Examination of Witnesses

Education and Adoption Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 30 June 2015.

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Sir Martin Narey, Carol Homden and Annie Crombie gave evidence.

Q 105

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Welcome back. Would the witnesses introduce themselves to the Committee?

Sir Martin Narey: Certainly, sir. I am Sir Martin Narey, and I am chair of the national Adoption Leadership Board. I was chief executive of Barnardo’s for five years.

Carol Homden: I am Carol Homden, chief executive of Coram.

Annie Crombie: I am Annie Crombie, chair of the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Q 2

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

May I ask all three of you, what problem are these proposals designed to address and will they do it?

Sir Martin Narey: I have been instinctively against structural change. When I first started advising the Government, I just wanted us to encourage local authorities to get on to it and, actually, they did. They have done really well with recruitment. The measures address a fundamental problem with matching. As well as chairing the national board, I spend a bit of time in the north-east, which is where I live. For many local authorities, the last adopters they want are adopters who live within the confines of their area. They are placing neglected children, who need to be put somewhere else for their safety. Matching on a more regional basis will make a difference. I hope that the proposals will reduce the parochialism of local authorities so they will look for the very best adopters, whether they are from another local authority or from a voluntary adoption agency.

Carol Homden: There is huge variation in performance between different agencies across the country, which results in a postcode lottery for children. It is important that we bring together the agencies and organisations in the pursuit of excellence and best practice for all children. The proposals may assist that process.

Annie Crombie: One of the things that the proposals are trying to address is the challenge of sequential decision making. We have seen this problem in the adoption system for years whereby a local authority will look first to adopters that it has within its own pool and then only after it is clear that there is no one suitable there will it look beyond to what we call an inter-agency placement.

These proposals could help significantly with that, meaning that local authorities will look immediately towards a bigger pool of adopters. There is a risk that, unless the voluntary adoption agencies are a really key part of the regional adoption agencies—we hope that they will be—they will find it harder to continue to provide adopters. That is a risk that I think needs to be managed, but we need to ensure that the adopters that voluntary adoption agencies provide are also available to local authorities and that the regional adoption agencies would look for those adopters as well for ones within a local authority pool.

Q 3

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

If the problem is largely about matching and there is a postcode lottery, would it not make more sense to give the local authorities the role of purchaser and allow specialised agencies with all their expertise to go out, find the families and do the matching? Would that not be just as adequate a solution as this proposal?

Sir Martin Narey: One of the things I like about the proposal is that it is not very prescriptive about how regions will do that. I think if some local authorities in a region came together and decided that the best thing to do would be to contract out their recruitment of adopters to a voluntary adoption agency, they could do that. I like to think that the Government have listened to advice, including from me, and I think the Government have listened to local authorities, many of whom I have met, who instinctively want to do something differently. They realise that the current limitations in 152 local authorities—180 organisations including VAAs—doing this is not very sensible. They have been given an opportunity, with a bit of money, to help them to improve their own service.

I go around the country quite a lot and I have yet to meet an adoption manager or director of children’s services who does not think that this is something that could make things better. They are thrilled about the opportunity to design what is best for them themselves, rather than taking a top-down model.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—


In programme order [this day], in the table—

Delete “2.45 pm” and insert “3.15 pm”.

Delete “3.15 pm” and insert “4.00 pm”.

Delete “4.00 pm” and insert “4.30 pm”.

Delete “4.15 pm” and insert “4.50 pm”.

Delete “5.00 pm” and insert “5.45 pm”.—(Margot James.)

Q 4

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

Sir Alan, before we come to Dr Homden, could I just check something? I was asking why not go for a purchaser-provider split, and Sir Martin said that the great thing is that this proposal is permissive, non-prescriptive and allows people to innovate. Actually, the legislation before us for which you are a witness, is about the powers of direction that the Secretary of State is planning to take. Is that not the case, Sir Martin?

Sir Martin Narey: Yes it is, but the Government have made it clear that the powers of direction will not be used unless local authorities do not move. Local authorities are actively doing that.

Q 5

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

Sir Martin, that may be the case. The point I am making is that you cannot say that the legislation creates this permissive environment. The legislation is to give the Minister powers of direction. Your desire in what he is telling people externally may be what you are describing, but the legislation is about giving him powers of direction.

