Adoption: duty to have regard to relationship with adopters

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 15 December 2016.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

We believe that clause 9 should be deleted from the Bill, because under its provisions prospective adopters could be prioritised over relatives or other carers. That completely contradicts the Children Act 1989. It could lead to children being prematurely placed with prospective adopters even before the conclusion of court proceedings, in order to build a relationship with prospective adopters that is then used to undermine the child’s prospect of going back to his or her birth family, extended family members or friends, who love the child and have been trying to do their best to keep them in their care.

A premature placement with prospective adopters could prejudge the outcome of legal proceedings, causing unnecessary pain and distress to all concerned. It diminishes a child’s right to a family life, risks the early separation of siblings, and inflicts trauma and grief on children and their primary carer, who more often than not is their mother, as well as on other loving family members, especially grandparents.

The clause is a prime example of the Government’s obsession with adoption to the detriment of all other forms of care. The time and money that the Department has spent on adoption is staggering, with more than 20 policy changes since 2010. Back in 2012, the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said:

“I firmly believe more children should be taken into care more quickly…I want social workers to be more assertive with dysfunctional parents, courts to be less indulgent of poor parents, and the care system to expand to deal with the consequences.”

And Lord Nash said in the other place, in the proceedings on this Bill, that

“the Government are strongly pro-adoption.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 June 2016; Vol. 773, c. 1114.]

What the Government should be doing is strongly advocating whatever care is right for each and every individual child, and not what they believe is right.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the evidence shows that long-term stability is obviously important, and that part of that includes the option of adopting? It is not just adoption that is being promoted; that is but one string to the bow for the Government’s weaponry, if you like, although “weaponry” is the wrong word. Can she not see that adoption is just one part of the Government’s approach—albeit an important part—and that evidence also supports this approach?

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. However, the clause singles out adoption for special attention; the issue needs to be looked at in the wider context of overall Government policy relating to children in care and plans for permanence.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

The Government probably have the right intention in trying to put the emphasis on the permanence of arrangements for children, but the point my hon. Friend is making about the singling out of adoption is that adoption has a history, which is also negative.

Anyone who has read the book about Philomena Lee’s experience or seen the recent film of it will know how adoption can be misused, and there is a history to adoption in this country that is not always positive. When we consider the issue of adoption, we should always think about the best interests of the child and not risking lapsing back into bad old habits and bad old days, when adoption was misused and abused in this country.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

My hon. Friend is right—adoption should not be the only option for a child. It is lazy to think that. That approach does not take into account all the other options that are there and that are in the best interests of the child.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

To the best of my memory, “Philomena” is a film set in the 1950s in the Republic of Ireland, so it has nothing to do with the Government of the United Kingdom. If the hon. Lady is really suggesting that her opposition to the clause should be based on the adoption policies of the Republic in the 1950s, parents interested in adoption may look rather askance at that.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. However, I will not dwell on the point, because I think he has missed the context of what we are trying to describe here.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Does my hon. Friend agree that our concerns are based not on the history of adoption in the 1950s but on the discriminatory application of adoption proceedings, which often means that children from poorer families and certain ethnic groups and cultures are more likely to go through the adoption process more speedily? If the clause is not removed, it will make that even more likely.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

If the Department had spent this much energy on social worker recruitment and retention and invested in family support and early-years help, we might not be where we are now, with the highest number of children in care since 1985.

The Professional Association for Children’s Guardians, Family Court Advisers and Independent Social Workers commented on the Department for Education’s adoption policy paper this year. It said:

“We note the Policy Paper does not address how to prevent children entering the care and adoption systems in the first place…We are concerned that despite the intention to ‘strengthen families’, no more is said on this point and that there is no discussion of support for disadvantaged families despite the worrying increase in the numbers of children subject to care proceedings.”

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

Will the hon. Lady accept that the adoption paper is about adoption, and that there is another Government paper—we have referred to it previously in Committee—called “Putting children first”, which deals with all children who are going through the care system? It is not unusual for a Government to put forward different policy papers that cover different policy areas.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I completely agree, but if the Minister lets me continue with my point, he will see where I am going with this.

The professional association continues:

“The scale of reduced spending on early intervention in children’s services and the way this leads to greater costs elsewhere is well analysed” in a number of reports.

“The key point…is that by significantly reducing early preventive work, more public money has to be spent on costly proceedings, foster care, mental health provision, adoption agencies and so forth, which potentially could be avoided by better focused spending at an earlier stage…We strongly warn against an ‘evangelical approach’ to adoption, whereby it is perceived as a good in itself. This perception is contrary to the majority view of European and western thought and jurisprudence, and it fails to appreciate it represents a serious and draconian step and a measure to be considered only ‘when nothing else will do’…We strongly advise against performance indicators that positively promote an increase in adoptions as these inevitably lead to a distortion of professional activity in favour of adoption at the expense of other choices”.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

The Minister pointed out that there has in the past been a misuse of special guardianship orders—they were used in a way that was never intended, and the Government acted to address that. Does my hon. Friend feel that it would further the Government’s intentions for the clause if the Minister assured us that he planned to give clear guidance to local authorities stating that the evidence presented to the court on the relationship with the prospective adoptive parents and all other options must be absolutely balanced? In that way, we would not be in danger of thinking that one measure was being inadvertently promoted above another.

