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Mr Thornbery and Mr Leary-May, we will ask you to present a background of yourselves to Committee members, who will then ask you questions. We apologise for the earlier delay, which was due to votes in the House. Your session should continue until approximately 3.40 pm. Mr Thornbery, would you like to make your presentation?
Hugh Thornbery: Thank you, Sir Alan, and thank you for inviting me to give oral evidence on the Education and Adoption Bill. I am chief executive of Adoption UK, which is a membership organisation for adopted families. Our purpose is to support those families, to campaign and lobby for change and to inform and educate both the general public and professionals in relation to the needs of children adopted from care and of their families in parenting those children. We have a membership of over 11,000 individual members and most adoption agencies in the UK are also members. On such matters, we draw our position from what our membership tells us on a daily basis, both through our individual contact with it and from surveys and research.
Prior to joining Adoption UK in October 2012, I was employed by Action for Children for 15 years. Part of my responsibilities there were for the adoption and fostering services within that charity. I have been involved in children and social care since the late 1970s.
Andy Leary - May: Thank you for inviting me. I am an adoptive parent, and my first experience of adoption was about nine years ago. I have run an adoption support charity for most of the intervening years. More recently, myself and colleagues who were more experienced in IT than I was started to look at the barriers that exist to inter-agency matching and the barriers to children finding the most suitable placements in adoption. We consider one of those barriers to be the lack of an effective and efficient way of exchanging information between agencies or between consortia of agencies. We felt that in this day and age there is no reason for that to be a barrier, given that in most other walks of life effective ways are created online to enable that kind of activity. Therefore, we developed Adoption Link, which is being used by over 80% of local authorities in England. So far, it has matched over 250 children with families, and it is also finding placements in all four nations in the UK, which is significant.
We are frequently told that these proposals are designed to address the problem of the 3,000 or so children who are languishing in the system and could and should be adopted. Where does that figure come from, and is it accurate?
Hugh Thornbery: Shall I answer that question first? First, the number of children waiting is declining. That is probably good news, if those children are being found families; but it is certainly so that too many children still wait and wait too long. We also have the issue of the number of children subject to reversal decisions, who start off with a plan for adoption but for whom the plan changes, often because the right family cannot be found. That amounted to 1,450 children last year. In terms of the accuracy of that figure, it comes from the quarterly local authority returns and the voluntary agency returns that come to the Adoption Leadership Board. There is a 100% return, which I see as a member of the board, so we must trust that the information being provided is correct. However, it does not seem to fit with the number of children who are being promoted for placement, both through the national adoption register and other matching agencies such as Adoption Link or my own service, Children Who Wait, which Adoption UK runs. Although there is a question mark about those figures, however, it is definitely so that too many children are waiting too long—hence the determination of the previous and current Governments to do something about that.
Andy Leary - May: There is either a question mark about the figure itself or about just what the local authorities who have those children are doing for them at the moment. As a best-case scenario, 1,000 children are currently either on the adoption register or on Adoption Link that I run, which is only a third of the children that are waiting. So there is a question about whether it is the accuracy of the figure or not. I am not sure.
I do not know whether you heard the earlier evidence, but we were told that voluntary adoption agencies consistently achieve better inspection ratings than local authorities. Do you have any concerns that voluntary adoption agencies could be marginalised by these proposals?
Hugh Thornbery: I do have a concern. It is definitely the case, if one generalises, that the voluntary adoption sector demonstrates a higher level of quality across the sector than local authorities are able to achieve. That does not take away from the fact that some local authorities do exceptionally well. We have heard, as part of the justification for the clauses in the Bill, that some agencies are too small. The first point I would like to make is that there is no necessary direct correlation between quality and size, and it would be tragic if we lost some of the real expertise that exists within some of the smaller voluntary adoption agencies, which focus particularly on trying to find the right family for some of the hardest-to-place children.
Because my organisation is UK-wide, I have been involved in developments in Wales that have led to a national adoption service and the development of five regional agencies, rather than 22 individual local authorities doing adoption. It has been our experience there that the voluntary agencies were left on the margins of that change process and found it very hard to have a say, despite the fact that they were delivering high quality and were placing about 20% of the children placed each year. So that risk does exist. The proposals set out in the Bill do nothing to reassure me, necessarily, that we will not lose some highly efficient and effective voluntary agencies as a casualty of this.
Andy Leary - May: Yes, I would urge caution as well. There are a lot of things that are working well in adoption, and if the powers in the Bill are used, we should be very careful not to lose some of those things. They include the work that goes on in voluntary adoption agencies and the skills and specialisms that exist within them.