Sir Martin Narey: I understand that.

Q 6

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Dr Homden, I think you were about to answer the question before we went to vote.

Carol Homden: In establishing regional entities, which Coram has already done, local authorities have taken a range of different views in what will best meet their needs, and have used a procurement and contract process in order to align those needs. Different local authorities will apply different modules and commission different services.

We have in process the formation of such an entity with a set of five local authorities, which will see those different approaches taken, but all of them will benefit from a centre of expertise with resilience in practice leadership and social work retention and, therefore, offering added benefits to children and adopters locally on a hub-and-spokes model. You are quite correct, Mr McCabe, that this is about taking a power, but I am sure that good sense would prevail: if excellence in practice is being delivered and something is not broken, then it does not need to be mended, irrespective of questions of scale.

Annie Crombie: What we want is a local authority to look as widely and swiftly as possible for the best possible match for a child, and not to be constrained in doing that by looking only, or for a long time, introducing delay, within their own local authority area. We need to ensure that in moving towards regional adoption agencies we do not introduce a disincentive for local authorities to look outside a regional adoption agency if the right placement is outside rather than inside. It is that kind of issue that is again around that sequential decision making, which we need to ensure we address as the policy on this develops.

Q 7

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

The relevant clause in the Bill talks only about adoption, but there other forms of permanence. In fact, for most children in care, the other forms of permanence are where they end  up. Do you have concerns that the measure will exacerbate an existing gap in the quality—or perceived quality, at least—of adoption and fostering, residential care and kinship care?

Sir Martin Narey: I do not take that view. I think the Government, certainly encouraged by me in my role of the past few years, are encouraging adoption because adoption happens to be the disposal that has been in such long-term decline. I am puzzled when people talk about the emphasis being given to adoption, as opposed to other disposals. The number of special guardianships, from a zero start in 2006, has now caught up with adoption. There were 5,000 adoptions last year and 75,000 fostering placements.

Adoption has been in long-term decline, despite some spirited attempts to revive it by the Labour Government, who inherited figures of about 2,000 adoptions and got them up to about 3,700. The figures then immediately fell away again. This Government have brought great leadership to it and have got the numbers up to about 5,000. In 1975, there were 24,000 adoptions a year in England. Adoption has been in long-term decline, despite the evidence that it offers quite extraordinary advantages in terms of permanence and outcomes for children.

Despite all the difficulties that adoption can present, it offers quite extraordinary options for changing the lives of neglected children. Even after the recent slowdown in placement orders, we still have children waiting for adoption who need it as soon as possible. We are right to try to make sure that we have a system that is more fit for purpose and can fill that gap.

Q 8

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Before I come to Dr Homden and Annie Crombie, is there anything in the Bill that will help children who are placed through other forms of permanence?

Sir Martin Narey: There is nothing in the Bill that will do that. I believe, however, that the emphasis on adoption has had significant advantages for other forms of placement. The emphasis on responding to neglect means that the Government have done other things to make long-term fostering easier—the development of and financial investment in special guardianship. A lot more has happened in dealing with neglect and adoption, but adoption is still not meeting the role it could play in responding to neglect.

Carol Homden: I agree with that. Adoption is not in conflict with other forms of permanence. It is an exemplar of when the care system works correctly for children for whom the risks are so great that the decision has been taken, by due process, that they need to be placed in a new, loving family. We need to guard against putting up different forms of solution for children as if they are somehow in conflict with one another. We need to aspire to ensure that the appropriate decision making is in the timescale of the child, and that children’s need for continuity of relationships and attachments is foregrounded in all those decisions and in the actuality of practice.

All too often, children from the care system report repeated changes in social worker and in placement. That is where our attention should sit, but the Bill focuses on seeking to accelerate and accentuate a direction of travel to ensure the maximum benefit for children for whom adoption is the right plan. I commend to you a further focus and emphasis on the benefits of concurrent  planning and foster-to-adopt approaches—particularly concurrent planning, which offers a fully fair, appropriate and transparent way to foreground children’s need for attachment, while allowing all proper support and opportunities for birth parents to demonstrate their capability to change.

