Examination of Witnesses

Education and Adoption Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:10 pm on 30 June 2015.

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Alison O'Sullivan, Anna Sharkey andAndy Elvin gave evidence.

Q 31

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Ms O'Sullivan, Ms Sharkey and Mr Elvin, we will allow you to present your CV to the Committee and then the Committee will have a variety of questions that it hopes you can answer.

Andy Elvin: Afternoon, all. I am Andy and I am a social worker by profession and background. I am chief executive of the Adolescent and Children’s Trust, TACT. We are a fostering and adoption agency who look after about 630 young people in foster care across England, Scotland and Wales and we make somewhere between 50 and 30 adoptions a year. Most of our adoptions are with black and minority ethnic adopters and with adoptions of sibling groups. I was a foster-parent in the United States during the 1990s, so I have seen this from both angles.

Anna Sharkey: I am Anna Sharkey, the chief executive of Adoption Focus. We have existed for the last six years, having come previously from Father Hudson’s Society, the Catholic adoption agency—we moved out and came out as a separate agency. I grew up in a family that fostered and adopted, so have also seen it from the other side.

Our central office is near Birmingham, so we are in the west midlands. We have three offices; we are based in Staffordshire and Oxfordshire as well as the west  midlands. We are part of the west midlands consortium, which comprises 14 local authorities and now three voluntary adoption agencies. I am chair of the west midlands consortium. I am also chair of the Midland Family Placement Group, which also includes the east midlands, and I am vice-chair of our adoption leadership board.

Interestingly, in terms of regionalisation, because Adoption Focus was a recipient of an expansion grant from the Department for Education we were able to become equal partners in Adoption in the Black Country, an existing sub-consortium of the west midlands consortium, where four local authorities—Walsall, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Dudley—are working with us on joint recruitment, training and assessment of adopters, who are shared between the region. We were included to increase their sufficiency. Because we cover a wider geographical area, it is hoped that children can be placed also in the Staffordshire and Oxfordshire region, and that our adoption support provision can be utilised as well.

Alison O'Sullivan: Good afternoon. I am Alison O'Sullivan, the director for children’s services in Kirklees in West Yorkshire. I am also the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, representing 152 directors of children’s services across the country.

I began my working life as a social worker in the 1970s. I have worked in social services departments and in the health service. I was a director of social services in Bradford for four years and I have been the director in Kirklees since 2006.

Q 32

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

Good afternoon. Do you have any views on governance and accountability for these new regional arrangements?

Alison O'Sullivan: You are looking at me. Would you like me to begin to answer? The points made by the previous speakers were quite important here. I think it is really important that we do not get entangled with governance. It will be necessary, as has happened with the existing collaborations that have already been formed, to be clear about where the responsibility sits and also how the necessary investment and funding of those arrangements is going to work. We have the experience of good arrangements that have worked for some time to learn from. It is really important, though, that we do not get bogged down in that.

Anna Sharkey: From our point of view, when we entered into the partnership with ABC—Adoption in the Black Country—we had to spend quite a lot of time looking at what their working agreement was because the four local authorities’ legal status was very different from ours as a voluntary adoption agency. So we have a formal agreement that was drafted and agreed by the local authorities with us. Obviously, in terms of the governance from our board of trustees, their input is somewhat different from the responsibilities that local authorities have, but we have found a way to manage that.

Andy Elvin: The only thing that I would add is our experience of fostering arrangements where we are on contract tenders throughout the UK. There is sometimes a temptation for local authorities to return to try to vary the terms of tender, usually—in fact always—by lowering the price. That can be an issue for voluntary  agencies if they have agreed to provide services on adoption at a certain price and then it is returned to six months later to try to lower that price. That could be difficult, so I would want the contractual arrangements to be very clear.

Q 33

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

Thank you. You have all got different experience of the issues of placing children. Do you recognise the problem of the harder-to-place children? Who in your judgment are harder-to-place children, and how will these proposals specifically help them?

Andy Elvin: I am very wary of labelling children as harder to place. Generally, it is not that children are harder to place; it is that we as a state have failed them at some point. There are far too many children who undergo multiple placements, and there really is no excuse for that. Often first placements are made in an emergency; it can happen when you do not know the family or late on Thursday and you go with the carers that you can find.