Hugh Thornbery: I think one of the things that mitigates that risk is the investment that the previous Government and this Government are making in the capacity building of the voluntary sector. This comes at a very difficult time for the voluntary sector, with the steep decline in the number of children, which creates incoming cash-flow difficulties for voluntary agencies. So there are other challenges for the voluntary sector at the moment, as well as impending regionalisation.
The other way of dealing with this goes back to some of the questions and answers I heard in earlier evidence around the criteria used in determining what direction should take place if the need arises for the Secretary of State to direct. Prior to that, it would be very helpful if the Department were able to find a more bottom-up, locally driven approach. That is not, I think, something for legislation, but perhaps for guidance, to strengthen the role of the voluntary sector in the discussions and developments that take place at a local level. That happens exceedingly well already in some regions. I was in Yorkshire and Humberside the other day for a meeting at which all the voluntary adoption agencies had been pulled together by the consortia. It happens far less well in other areas. The risk is not across the board but particularly in some areas of the country, where there is perhaps no culture of engaging the voluntary sector.
Hugh Thornbery: There is nothing in the legislation that would deal with my concerns. It is a matter of what else there is. There is encouragement, clearly, in the paper that the Government have produced, “Regionalising adoption”. There are examples of where the voluntary sector has achieved some success—Coram is a good example—but it is too weak at the moment, and I think my colleagues in voluntary adoption agencies are feeling really quite anxious about the next year or two, compounded by their current difficulties with the fall in the number of children.
Andy Leary - May: I do not really have an answer as to how that risk could be mitigated—I think it ought to be. I certainly think that what this is trying to fix should be made clear. I agree that there should not be too much detail on how it is achieved, but what we are trying to achieve and what problems we are trying to fix should be made clear.
Good afternoon. As you are aware, adoption is only proposed for a child after all other avenues have been explored. Do you think that some of the money that the Government spend on these reforms might be better spent in social work teams, so that they could assess quicker and rule out or rule in family members before they get to the plan for adoption?
Hugh Thornbery: I do not have a particularly strong view. We are clearly in a time when pressure on public expenditure is very severe. The adoption system has two parts to it. It has the part where the assessment of children and the assessment of different options available within the children’s teams take place. Then there are the specialist adoption workers, family finding, supporting with matching and post-placement support.
I think it is entirely right that there has been investment in the areas where it is required within the specialist adoption sector. We still feel that not enough is being done to support adoptive families, but we have seen very good developments such as the adoption support fund and the pupil premium. It is right that money is being spent there because many of those families have been in crisis.
I think there is the opportunity within the proposals, particularly as set out in the Government’s paper, to consider how one might move from adoption agencies coming together to agencies that are not able to deal with a broader range of the aspects of permanence. I think we have some failings in the system at the moment in terms of being able quickly and accurately to assess what options are available and moving as quickly as possible to the right decision, whether that is adoption or some other pathway to permanence.
Andy Leary - May: Yes, I do think that the Bill misses an opportunity to focus on the other routes to permanence and to address that. To answer the question specifically, I think we should spend money on both. Given how incredibly important it is to invest in the future of these vulnerable children and given the benefits to society financially and otherwise, I would say spend money on both.
You mentioned in your written submission that this may prove more difficult for children with complex needs, although it might be successful for children who are less needy. Could you expand on why you think that is the case?
Andy Leary - May: Yes, it is based on some anecdotal evidence, but also on the study that the DFE commissioned in 2010, which is referred to in the briefing paper on this. It points to the fact that, as the study found, some local authorities—some agencies—wait too long to look widely for a match for children. It is quite right that that causes harm. It also specifically pointed out that the larger local authorities were the worst at this. From talking to agencies in my role, I see that there is a tendency for the larger local authorities to feel so self-sufficient in their own supply of adopters that they feel there is less need to look outside for placements.
If you accept the fact that interagency placement is not working, and you do not try to address that problem, in some ways increasing the scale of the agencies would help, because there would be a larger pool. Our service has only been running for a year and we have only matched just over 250 children, but our experience is that half the placements that have been made—and these tend to be the harder-to-place children that we see—are between neighbouring regions. That indicates to me that there are children for whom it is necessary to go outside their region to find the right placement—the right family. I worry that if we increase the scale of agencies, and I think there could be many benefits to consolidating and increasing their size, unless we address the problems that exist—the barriers to inter-agency matching—the children with the most complex needs may wait longer to find a suitable placement.
You said earlier that you wanted to clarify what the problems are that the Bill is addressing. You mentioned issues around children with complex needs; is that the primary one or are there others?