Q 9

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

As far as you are concerned, will the Bill’s provisions help with the challenges you have outlined?

Carol Homden: It certainly will. It is not possible for very small agencies, however noble their intent, to provide sufficient opportunities for concurrent planning, which is a specialist form—for example, within a very small social work team. Having a larger base of resilient social work will allow that kind of opportunity to become normalised for more children.

For example, in the establishment of Coram Cambridgeshire Adoption—the first voluntary adoption agency into which Cambridgeshire County Council has delegated its adoption functions—we simultaneously introduced concurrent planning. Twenty-five per cent. of adoption placements in Cambridgeshire were made through concurrent planning last year, with significant benefits for the timeliness and for those children’s attachments.

Q 10

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Will the Bill help with children who are sometimes regarded as hard to place—sibling groups or children with disabilities, for example?

Carol Homden: In my view, absolutely; definitely. Those are the circumstances in which the principle that Annie indicated—the principle of having the widest possible range of adopters and specialist services available to provide the necessary ongoing, reliable and consistent post-adoption support—is more likely to be resiliently achieved within a larger grouping of agencies that have a common purpose.

Annie Crombie: I agree with much of that. The point about scale and the specialism of adoption services is important. If regional adoption agencies work well, it could allow agencies that really specialise, or develop specialist expertise—such as some that I represent—to offer their services in a much more structured way across a wider number of local authorities, rather than it being a question of an individual relationship or a happy coming-together in the margins of a conference with a local authority making an arrangement with a particular voluntary adoption agency that has a specialism in a particular type of work. We could see those sorts of services being made available in a more systematised and structured way, which would benefit more children.

To come to the earlier point that you made, I welcome the way that the Government document published to support this opens the door to arrangements that go wider than adoption. Many of the voluntary organisations that work in this area provide services across more than just adoption; some do not, some are very adoption-focused, but many do. It may well make sense to think more broadly than just adoption, but there is something about specialism here that is important, and which I think we all want to see developed in relation to some aspects of adoption.

Q 11

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Good afternoon. My question is to everyone in turn. The Bill states that an authority’s functions may be  taken on by either another local authority or another adoption agency but there is nothing to say which criteria the Secretary of State will choose for the preferred option. I was wondering whether the panel could help out the Secretary of State and suggest what kind of criteria she might use.

Annie Crombie: I do not imagine that the Secretary of State would disagree that it is really important that quality should be at the heart of any regional adoption agency and that we need to think about expertise in the different elements of what is needed to be able to provide a good adoption service. If a group of local adoption authorities without any particular strength in low incidence adoption support—without any specialism in particular provision of therapeutic services—were to come together, it would not provide a strong service for children in the area. If they include someone with a specialism or real, and proven, expertise in adoption support, then that would be much better. So it is about quality across all the different elements of what an adoption service needs to do.

Carol Homden: Quite clearly, excellence for children is what needs to drive us. That is our sole focus and concern. Therefore, in making any decisions on intervention, I think that the Government would wish to consider the criteria that it applies in other circumstances where there is a shortfall against national standards. In considering how we might take forward regional adoption agencies we, as an organisation that already provides regional adoption agencies, have given considerable thought to this and would recommend including six key criteria that should be taken into account—we would be prepared to give written evidence of those recommendations.

The first is that bringing weak things together does not in itself make a strong thing. Any hub should therefore include at least one agency, as the lead, that is rated either good or outstanding. The aim must be to replicate good practice, not to concentrate less good practice. Steps should be taken to ensure that not all the agencies forming the arrangement are characterised by a high turnover in social work staff, since relationship continuity is essential to the support of adopters and children and effective planning. Data collection and case-tracking systems are directly related to performance management and should be robust in at least one agency. There is considerable complexity in the different systems used by local authorities and the more of them that are involved in any regional agency, the more complexity and difficulty there is in managing risk and optimising outcomes. The definition of a cluster should relate to road transport and not to the other forms of consideration around what might constitute a region. The important factor here, as it is for a special school, would be the travel distance involved for adopters and children to access the services that they need.