When you are into the second and third placements, there is no excuse for not getting that placement right. It is children who are labelled harder to place who tend to be in their fifth, sixth, seventh placement. It is not their fault. They have given up on making relationships with adults, which makes them very difficult to care for, no matter how skilled the carers. My worry about this move and this legislation generally is that it ignores that permanence for the vast majority of children who are looked after is not adoption. It is long-term fostering, it is being looked after within the extended family and, for a certain number of children, it is residential care.

We cannot separate out permanence options, because providing long-term, stable, predictable families for children is what we should be doing. We should be getting permanence right earlier. If we start separating out and creating a hierarchy of permanence options, we are not going to serve the whole looked-after population well.

What we should really be legislating against is multiple placements. Real failure is failing to find good placements, and permanent placements, for children early. That does not just exist in adoption. The outcomes are just as good for children on SGOs—special guardianship orders—with extended family and for people in permanent, long-term foster care. We must not forget that. The hierarchy that seems to be being pushed for is dangerous, and is very, very clearly objected to by children, particularly children in foster care, who are often made to feel second rate because they are not going forward to adoption.

Alison O'Sullivan: We know from experience that older children—those over the age of five, six, seven—can be quite hard to find the right family for. If it is in the interests of children to be placed with siblings, placing sibling groups can be challenging. And children with particular needs, either because they are traumatised or have special needs or learning difficulties—that combination of things can make it harder to find the right family. But certainly from a local authority point of view, we do think it is important to persist in trying to find placements for those children. It can take longer.

If the emphasis on making early and speedy decisions, which is absolutely right for the vast majority of children, were to deny those children the opportunity of a permanent family, it would be an unintended consequence. We are  making judgments in each individual case. For some children, we will try very hard for a longer period to find them a placement and that will be a great success. They will not necessarily be waiting in an unsatisfactory situation. They might already be with very caring foster-carers that they may have been with for some time, but their need is for permanence, and if it takes us 18 months to find them that permanent family—that forever family—that is what we will do.

Anna Sharkey: In terms of the experience that my family had, the fostering that was started in the late ’60s was for pre-adoption babies. We would have two or three at a time for six weeks, then they would move to their adoptive parents. As we moved into the ’70s, the children placed with my parents had more complex needs, and they are the types of children that we place for adoption. By “more complex” children, I mean older children, sibling groups, children who had experienced significant abuse and neglect, and children who were born drug withdrawing and with alcohol problems. Those were very different in terms of adoption outcomes, because the adopters that we had in the late ’60s and early ’70s were looking for those little babies who were going to be fairly straightforward, and the children became more complicated and more complex.

Our agency has always specialised in harder-to-place children, and that has been to do with the supply of children. Local authorities needing to place the relatively straightforward child do not need to come outside of their internal resource, so they will come to the voluntary sector to find their harder-to-place placements. The children that we place, predominantly, are over the age of four, are in sibling groups or have disabilities.

Of the placements that we have undertaken since we have been operating, we have had 68 single children, 45 sibling placements of two children, and five sibling groups of three. The youngest was six months old, but that was the youngest child in a sibling group. The oldest child we have placed was 10 years and two months. It is a wider range and they are children who bring with them many more complex needs than those very little people to start off with, which means that they have many more needs when it comes to the longer-term support for their adoptive families.

Q 34

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

May I pick up on the point you were just making? What needs to happen to get more people to come forward as either adopters or foster-carers? Are there issues around education, awareness and being much more honest with people, or is something else needed to increase the number of people available?

Anna Sharkey: It is interesting that we have had an increase. There is the recruitment activity, which was very definitely promoted. First4Adoption was very involved in that—the education and highlighting options for people. The fact that a very different cohort of people is coming forward as potential adopters and foster carers has been significant.

In terms of bringing more people forward, the education challenge is about which children actually need placements, in comparison with where someone’s starting point might be in terms of the type of family they thought they were going to be. That is the bigger challenge for adoption agencies and fostering agencies in managing the longer-term outcomes for those children. That stage becomes more of a challenge.