Andy Leary - May: Not defined by who it is trying to help, necessarily, but I think it would be helpful if, rather than looking at the number of adoptions, for example, there were measures looking at the outcomes for the children, if at all possible, and some measure of how agencies may already be collaborating together. We did a quick survey last week of the adoption social workers using our system, and by far the majority of them commented that they felt that they were already collaborating as well as they possibly could. That is not necessarily true in all cases, but I think the possibility that there may be a group of agencies doing everything that you would hope that they would be doing should be looked at. There should be something that would help local authorities and agencies to know if they are doing as well as expected.
Okay. In the last session, I think we heard the suggestion that the Bill will help with other forms of permanence, so even though it concentrates just on adoption, it will help with fostering, residential care and kinship care. Do you both agree?
Andy Leary - May: For me, not to the extent that I think it could. There are still issues in adoption with children finding the most suitable placements, and they are barriers that will probably not be solved by increasing the scale of agencies. Whatever barriers and organisational issues there are within adoption, the same issues are within fostering, and to a much greater extent and affecting far more children. I do not think that we should look at one or the other. It should not be a competition between them as to which gets the focus; not to address the same kinds of issues that exist within fostering would miss a very large part of the picture.
Hugh Thornbery: The Bill itself does not tackle any issues beyond changing the infrastructure that delivers adoption. Very helpfully, and I think this has been a development in terms of Government thinking, the discussion paper, which is what we are hoping will initiate a bottom-up-led approach to this, talks about the potential to move beyond the narrow confines of adoption and think more broadly about permanence. If local areas, in thinking about taking a regional approach, were to exclude too early the broadening out to other forms of permanence, that would be a real mistake.
We have seen over the past 12 months or so, a significant decline in the number of children coming into the adoption system and a big increase in younger children going to special guardianship. That informs us that we are working in an environment where pathways towards permanence can be unpredictable. We have seen significant changes recently, and I think that if we had put a lot of effort into setting up regional arrangements just around adoption, we would be missing a trick. My view is that the opportunity is there at a local level to broaden this out. That would be the right thing to do. I also think that it is right to continue to improve the adoption system. As you heard from Sir Martin Narey, adoption can do things that other forms of permanence cannot in providing total long-term security and continuity for children. We know that the outcomes for those children are better than if they stay elsewhere.
Hugh Thornbery: Looking at the legislation, I think it forces people to think about adoption, but it does not necessarily hinder the development of a broader approach to permanence. I say elsewhere that the Government are encouraging that in the paper they produced. It is quite difficult to think about how the same degree of direction as is contained within the clauses of the Bill could be applied to wider permanence. I think it is easier to focus that direction on a document. Whether that is the right thing or not is questionable.
How do you think the local authorities will work in this regional way? Will it mean that they work better with and have better relationships with voluntary organisations?
Hugh Thornbery: The opportunity is there for better relationships because we will change the way that things are done at the moment. As I said earlier, there are varying degrees of willingness to work with the voluntary sector in different parts of the country. Local authorities and regions have different cultural approaches. I would hope that every region would be carefully considering who the potential constituent parts of a regional or sub-regional approach could be and fully involving them from the beginning.
The other critical thing, which I have not heard discussed at all and is mostly missing from everything that I read, is what adopters think about this. Inevitably, I would say this, representing so many adopters through our membership: what really struck me during Adoption UK, having had previous experience with adoption, is just how often I heard complaints about being ignored, not listened to or done unto. There is a risk of missing the opportunity of involving adoptive families, who are the ones who can tell us, from the best possible position, what is required, what good would look like, what does not work well at the moment and what would improve the quality in the future.
Andy Leary - May: On the point of what adopters think about it, which is very valid, we did a quick survey last week of the adopters using our system. About 600 responded. There was a lot more optimism for the changes that could be brought about through regional agencies among adopters than the social workers that responded to the survey. Due to the current issues within adoption, for adopters, a lot of whom have been waiting for a very long time and are desperate to find a family, there may be some sense of feeling that anything will create an improvement compared to where they are now.
I hark back to a point a little while ago about choice for adopters; that was a concern that I had and asked the people using our system about. It was interesting that 40% of the respondents said that, at some point, they had had cause to consider changing agency because of the experience that they were having. The ability to look to a different agency is important. If we lose that, we need to be careful that there is still some recourse for adopters at any point in their process if they feel that they are not being treated well.
Going on to adopters, what do you think about the support for them? Are you quite happy that there will be enough support for the child and the adoptive parents if people are adopting from another region quite a long way away?
Hugh Thornbery: All the evidence we have is that support is patchy, inconsistent and, overall, not good enough. Julie Selwyn’s excellent research, “Beyond the Adoption Order”, which was published last year, highlighted for all of us the fact that, while adoption is generally a very good thing for children, too many families are struggling with extreme behavioural issues and the like.