Any hub should explain how it will build upon the cross-regional system support that is already provided in our nation. This includes, for example, First4Adoption, which has demonstrated the benefits of consistent customer service and could do far more on a cross-national basis. Every hub should undertake a market risk assessment if it is excluding any voluntary adoption agency, since more than 90% of voluntary adoption agencies are good or outstanding. Any loss of that excellence in the system could only be a disbenefit to children.

Sir Martin Narey: I will not give you six criteria but just one. I have not given much thought to the criteria for how this will be used, because I genuinely believe that there will be a significant move towards regionalisation, which will occur of its own volition. This was poised to happen before the election. For me, the overwhelming criterion when we look at adoption—or indeed other forms of permanence—is how quickly we rescue a child from neglect and put them into a home in which permanence is achieved, and where the reparative work can begin.

We have made great strides with recruitment, but matching still takes far too long. The main criterion for me is how quickly we can improve the process of matching and achieve greater pragmatism in matching. Matching between adopters and children sometimes takes too long as we search for the mythical set of perfect parents, but the sooner we get children into permanent homes, the sooner and more complete will be their recovery from the desperately adverse consequences of being brought up in neglect.

Q 12

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

I understand that different local authorities and different areas might have different approaches, but do the members of the panel agree that it is important for the local authorities and agencies that are affected by this that there should be some kind of criteria in place? I think that Dr Homden and Annie Crombie agree, but Sir Martin does not.

Sir Martin Narey: No, I think that if these powers have to be used, then of course there will have to be some criteria. I have not yet had any discussions with either the Secretary of State or the Minister of State on what the criteria will be, because I think it is unlikely that these powers will have to be used other than very rarely. My sense from going around England and speaking to directors of children’s services is that they are keen to do this, because they will be able to do better at the job of adoption and particularly of matching and—given that improvements usually cost money—it will save them some money as well.

Q 13

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North

I wanted to pick up on something that Dr Homden said, with which I will not disagree. She referred to looking at road transport as the means of establishing a hub. Presumably you have already given consideration to island regions where road transport is not possible, Dr Homden?

Carol Homden: Quite clearly, there are specific circumstances which will need to be carefully considered, affecting the regional and also the metropolitan areas as well as island areas. These are complicated matters, and there may be a very good reason why the Minister would wish to consider whether or not it would be appropriate to seek a particular form of involvement in a region. It may be that partnership in a much larger geography is more practical, or more meaningful in terms of access to the services that a particular area needs; I completely acknowledge that point. However, for the majority of places, these practical considerations will be ones that involve road transport links.

Q 14

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

Annie, you mentioned the inter-agency barriers that still exist. Could you confirm that the Bill actually does nothing to address any of those barriers other than creating  bigger agencies? Secondly, to the whole panel, do you think that this will actually restrict choice for adopters in terms of agencies at a local level?

Annie Crombie: On the inter-agency point, the policy around regional adoption agencies would bring together a number of local authorities. At the moment, if a local authority purchases an adopter from another local authority or from a voluntary adoption agency, it pays for that adoptive placement. It pays the same amount whether it is to a local authority or a voluntary adoption agency. That levelling of the amount paid is an achievement of fairly recent years, and it has meant a great deal in terms of sustaining the participation of the voluntary sector. It cannot afford to do the work it does unless it gets paid a fair price. That has also been an achievement because it has ensured that local authorities would not look more favourably on another local authority placement just because it was cheaper, and genuinely think about which is best for the children.

A regional adoption agency—while it has reasonably not yet been worked out what that would look like—will probably change the way in which money changes hands when a child is placed from one local authority with an adopter. It might mean being placed elsewhere with an adoptive parent approved by a different part of the region. It might mean there is a single adopter, approver and recruitment arm in a regional adoption agency and so all of those adopters feel free to you. That could be a really good thing because there will be a much bigger pool and there will not be any financial barriers stopping the placement of a child with a particular adopter. The risk for the voluntary sector is that if it is not part of that, suddenly the cost drivers change and the placement feels very expensive again. That is why it is so important that we think about how the voluntary agencies can continue to be part of the landscape and part of the regional agencies.

