[Philip Davies in the Chair] — Adoption

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 9th November 2011.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash 9:30 am, 9th November 2011

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. It is my privilege to be able to bring this debate to the Chamber. The issue of UK adoption rates is topical and extremely important. Last week was national adoption week, and the issue has caught the public imagination. There is much to be said about the adoption process in the UK.

I must declare an interest as a family law barrister who has represented, over the years, parents, children and local authorities, in the child protection arena, since qualifying about 10 years ago. That has given me an insight into the many strains and pressures on those who work in child protection, and how those factors impact on the adoption process in the UK. I hope to set out some context, showing the different complexities that need to work together to improve the adoption process. However, I also consider the debate a perfect platform from which to encourage prospective adopters to come forward and be assessed, and to thank those who have stepped up to the mark and are now parents. The attendance at today’s debate shows that it is of interest across the parties.

The recent figures on adoption levels in the UK should cause alarm bells to ring. In the past year, of the 3,660 children in care under the age of one year, only 60 were placed for adoption. Those figures are a matter of concern, but they continue a trend that has troubled the Department for Education since the formation of the Government last year. For those of us with an interest in that area, the commissioning by the new Government of the Norgrove and Munro reviews, and the appointment of Martin Narey to review the adoption process—among other things—was most welcome. I know that the Children’s Minister, Sarah Teather, and the Secretary of State have taken a real interest in the subject matter.

I read this week a moving account by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education of his experience of childhood after being adopted.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport

I was looking at the adoption statistics, and it seemed to me that the decline in the number of adoptions is associated with an increase in the number of special guardianships being granted. When those are combined, the absolute numbers, in terms of giving permanence to a child, have increased since 2006. Does the hon. Lady agree that special guardianship orders, as well as adoption orders, can give the permanence that we seek for children?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I agree that when special guardianship orders came in, they brought about something that was much needed in the system. It is often, although of course not always, relatives of the child who step forward, and the orders provide another avenue of permanence and security for the child.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, about which many of us feel passionate. She has carried out a duty on behalf of us all in championing the matter in Parliament.

Although since 2005 special guardianship orders have been an important addition to the routes to permanence for children, is it not the case that the number of children being adopted had already flatlined in the two or three years before those orders were introduced? We need to be careful not to make a direct comparison between special guardianship orders and adoption orders and assume that one is replacing the other.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, who has shown leadership in the House in taking forward the issue of outcomes for looked-after children. I agree with his point. Special guardianship orders have their place and have been very useful in the child protection arena, but I do not accept that there is a direct correlation between the introduction of those orders and the reduction in adoption figures. It simply is not that straightforward. It should be borne in mind that often other residence orders or long-term foster care arrangements have supported special guardianship orders.

To return to what I was saying about the Secretary of State, he has taken the view that his life chances were transformed by the childhood that he experienced. He hopes to support looked-after children who are waiting to be placed for adoption. I was very encouraged by the interest shown by the Prime Minister in the issue in his party conference speech and subsequent remarks. I was delighted to hear him comment on the importance of improving adoption rates. I was also delighted with his response to my question at Prime Minister’s questions, which included this comment:

“It is also important that the Government pledge that we will make the process of adoption and fostering simpler. It has become too bureaucratic and difficult, and the result is that it is putting people off. I am absolutely determined that we crack this.”—[Hansard, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 923.]

I am sure that we would all agree with the Prime Minister about that.

Pulling all the indicators together, the message is clear. There is a momentum in the House and the country to tackle the challenges affecting the adoption process. We must seize the opportunity. The starting point must be the assessment process for prospective adopters. Last week’s national adoption week was an excellent opportunity to showcase, across the country, the need for adoptive parents, and the need to raise awareness. It is hoped that families and individuals will reflect on the possibility of adoption and make that important phone call to local authorities to start the process. Sadly, there are many anecdotal examples of that first step in the process—contacting children’s services—being a hurdle to overcome. I worked with and for social workers for many years, and I assure hon.

Members that I am not going to turn my speech into criticism of those who work in the field. The difficulties I mention are merely an example of the problems that occur all the way along the process of adoption.

Anecdotally, some applicants report being discouraged from the outset, and more needs to be done to ensure that all possible applicants are appreciated and encouraged to apply. Until we get people up to the starting line for the assessment process it is difficult to improve the number of applicants. With the current numbers of successful adoptions, we cannot afford to discourage people at an early stage. The entire assessment process needs to be streamlined and improved.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Conservative, Nuneaton

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Last year I spent an afternoon out with Warwickshire social services, and met foster carers, who were doing a terrific job looking after some of the most vulnerable young people. They were very concerned because of the delays in adoptions, which caused problems, leaving the young people uncertain for some time. Does my hon. Friend agree that streamlining and speeding up the process would help our most vulnerable young people?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has essentially summed up the problems. There is not one individual, agency, organisation or Department at fault. We are dealing with an entire system that needs to be examined and improved throughout. A domino effect of improvements is required.