The implementation of the adoption support fund has been an incredibly important step for what it provides, for adopters seeing the Government recognising that there was a need, which I do not think was properly recognised before and, as was mentioned previously, the pupil premium in schools. There is still some way to go, and I note with interest an amendment to the Bill that would aim to achieve a duty to provide. For my members, a duty on the local authorities to assess a child’s needs on request then not translating into a duty to provide to meet those needs is still lacking. If addressed, that would help us, particularly with the matching of what we term “hard-to-place children”, who we know will have long-term, enduring needs.
Opportunities are also missed and more could be done by way of education, which is the top topic raised with us by and discussed among members. I would have liked to have seen in the Bill the opportunity for extending the role of the virtual school and the virtual school head to include children adopted from care, as well as looked-after children. Some local authorities already do that voluntarily and it has been working extremely well, but we would like to see that extended. There is still a shortfall by way of support, although there have been significant improvements over the past couple of years.
Andy Leary - May: For me, support, more than matching, is probably the biggest area of potential improvement that agencies have in coming together and collaborating. We talked earlier about the barriers that exist to one agency placing a child with an adopter from elsewhere. One barrier is how the policy and practice and provision of support can vary between the different agencies. To the extent that a placement may happen within a larger regional area, if there were one agency that had a larger range of specialist services because it had come together and if those support services could be shared within a bigger area, that would be a positive change, but there would still be the issue of the placements that happen in neighbouring regions and how support might be provided between those placements.
Thank you very much. I will call the last Member to ask questions in a minute. What you are telling us is very informative, but can you be slightly more concise? We have very few minutes left.
Thank you, Sir Alan. There is only one clause in the Bill about adoption. In theory, what should happen after this session is that we look at your evidence and then think of any further amendment or improvements that might be made to the Bill. Unfortunately, because clause 13 is being debated on Thursday, we are out of time for that, but the Chairs have indicated that they will look favourably on any amendments that we might submit, even at this late stage, before Thursday. Is there anything that you think should be added to the Bill to improve it by way of an amendment or new clause?
Andy Leary - May: For me, it would be an extension of what the Bill focuses on to cover other forms of permanence. Also, is there any way to inject some degree of required caution about how the power might be used? Rather than having a blanket movement and assuming that it will create improvement in all areas, maybe it could start a little more cautiously and take it step by step.
In the Children and Families Act 2014, we took a backstop power in relation to the recruitment of adopters, so we could ensure that enough came forward who could be assessed and approved for the children still waiting to be placed for adoption. We have not had to use that power, and we have been successful in increasing recruitment by, I think, more than 27% in the past 18 months to two years.
This power widens it out to include matching and support, which we have discussed in this session. Based on the fact that there are already good working relationships between local authorities and consortia, which often include voluntary adoption agencies, and based on our statement on page 12 that, as we articulate in our paper “Regionalising adoption”, we need to harness the important role of voluntary adoption agencies in forming regional adoption agencies, how confident are you that in the next few years, through the work of the Department, yourselves and others with an interest in getting it right, we can ensure that we scale up services in all those areas so that we do not need to use the power on recruitment, as we have not yet had to do?
Hugh Thornbery: I am confident in the sector’s ability to improve. The examples that you have given have demonstrated that with the right degree of encouragement, and sometimes financial support, the system has been able to transform itself in terms of reducing delay, increasing the supply of adopters, improving adoption support and so on.
I think that there are systemic and cultural barriers to moving from those single entities working in partnership with each other to entities coming together to form a new entity. There are issues of governance and accountability. I think that we have seen some progress toward consortia working well. The progress that has been made toward a more formal consolidation has, in most cases, got quite close to achieving it and then stepped back. We need to understand why that is happening. I think it has to do with some of those issues that I have just mentioned.
Andy Leary- May: Within matching, in some ways we are already there, in that a local authority’s ability to have visibility of available adopters is already there. That was why we built our system, and it is there. It is about the decisions made as to which placements they go for. I do not think that those problems will be solved by regionalising agencies and it is important that they are addressed. If there were regions that for whatever reason do not come together as a regional agency, those other problems would still need to be addressed. But in either case I think there will be problems.
I think it is important to remember that a local authority may be willing to look widely when it is looking for a match for children, but local authorities do often hold on to their adopters. They need to be making adopters available from the earliest point, because otherwise the pool of adopters will never be big. I think that could be changed in other ways.
Mr Thornbery and Mr Leary-May, we are very grateful for the evidence that you have put forward to us today. We may be in touch again if anything crops up from that evidence or if we need something further. Thank you very much for your attendance. That concludes your participation.