Alison O'Sullivan: It is important to help prospective adopters to have in view the kinds of support that are available. On the one hand, we should be being more direct about the sorts of needs that children requiring adoption may have. But in the same breath we need to be able to say, “And this is the kind of help that you could reasonably expect,” which will include financial support in some circumstances. It is important that we raise awareness but are also equipped to support those more complex children over a longer period of time.

Andy Elvin: I would echo that point about support. It is not just about recruiting carers; it is about keeping them. That is with foster-carers, doctors and those family members taking children on special guardianship. Far too often the support is not there—it is not there in a timely manner, it is not there in a non-judgmental manner—and that is what we need to get right. Our job is to support the placement. Sometimes the mistake is made of thinking that the child protection task is the main task. That is 10% of the work; 90% of the work is helping that child to recover from trauma and go on to have a successful adult life. Far too little support is given post the permanency placement order, whichever order that happens to be.

Q 35

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

You mention the trauma—would you comment on the state of mental health services and support from child and adolescent mental health services?

Andy Elvin: The biggest complaint that we get from our foster carers, the No. 1 complaint, is the lack of support from CAMHS and from other related physical health services—late assessments, long waiting lists, lack of support in an appropriate manner, lack of support in their postcode or their region—that is usually the No. 1 complaint. No. 2 is generally poor information given by the placing authority, which does not flag up some of the issues that they find they are dealing with in their home 24/7.

Anna Sharkey: I would say that it is varied. We place children all over the country and it is different depending on where they are. Some CAMH services are very good, some are very overstretched, but there are also other services that are available for children. The adoption support fund is a really important development and how that pans out over the next few months will be very significant, and how those assessments work. One of the things that the Bill talks about is the responsibility for undertaking those assessments of need for children. Those need to be done so that adopters feel that they are being listened to. Certainly one of the most important messages that came out of the recent research about violence by children against their adopters was that adopters felt at last that somebody believed them and that they were being listened to. If that is something that is coming through, then the adoption support fund is significant and the different sorts of services that are available through it are important. That is what we need to be supporting—including how it is assessed at an early stage.

Alison O'Sullivan: I think that it is important that universal services are tuned into the needs of adoptive children and adoptive families. Mention was made by previous witnesses of the importance of support in school; raising awareness in schools for all adoptive children is important. The virtual school headteacher may have a role, quite a complicated one, and some  discussion will take place on how effective that might be, but mental health support for children and young people is critical. I am hopeful that the “Future in Mind” paper—

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Mrs O'Sullivan, can I ask you to raise your voice ever so slightly? It is not your fault; the acoustics are really bad in this room, as is well known to all the Members, and it would help us if you could speak up a little.

Alison O'Sullivan: I will speak up. The “Future in Mind” paper recently published about children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing services has a whole chapter devoted to recommendations to improve support to children with particular needs and it talks about adopted children. Arguably, some of the support that people might look to from the adoption support fund ought to be met through mainstream child and adolescent mental health services. If they are improved in the period to come then that will help.

Q 36

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Labour, Hove

I have only one question. Andy, to follow up on a comment you made earlier, you described the failure to place, and powerfully described how that was not the fault of the child but the fault of the system. Who pays the price for failure, what agency pays the price—or does an agency pay the price for failure, as things stand? Will this Bill change that?

Andy Elvin: To take your second question first, no this Bill will not. Who pays the price? The child, first and foremost. The child pays the price through their blighted life. We then all, as society, pay the price because these are the young people who are in Feltham young offenders institution at this moment. They are the young people who are known to our mental health services. They are the young people who go on to become homeless, who do not have regular employment and who have chaotic lives. We are all paying the price, and the cost of that is far higher than investing in the young person when they are seven, eight, nine or 10 years old in a placement that will meet their needs and turn around their outcome so that they can achieve a life that is in line with the general population, which is all we can aim to do.

The reasons behind that are largely the way in which short-term funding rules the day in a local authority. On 31 March the world ends and it starts again in April—you are looking to save money in-year, whereas children have a pesky habit of growing older and carrying on until they are 18 and then 21 and just staying put. We really have to invest in the lifetime of the child. If we have to make a more expensive placement early on, yes, it may impact on the in-year budget, but over the course of the child’s lifetime—legislation is for the best interests of the child in their lifetime, not until financial year’s end—we will save an enormous amount of money.