Order. Before I call the hon. Lady to respond to that remark, may I draw her attention to the fact that this is a very narrowly worded clause about the duty to have regard to the relationship with adopters during the adoption process? I encourage her not to range too freely about why adoption is not necessarily a good thing.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Thank you for that advice, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. If the Minister can allay my hon. Friend’s concerns in his comments, we may not have to press the amendment to a vote.

The professional association states that “further tinkering with” the Children Act 1989

“could be unwise and the thin end of the wedge of social engineering.”

More children are adopted in the UK than in any other European country, and 90% of adoptions are without parental consent. One of the major arguments put forward for speeding up adoptions is that it would reduce the number of children in care, but the opposite has been the case. Dr Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, has found that adoption policies, rather than reducing the number of children in care, have led to a 65% increase in the number of children being separated from their parents. He feels that that is unlikely to be due to an increase in abuse, because child protection findings of physical and sexual abuse have fallen since 2001, yet child protection plans have increased since 2010.

The majority of such plans are about neglect or emotional abuse, both of which could be better dealt with through family support and responses to poverty and deprivation, which lead to children being over 10 times more likely to be in care or on a child protection plan. Dr Bilson’s research shows that over the past five years, the local authorities with the highest adoption rates also have the largest increases in the number of children in care. In those local authorities with the lowest rates of adoption, the number of children in care had fallen. In other words, prioritising adoption results in more children, not fewer, being taken into care.

For some children adoption is the best outcome, but the policy of adoption above all else works on the premise that children will be better off with wealthier parents, rather than on the premise of making all efforts to let them remain with their birth families. Putting the work in to keep children at home is hard social work. It costs time and energy, but in the long run it is worth it if it benefits the child.

Women Against Rape has highlighted that children are increasingly being removed from mothers who are victims of violence. Rather than providing them with the protection, resources and support they need to enable them to rebuild their lives safely, they are accused of failing to protect their children and often end up losing them as a result. Domestic violence is now a more common reason for the state removing children than mental illness or drug and alcohol misuse. Professor June Thoburn said:

“In many other EU countries, it is much easier for families to access support if they need help. Great emphasis is placed on helping families to care for children safely at home and maintaining family links if in care. But in “austerity” England, family support services are closing, thresholds are high, and social work is being defined as a narrow child protection service.”

In January, the Council of Europe highlighted the impact of austerity cuts on social services. In particular, it criticised England for its child protection focus and the removal of children who have been subject to domestic abuse, particularly in the context of policies promoting non-consensual adoption.

Order. The hon. Lady is ranging widely off clause 9, which is titled “Adoption: duty to have regard to relationship with adopters”. I ask her to bring her comments back to that. I have allowed quite a lot of latitude.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Thank you, Mrs Main. I will of course sum up very quickly.

The damage caused by the adoption targets is not being considered in the Bill, but it must be. Evidence reported just this week by The Guardian shows that local authorities are using targets, sometimes combined with financial incentives. It is worth remembering that adoption is far cheaper for councils than foster placements, because once a child is adopted, they are off the council’s books for good. Adoption is also cheaper than providing services that might ensure that vulnerable parents can care for their children, but what of the money being saved? What about the lives of those destroyed by the separation?

The Bill is concerned in part with improving the situation of care leavers, which is important, but we make a mistake if we focus on their needs without considering why so many children are being taken into care and what we can do to reduce that. It cannot be right that we are talking about resources for corporate parents while saying nothing about resources for children and families who have been impoverished by austerity policies. The Government need to take a serious look at the patterns and trends in child protection, adoption and fostering, but instead they have continued on this damaging path of pro-adoption, and they are using a small clause in the Bill to strengthen that further. I hope the Minister will explain in his response why, despite evidence to the contrary, they are continuing on that path.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution to the consideration of the clause. Mindful of the narrow nature of the clause, I say from the outset that the Government have always been clear that the right permanence option— whether that is adoption, special guardianship, kinship care, residential care or even long-term fostering—will always depend on a child’s individual needs and circumstances. As the law clearly states, the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, and that is as it should be. That is why I have to say to her that it is a little depressing to see the same arguments and rhetoric on the Government’s plans for children in care, saying that we only have eyes for adoption. That is simply not borne out by the facts.

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

Perhaps the hon. Lady will let me explain. This Government introduced the first ever legal definition of long-term fostering; none existed previously. We brought in quality standards on residential care a number of years ago, and 79% of children’s care homes are now rated good or outstanding. The hon. Lady has already alluded to the work that we do with care leavers to make sure that during the period when they leave care they have much better support.

