing?
Therefore, my first question for the Minister is: what do the Government propose by way of longer-term funding for the ASF? Will Her Majesty’s Government be able to make a commitment up to 2030, as the APPG suggested?
Beyond that, could they look at the rules and regulations that are in place? A centralised system, meaning there is not a postcode lottery, is clearly important. Ensuring that adopted children and young people and their families can have access wherever they are in the country is vital. As we have seen in the report, almost everyone who has had access to the fund has said how beneficial it has been and how they have received support they would not otherwise have had. How much better would it be if decisions could be taken not simply on a year-by-year basis but according to clinical need? If clinicians believe that someone would benefit from therapy for 18 months, two years or three years, or at least beyond a year, surely that should be granted without people having to go back and fill in forms annually. Could that be considered?
It is clear from the report that social workers who are supposed to give advice and support families in completing forms are in some ways overburdened and, in some cases, feel that they do not have the relevant expertise and clinical knowledge to give the necessary advice. Could the Government consider giving additional support and training to social workers? Might they even put in additional funding support to ensure that the social worker’s job becomes easier? Might they also consider allowing voluntary adoption agencies to apply directly to the fund? All these things should be additional funding to support the administration. The funding should not simply be taken out of the ASF, reducing what is available to families, but rather a way of strengthening the fund and ensuring the great benefits that have already been brought about can continue.
I thank the APPG for all the work it has done and reiterate how important it is for the fund to continue and for the Government to ensure that families can be supported as far as possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said in his opening remarks, prevention is in many ways the most important thing. It is so much better to ensure that children and young people who have been taken out of traumatic conditions are enabled to come to terms with their past, engage with their present and live the best lives they can. We as a society owe it to them to enable them to do so fully and with our support.