The very welcome review by the Prison Reform Trust that Lord Laming will be leading will show again that the children who are more likely to offend are not children in care, but those who have had multiple placements and the associated disrupted education that goes with that. There really is no excuse for us to continue to have children in multiple placements. My concern is that the continued focus on one form of permanency ignores the other ones. We need to get it right for all 93,000 children in the care system across the UK, not just the 5,000 a year who go forward for adoption.

Q 37

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Labour, Hove

So if you were in the fortunate position that we are in of being able to table amendments to the Bill, or to add something to this legislation, what would it be?

Andy Elvin: I would replace the word “adoption” with “permanency”, in the first instance, at all points of the Bill, then focus far more on support. I would add a part that looked at placement disruptions and the number of placements as being a key indicator on which local authorities should be measured. It is that part of permanency that is key, because when a child is into their fourth, fifth or sixth placement that is when we begin to see really toxic outcomes. We do not need to go that long to get it right for children, because foster carers and adopters and relatives who are capable of holding and caring for that child are available if the right support is there for them post-permanency.

The other thing I would like to see the permanency teams do, and I would like to see either the local authority or regional permanency hubs do, is offer support in a non-judgmental way. If the grandparent looking after a child sticks their hand up after five years and says, “Secondary transfer has come around; we are really struggling now”, support is provided speedily and in a timely, non-judgmental fashion. Too often, families have to go back through the child protection groups, and it is just not acceptable.

Q 38

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Labour, Hove

I have other questions, but would the other witnesses like to comment on either the failure aspect or the contribution aspect?

Anna Sharkey: Obviously, what we are discussing is the adoption clause and the multiple placement changes in fostering. Having managed a fostering service for some time and knowing the sorts of complex areas being dealt with, I accept that adoption constitutes a very small proportion of the population of looked-after children, and it has had a huge amount of focus. There has been a lot of attention on adoption, but part of the reason is that the outcomes for adopted children tend to be good. The disruption rate is still very low. We know from Julie Selwyn’s research that there are families that clearly continue to have difficulties in their adoptive placements, but most of them hang on in there.

The outcomes for children are very good, and we know that the children involved will be those who have had the most trauma, because if they had not had the most trauma, more would be being done to try to maintain them in their family of origin. These are the ones where there is often absolutely no hope of achieving that within their family. Therefore, by definition, they are going to be the little people who have experienced the most difficult things. Adoption, by achieving what it does for them, is hugely significant. The fostering bit, and the whole role of public care, is another whole area and while I am not saying that it is muddying the water, I think it will get very complicated if we discuss it here.

Alison O'Sullivan: I would agree with the general direction of those comments. I have nothing to urge specifically for legislation, but perhaps for guidance and the manner of implementation. First, it is really helpful to have a spotlight on adoption, but we can do more than one thing at a time. We need to keep the spotlight on adoption, but also look more closely at permanency, as has been urged by the other witnesses—I absolutely agree with that. The second thing I would urge is that  we make real the spirit of local determination, because there will not be one solution. It is important that as we do that, we keep a very close eye, collaboratively, on the impacts on the whole system.

This is quite a volatile, fluid market in some places and having an overview of that and how we manage collaboratively the dynamics in that market will be key to its success. Otherwise, we will have unintended consequences in creating something strong in this bit of the system washing back into another bit of the system. That is not what any of us want. It will be an art rather than a science, but I think if we work collaboratively we can do that.

My third point would be to build on the arrangements for collaboration. We have local adoption boards coming into place. I have been visiting the regions over recent weeks, and the boards are starting to gain traction. Many of them are looking broadly at permanence. They are keeping their eye firmly on adoption but looking at it within that broader context. By tying those together with national oversight we will be able to keep in view the important dynamics in the system.

Q 39

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

It strikes me that given that improved quality of parenting, higher aspiration, more stability and a better voice for young people who are looked after in care should, as ever, be our principles, we should have had some young people giving evidence to our session today. It is all of our faults for not making sure that that happened, as it would have been useful. If there is any written evidence, we should take very close account of it.