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is the hon. Lady aware of developments in Wales? The Welsh Assembly Government are consulting on the possibility of unifying the adoption capacities of local authorities into a super-agency, with the idea of reducing duplication and, hopefully, providing speedier and better matches between adoptive parents and children. I imagine that the hon. Lady, like me, would welcome that approach.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I of course welcome any initiatives that are being taken, and I am sure that more information will be presented about the pilots and process in Wales, which will help us all, throughout the country.

Turning to the streamlining of the process, I ask the Minister this: do the Government consider that the process takes too long on occasion? Are the assessments too lengthy? Is there too much bureaucracy? Again, I am not criticising individual social workers—adoption is not an easy area to work in, and those working in adoption teams are often passionate and committed to seeking a placement for children for whom they are responsible. My concern is about the culture that has developed regarding assessment and the heavy-handed approach to form-filling. We need to reach a position where professionals feel confident to exercise their judgment to make decisions. That is perhaps reflected in the conclusions of Eileen Munro’s review into social workers and how we can improve prospects for professionals.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

The hon. Lady has been generous in giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate.

May I reinforce the hon. Lady’s point? Does she agree that Martin Narey’s evaluation of what is going on in the area is striking? He reported that one local authority required

“prospective parents to go through 146 pages of assessment.”

He also met a couple who had had to spend

“12 days with a social worker in their home assessing their readiness for adoption.”

At a time when almost

“three quarters of councils failed to place a child with their new adoptive family within 12 months of the adoption being finalised”, does she agree that on both sides of the House we need to give the strongest support to Martin Narey in sending out the signal that pace and purpose need to be brought into the whole process, in the interests of the children?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Of course we need to support Martin Narey, and I will come on to his report.

Another anecdotal example that one hears is that households are assessed through a form that is several pages long about the number of pets in the household, the fire drill process and so on. It prompts the question: where does the balance fall? Of course we need to safeguard children—no one would object to that. However, if every family of every newborn child who goes home from hospital with their natural parents had to produce a fire drill, a pet assessment form and details about its private life, the country would come to a standstill. We do not want to discourage people who have agreed to adopt and who have made an emotional commitment and a life-changing decision from applying. The concern, which we must tackle, is that such people are distracted or discouraged from continuing the process. In his report, Mr Martin Narey gives some excellent examples of where the problems lie.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Conservative, Nuneaton

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. Regarding the point that she has just made, does she agree that although we need, first and foremost, to ensure that adoptive parents are fit and proper to take on an adoptive role, by no means should the Government or the state tell the people who are fit and proper to look after children how to run their lives?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

The point is well made by my hon. Friend, and I thank him for the intervention. It is exactly that balance that perhaps we should all refer to this morning. There is a clear dividing line between assessing and safeguarding children and deciding whether they would be in any risk in a household, and commenting on people’s lifestyle choices and intimate details, which is simply not relevant to whether people are fit and capable parents.

Another aspect to speeding up the adoption process is the time limit for courts in completing care and placement proceedings. The family justice review, headed by David Norgrove, has just produced its final report. Sections of the report are relevant to the debate on adoption rates in the UK.

It is broadly accepted that children make their main attachments in the earliest months and years of their lives. It goes perhaps without saying that the more secure are their relationships with their main carers, the more likely it is that they will form secure attachments and relationships in childhood and beyond.

It is important to remember that the paramount priority of the family court has been and always will remain the welfare of a child. Again, I make no criticisms of all the professionals and others involved in the court process; I know at first hand how hard-working and committed the court staff, lawyers, social workers and children’s guardians are. However, there are long delays in the completion of cases. Care and supervision cases now take an average of 56 weeks. One can say that a young child is subject to proceedings for a high percentage of their life—often 50% or more. There is no magic wand for that problem. It requires consideration of case management, court availability and judicial leadership.

We already have in place the public law outline, which sets out the parameters for how cases should progress. Judicial continuity and strict case management are just one important aspect of how we could speed along proceedings.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

Regarding the court process, judicial continuity and case management, is it not also important that the initial allocation of a care case is done with the utmost expediency and by a judge with the right level of experience, to ensure that there is not even more delay built into the court process, so that the time limits that we are trying to adhere to are more likely to be kept?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I agree with my hon. Friend’s point. At the moment, all public law cases automatically go to the family proceedings court. They may then be transferred to higher courts, such as the county court or even the High Court. However, when we are dealing with strict time limits and concerns to create outcomes for children, every extra court date is time not best used. It is a waste of the child’s time, and we must improve the situation. I would support any proposals that allocate cases more efficiently and directly to the correct level, so that they can be properly managed by appropriate judges.