Carol Homden: On your point about choice, there are some areas, with reference to the previous question, where in practice there is no choice. There is a local authority agency and I’m sure it works in the full best interests to meet the needs of those adopters, but generally, choice is a positive thing in any system. It tends to drive quality and, in a digital era where, for example, people can search for information on adoption first, they are better able to make a judgment and to find an agency with which they feel comfortable. An adopter is making a life-changing, lifelong decision. They need to have full confidence and trust in the particular social worker or group of social workers that they are working with. It is a risk to us if this reform process leads to a reduction in choice across boundaries, particularly given that there is generally a much higher level of engagement from and satisfaction of adopters from the first call to voluntary adoption agencies, which deepens through the process, including with post-adoption support. The point needs to be about protecting equality and choice in whatever arrangements we make.

Sir Martin Narey: The only thing that I would like to add is that the really important choice element in adoption is the choice of child. These arrangements will significantly increase the choice of children for adopters. At the moment, if a prospective adopter is unlucky enough to be living in one of the 20 local authorities that dealt with fewer than 20 adoptions last year or in a local authority where there are already many more adopters  than children, it will be very difficult to get a child. The future is finding the best parents for adopted children, wherever they are. You are taking evidence later from Adoption Link. I think that is an incredibly good initiative, which is opening up the prospect of searching beyond regions to find the very best possible adopters. I am sure this will improve adopter choice significantly.

Q 15

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Carol very helpfully set out some guiding principles on what should underpin the development of regional adoption agencies to make sure that they are driving the excellence that we want to see, as we have set out in our “Regionalising adoption” paper. Could you also say what the risks are of the Secretary of State being overly prescriptive through a direction about what that regional adoption agency should look like, given that we are hoping and expecting this to come from the bottom up on a local level rather than be dictated from the centre?

Sir Martin Narey: The reason that I counselled you and your predecessor Tim Loughton against making structural arrangements to further recruitment is that I thought it would result in you, your officials and me being absorbed in nothing else for two or three years. We would just be managing the incredibly complex business of using new structures. That is why I hope that you do not have to use this direction very much at all. If you do, there will be a very great risk that it diverts us from the more important task of making sure that we are getting children from neglect and into adoptive homes as fast as possible. I am confident that you will not have to use this power very much, but if you do, it will be a significant risk. If we have to design top-down structures for regions across England, it will divert us from the more important task.

Carol Homden: I would agree with that. This is a direction of travel where all agencies are motivated by one key thing, which is trying to improve the outcomes for children, but we also need to recognise that it can be challenging to apply that best practice. If the risk is that, due to the direction from above, you have the unwilling working with the unwilling, it will not necessarily lead to a positive outcome. We need to design these approaches based on a clear diagnosis of the problem to be solved locally. We need to enable organisations to come together in ways that address those problems, as opposed to having one size fits all or an obvious type of solution. That is why I drew attention to a hub-and-spoke model, as opposed to, for example, an area that is contiguous, because of the issues that were raised earlier around children needing to be placed in circumstances where they are and can be safe. We also need to draw upon specific, specialist expertise, as Annie said. The risk would be that it might be gotten wrong unless the diagnostic approach is taken to identify how local problems will be particularly addressed.

Annie Crombie: All I would like to add is that, where we see arrangements working well now—there are some excellent examples of partnership working in adoption—they are based on trust and strong relationships. If we impose such arrangements, we will not be able to take account of those sorts of things that can develop so well at local level organically. It is important that we allow people in organisations to build on those partnerships and have that dialogue at this point, leading into the development of regional agencies.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

We have time for just one more question, and then we will have to wind up and move on to the next session.

Q 16

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

You said that these powers will not be used. If they are, should the people affected have a right to challenge any decisions made by the Minister? Is there anything about these proposals that you would do differently? One word and one sentence will suffice.

Sir Martin Narey: I don’t know.

Carol Homden: I don’t know, either. The criteria need to be clear in any system that is designed for optimal effectiveness.

Annie Crombie: The thing that we need to make sure that we do well is to have dialogue between all the different partners involved in the adoption system early on, so that we do not inadvertently design systems that do not make the very best of the expertise that we have out there.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Sir Martin, Dr Homden and Ms Crombie, thank you very much for your participation. We are very grateful. We will now move on to the next session.