While you are here, Alison, I wonder if I might ask you as a director of children’s services who also has some responsibility for education—the Bill includes clauses on education—whether you think the regional schools commissioner in your area has the capacity to increase their oversight of schools as envisaged in the Bill, from 500 academies or so in your area to about 2,500 schools under their new responsibilities for issuing warning notices and, on top of that, having responsibility for dealing with coasting schools? Do you think they have the capacity to do that with a maximum of about seven staff?

Alison O'Sullivan: I do not imagine that the existing level of resource into that part of the system would be able to cope without some additional investment. It is not for the local authority to determine the support to the academy part of the system. What I would say is that there is an untapped resource of collaboration at a local level. If we look at the shared ambition that we have to drive up standards in all schools in all categories, we should be exploiting the potential to collaborate more closely across the wider system.

Q 40

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

On that point, do you think that DCSs should be members of the teacher advisory boards, given that they are now taking over responsibility around maintained schools as well?

Alison O'Sullivan: I think we need the right people in the room to have the right oversight of those systems on the right scale. There are some difficulties with geography which I think would bear examination: the oversight of the academy part of the system does not sit easily in terms of coterminous boundaries with other administrative boundaries. That creates complexity that we could perhaps  design out of the system to good effect. I personally feel that there is a great untapped resource of collaboration, because the expertise for improvement sits very largely within schools, but we need to be able to join that up across the whole of the system.

Q 41

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Could I ask finally whether you think it will be necessary for the things contained in the Bill to be achieved on the school side for the staff to be transferred from local authorities to the regional schools commissioners?

Alison O'Sullivan: No, I do not think that structural change is the answer to those challenges. It is certainly something that could be considered but why would you put time and energy into structural change if you could achieve that without it?

Q 42

Photo of Suella Fernandes Suella Fernandes Conservative, Fareham

The provision on adoption aims to try and solve the problem of long-term decline in adoption. At the moment, as we all know, it is happening at too small and too localised a scale. It is hoped that the attempt to regionalise agencies and bring them together will encourage agencies to cast their net more widely, reduce the problems of delay, and encourage local authorities to look outside their immediate local area. We have heard a lot about this today. One problem which has been cited is the reluctance of local authorities to place children outside a particular area. What appetite do you think there is for looking further afield geographically?

Anna Sharkey: I think that there is an appetite. Local authorities met the requirement to up the game when it came to recruitment, and they were very successful. Local authority social workers work hard to do the best they can for the children they are responsible for, and that is what they aim to do. There are difficulties in the system as it exists at the moment, and I think that, because clearly there are children waiting in the system. I have adopters who have been approved and are waiting—it is not happening. Adoption Link has achieved a huge amount by getting adopters much more involved in the adopter-led linking process, and that has been very positive.

There some things that still prevent movement out of a local authority region. These are often to do with budget constraints, because local authorities are completely stuck financially. There is an historical sense that buying a placement from outside is very costly. Andy talked about children who sit in the care system and experience multiple placement moves, and who are then over-represented in mental ill health, the criminal justice system and underperformance at school. The cost to all of us of not getting it right at a much earlier stage is absolutely phenomenal, not least of which is the impact on that individual child and the rest of their family.

Getting it right is very important. At the moment the structure includes an inter-agency fee budget, an adoption budget, a fostering budget, a budget that does something else relating to supporting kinship care arrangements, and so on, which can make it very difficult to be child-focused, and to look at the best option in the most timely way to meet the needs of the child as soon as possible. Anything that tries to sort that out can only be a good thing.

I have some caution about the criteria on which that regionalisation would happen and how big a region would be. There is talk in the paper of it being around  the 200 mark in respect of children. We are dealing with a very personal aspect of public care, and adopters need to feel that the people they are working with know them individually. We want those children to be known individually by the social worker who is advocating on their behalf, so getting lost in numbers is a real concern. We also know that where people are stuck with chunks of money that do something or boundaries that do something else, or if social workers are not prepared to go outside because someone else is saying “We have run out of money” or “It has got to be in-house” or “We have a family coming through in four months’ time who might be okay”, that will build delay into the system. If we can improve that, it has got to be better.