What we are trying to do with adoption, however, is tackle two issues, which Tony Blair tried to tackle in the late 1990s and early 2000s—not in the way he did it, which was by setting national targets, but by ensuring that when adoption is right for children they can be adopted and by making sure that when that happens it is without unnecessary delay. I do not think that anyone would argue it is acceptable for children to have to wait an average of 26 months from the time of entering care to move to an adoptive placement.

Those are the issues we have been tackling. What we are doing is not based on an ideological fantasy. We know from the research of Professor Julie Selwyn that adoption has a huge number of benefits for the children it is right for. It has the lowest breakdown rate of any permanent placement—about 3%, with special guardianship orders at about 6%. I have seen from my family the huge benefits that adoption can bring, but I have also seen from my family the huge benefits that long-term fostering can bring. I know from personal experience that each child will need to follow a different path.

What we are doing is not a mission to try to ensure that every child who comes into the care system ends up being adopted; we are trying to stay clearly focused on making sure that, where it is right for a child, that is exactly what happens. In the past couple of years, on the back of the Re B-S judgment, there has been a fall in the number of adoptions, not a rise. That is because we have to face up to the fact that there are still people who believe that adoption is not the right course of action for children. I am saying that we should not stand in the way in cases where it is right for them.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Would the Minister share something with the Committee, to support his argument? His Department has made 20-plus changes to adoption since 2010; how many changes has he made to other areas of care, and what is the comparative cost? If adoption is not seen as the gold standard, surely other areas of care will have the same number of policy changes and the same spending.

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

I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Lady’s premise. It is not the number of things that are done, but whether the things that are done have a discernible impact of the kind that we want, and achieve the outcomes that we want to be able to celebrate. I do not accept that the amount of activity created is directly comparable to commitment or achievement of objectives.

I want to make it clear that local authorities’ decisions on the most appropriate permanency option are based on the child’s needs. That is what the law says. That is what the Bill does in making sure that those needs are given full and thorough attention when courts consider not just adoption but all permanent options. Clause 9 will ensure that courts and adoption agencies consider the relationship between a child and their prospective adopters when deciding about the adoption of a child in cases where the child is already placed with the prospective adopters.

That is an important point. It is not a matter of children who have no relationship with the prospective adopters, and have not met them or had time to get to know them. It is about those who are already placed, where there is already a relationship. The relationship between a prospective adopter and a child placed with them will clearly be a fundamentally important and relevant consideration when a court considers whether an adoption should be granted, because, ultimately, it is a court’s decision, based on the best interest of the child, and with their welfare as the paramount consideration.

In the past two years there have been a small number of cases in which decisions have been taken to remove children from settled adoptive placements in favour of alternative arrangements with relatives who have come forward at a late stage. That may have potentially serious implications for the child, given the disruption to the attachments the child is likely to have already formed with their carers. That needs to be taken into account when making that final decision.

Where the making of an adoption order is being considered, in most cases the child will already have been living with their prospective adopters for between six to 12 months. During that time, the prospective adopters and the child will have established a relationship, and the child may have built a significant attachment to their carers. I have met adopters who have told me just that. The Government believe it is important that that attachment should be considered in the balance when final decisions are made about a child’s adoption.

That is not to say that prospective adopters are prioritised over birth parents or other family members in those considerations. The existing legislation already makes it clear that the court is also required to consider the relationship that the child has with their relatives, including their mother and father, and the relationship they have with any other person the court considers relevant, such as close friends or wider family. That express and mandatory requirement is not changing, so there is no hierarchy here—just a fair, balanced consideration of each of the significant relationships a child has, based on their own needs.

I also point out that the court is required to consider the wishes and feelings of family members when making an adoption decision. In addition, the court must consider the value to the child of the continuing relationship with their relatives. That is already clearly set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which was introduced by the last Labour Government, so relationships with the birth family and the child’s relatives are therefore central to the court’s considerations.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

The Minister was talking earlier about the drop in the number of adoptions. One of the factors for that may have been that local authority departments misinterpreted the court rulings as advice to slow down the number of adoptions. They are easily influenced by such things. Is it the Minister’s intention to offer some guidance to local authorities in the terms he has just stated, so that it is absolutely clear to them what their responsibilities are and what the intentions of clause 9 are, and how that has to be weighed against all of the other considerations he has just referred to?

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

I am happy to look again at what the guidance might say and what might be appropriate to reflect the change in the law in this small area. The primary legislation that is relevant to these cases is clear. I am on the record, not only in this Committee but on previous occasions, making it clear that it has to be a decision based on that child’s needs, taking into account all of the usual factors set out in the welfare checklist and so on. I am happy to look at that. On that basis, I hope hon. Members feel reassured, and that the clause can stand part of the Bill.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 8, Noes 5.

Division number 8 Christmas Tree Industry — Adoption: duty to have regard to relationship with adopters

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 5 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11