Alison O'Sullivan: It is really important that we do not build new barriers. If we are widening the scope of the way in which people collaborate to make things more effective and more efficient, then we must not have another set of boundaries that are just on a slightly bigger scale. It is not only how we create those collaborative arrangements, but how they interface and interrelate with each other as we go forward. That is one aspect that will need to be managed.

Andy Elvin: I would go back a step regarding the decline of adoption numbers. If your measure of success is an increase in adoption, then you are asking the wrong questions. That is not what we are after; we are after an increase in permanence and an increase in better outcomes for children. As the adoption numbers have fallen slightly, we have seen special guardianship orders rise. SGOs, in particular those for children under five, are largely made to extended family members to care for their relatives. That was exactly why SGOs were introduced. It is not a bad thing that they are now being used where there used to be intra-family adoptions, because they take some of the heat out of that conflict between different generations of a family.

We have a group of experts which was set up by the Department for Education, which will start meeting to discuss the rise in special guardianships. It will also look at the appropriate use and the assessments behind SGOs. Until that finishes in the autumn, we do not really know what the story is behind the rise in special guardianship, particularly for the under-fives.

The other side is that there is a huge rise in surrogacy in this country that is completely unknown and completely unreported. People who used to come forward for adoption are choosing international surrogacy, because it is available and affordable and more assured in terms of getting a younger child—a baby—than adoption. There are all these threats to adoption out there, but simply taking adoption numbers as your measure of success is to look at entirely the wrong thing. It is outcomes for children as a whole that we are after, and success comes in many forms. I know many complex children we look after in long-term foster care who have absolutely fantastic outcomes.

Foster care does not stop at 18; it will not stop at 21, when they are staying put. Our foster parents are godparents to their foster children’s children; they give them away at their weddings. It very often lasts for life in the same way that adoption does.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

We still have a few more questions to come and we have very little time, so can I ask the contributors to be a bit more succinct in their answers?

Q 43

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

In the written evidence, we were told that the best way to achieve permanence is with low staff turnover and support from the best and most appropriate workforce. Do you think those are accurate descriptions of the environment that local authorities and adoption agencies have found themselves in during the last few years?

Alison O'Sullivan: From a local authority point of view, the difficulties in attracting and retaining qualified social workers are fairly well known and documented, but adoption is an area of work that tends to see more stability in terms of workforce. That is certainly the case in the authorities with which I am familiar. We tend to have people staying for longer in that work and I agree that it helps to contribute towards the quality of the work done and also maintains ongoing relationships.

Q 44

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

The British Association of Social Workers has said that the Bill will contribute to demoralising social workers. Do you agree?

Alison O'Sullivan: I cannot see how.

Anna Sharkey: I think retaining staff is very important. We have quite a secure staff group, but we have also done quite a lot of growth, which has been to do with the DFE expansion grant. That is significant, but we have a very definite system through which adopters are seen right the way through by the same social worker. That is because it is about building trust and rapport with the person whom you are going to trust with very personal information and about making you into the family you want to be. There has got to be that professional relationship, but that relationship also has to be with the child’s social worker, and that is often where there can be change and flux, because there is such turmoil in local authorities.

Andy Elvin: We have no problem in recruiting and retaining experienced social workers, although I must say that we recruit a lot from local authorities. I think there is a wider issue—probably not for here—about how many social workers there are in the system when permanence is achieved for a looked-after child. Do we really need a supervising social worker overseeing a fostering placement that is permanent and a looked-after children’s social worker also overseeing the said placement and an independent reviewing officer? Are there too many social workers looking at social workers doing their jobs and not enough actually doing the job?

Q 45

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

Can I take us back to the clause in the Bill looking specifically at the point at which the permanence decision has been made and what flows thereafter for those for whom that decision is adoption? I have two points to underpin that. First, we are not proposing something new here. A lot of this already exists. Could you tell me where you have come across a consortium of either local authorities or voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities working together that has impressed you most and that does not happen to be your own?

Secondly, in relation to the specialist support services that we know many children who are adopted need, how is the regional agency adoption approach having a positive effect, where we are already starting to see it happen?

Andy Elvin: We are currently working with the north London adoption consortium and the east London adoption consortium—south London is a regular choice—on introducing something called VIPP-SD, a post-adoption therapeutic intervention that comes from the University of Leiden in Holland. It is used with all adopters in Holland. It is evidence based and tested at country level. We are introducing it with six authorities in London and with one just outside London. We found co-operation patchy, I would say.

We have got six authorities across two consortia; other authorities in the consortia have not signed up to it. That was disappointing, given that the DFE for the CVAA are essentially paying for all this. It is a free and evidence-based service. It is interesting how decisions are made in local authorities, but those that have engaged have engaged magnificently and really well, and got involved very much in the spirit of the intervention. It is going very successfully so far. Local authorities can work together; I do have examples of the contrary, but that is the same in all areas. I do not think children’s services are peculiar in local authorities not working particularly well together.

Anna Sharkey: From my point of view, working in ABC has been really good, a very positive development. I know my local authority colleagues will say that one of the strengths has been that it came from the bottom up. It was local authority social work working together and deciding that was a more efficient way of working, so pooling resources in respect of recruitment and training activity, how we do information events and so on. The next stage, which is really exciting in terms of the pilots and so on, is about how we are making the linking activity work much more effectively, and also looking at post-adoption support provision.

I know one of the previous speakers talked about the importance of accessibility and the transport networks. People need to be able to access their social worker and support that is readily available for them and their children. There are all sorts of things that can happen as a consequence of this, but definitely the bottom-up bit has certainly helped.

Alison O'Sullivan: I will very briefly point to Warrington, Wirral and St Helens, established I think in 2011, because it is the sort of thing the Bill envisages and has been working well. It has improved the numbers and the speed of recruitment and matching. For many years, Yorkshire and Humber have also been running post-adoption support on a collaborative basis across the region.

Andy Elvin: Can I just add that I am on the board of Frontline social work? We hope to be moving into a new region in the north-east, and the attitude of the consortia of local authorities up there has been exemplary in the way that they are working together. It really is very impressive.

Q 46

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

I have heard what has been said about permanence but, given that this legislation is supposed to be about speeding up the adoption process, cutting out the delays and helping match children to families—that is what we are taking evidence on—is there anything missing from the legislation that we  should be taking on board and which would really make a difference to speeding up adoption and helping the matching process?

Andy Elvin: When you are in the court process and you have a CAFCASS guardian, you have a judge and everyone is represented, often delays are caused by availability of adoption panels and the panel process. I have often wondered about how much oversight is actually needed in terms of an adoption. There is a question about if you are overseen at a court process, you have an independent court witness in the guardian, and whether that could be looked at. I know working in local authorities that was often the cause of adoption delay; it was being unable to reach panel in a timely fashion to do with court deadlines. I think that is a more systemic problem that has been around for quite a long time.

Anna Sharkey: For me, the concern is thinking about how the financial situation would work. The levelling of the inter-agency fee meant that local authorities obviously charge each other the same amount of money as I charge them, so it was a recognition of the work that is done. If there are regionalised adoption agencies that are all part of that, my view is that the framework under which financial transactions happen is likely to change.

If that is the case, my concern would be that we do not have the same sort of framework as in the fostering arena, which you, Andy, have alluded to in terms of spending a huge amount of time trying to do tender documents and different arrangements, depending on who you are working with, which come back and do something later that was not necessarily intended. It is trying to work out what that would be.

Q 47

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

How would you stop that happening?

Anna Sharkey: I suppose with some clarity about the funding arrangements for every aspect of the care process for children, so that we did not have the sectionalising of different parts of the process. For instance, if the provision of that bit of money has ended, you have a bit of a problem if you have to plan for a child who needs that service. It needs to be properly costed and sorted so that every party to the arrangement is funded to do it properly for the child and the adopters.

Alison O'Sullivan: The issue that I would shine a light on is not one that I think you would legislate for. It is about the professional confidence and competence of the social work decision-making process. I know that that is already in view in how the Government are working on the broader issues of care planning and decision making. This is a complex and delicate system, with professional and legal decision making involved and so many elements that it is important to have the right confident, strong and professional advice at lots of points.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Mr Elvin, Ms Sharkey and Ms O'Sullivan, we are grateful for your participation. We will examine the evidence that you have given and deliberate on it. We may come back to you about that evidence or, indeed, we may ask you some more queries in the future. We wish you a safe journey home.