The Norgrove review proposes a limit of six months in which to complete proceedings. That is certainly a good aspiration, but if that is to be achieved, it will require the coming together of many aspects of how the courts function. I realise that the report has only just been published, but I ask the Minister for any preliminary response to it, and what the time scale is for a detailed Government response to that important document. Six months is a reasonable period in which to make an assessment. A court’s primary and first consideration and hope is that a child may be returned to their birth family and stays with it. Following that is an assessment and consideration of the parents and any other family members. We need to speed up the availability of court time.

Judicial continuity is important. If a judge is charged with the responsibility of a case from the outset, they will have a much better understanding of the dynamics, personalities and initial concerns of a social worker. They will have a grip on the background and chronology of the case; they will have seen it through. It is much more difficult for a judge to step in halfway through a case and make important and life-changing decisions for a child. I am sure that many judges would wish to have judicial continuity throughout cases—they aspire to that as well—so I hope that can be achieved over time.

Once the court process has been exhausted and a placement order made, allowing local authorities to match a child with prospective adopters, there are further hurdles and challenges. A local authority has to consider the pool of adopters within its authority. Again, one has to think about the cost and other complications of looking further afield from the outset. However, is that a sensible, child-centred approach? Surely, we need a more straightforward structure in which adoption teams across the country can consider as wide a pool of prospective adopters as possible from the earliest opportunity. That could save months when matching children with prospective carers.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Conservative, Devizes

I apologise for arriving late to this extremely important debate. I have considered adoption. I am 47 years old and have successfully brought up three children. I know that there is a big question over whether MP mothers are fit people to adopt, but I am also considered too old to adopt because of some absurd guidance on the age spread between the adopted child and the adoptive parents. Surely it is time to stop that insanity and allow these vulnerable children to be placed in loving homes regardless of ethnic background and age. We need a return to common sense.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course we need a common-sense approach. There are thousands of children in care who are waiting to be placed, and we must do all that we can to help them.

The issue of concurrent placements is important. Foster carers who are caring for children throughout the court process—the care proceedings—can also become the adoptive parents without having to be assessed all over again. The advantage is that children are in their prospective home and able to form those important attachments from an early stage. That is surely desirable and needs to be encouraged. Organisations such as Coram are skilled and successful in implementing such an approach, and authorities, including the London borough of Harrow, have championed it.

Of course there are consequences to such an approach. We are asking foster carers to make an emotional investment, and yet they are often left for months on end waiting for the outcome of the assessments of everyone else to see whether they can keep the child for the longer term, so it is not for the faint-hearted. None the less, there are many advantages to the concurrent placement approach. I hope that the Government will consider increasing the number of concurrent placements and also how they are undertaken across the country.

Another aspect of the adoption debate is the question of how important it is to secure a cultural and ethnic match between prospective parents and the child. In my experience, this is a debate in which feelings can run very high, and professionals and parents hold a variety of views. Of course there are many who have a greater knowledge and insight into this issue than I, but for what it is worth my view is that we have taken a step in the right direction with the recent change in the legislation that says that a culturally appropriate match is desirable but is by no means a prerequisite or a deal-breaker.

It is easy to be simplistic about this topic, but it is difficult to accept that it is better for a black and minority ethnic child to have to remain in care for all of their childhood instead of being placed in a loving home because there is not an ideal ethnic match.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate to the Chamber today. Often foster parents and those who wish to adopt go overseas to adopt. Does that not illustrate the problem that we are trying to highlight today—that it is quicker to adopt overseas than at home? Surely there needs to be a quick change to the system for the very reasons that the hon. Lady has stated.

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have many anecdotal examples of this issue. I have met many adoptive parents who have spent years hoping to adopt children and who have, eventually, had to turn to agencies overseas. It has taken years and cost them a huge amount to parent a child. That is a tragedy and must come to an end. Society has moved on considerably on this issue and those not involved in any way with the court or adoption process are often amazed to hear that they may not be considered as parents for a child because there is not a good cultural match. I do not think it is fair on BME children who are in foster care to be disadvantaged in such way. We must make progress on this issue.

On the issue of sibling placements, there is evidence that the loss of contact with birth siblings is a real regret to adopted children. We need to do more to support successful sibling placements and to encourage contact and communication between siblings throughout their childhood. I have friends who went from having no children to having three overnight, aged three, two and one. It was a life-changing moment for them, but it ensured that the sibling group were able to stay together. I can now report that those children are flourishing and experiencing a very happy childhood.

It is easy to be over-simplistic about this issue and there will be many examples of situations where it is not in a child’s best interests to maintain such relationships. None the less, if such relationships can be sustained they should be, and this is where the care plans that are devised at court and the role of the independent reviewing officer come to the fore.

When the case completes in court, the judge will sign off and approve the final care plan. A section in that will include the contact—contact with birth parents and with birth family, which will include siblings as well. A real regret for judges is that they do not know what happens after that point; they have no judicial role once the case has concluded. The case then moves to the management of the local authority and the independent reviewing officers, who have a key and pivotal role to play in the whole adoption procedure. I hope the role of such officers is supported and perhaps even increased and improved over the years. They are charged with the responsibility of checking on that care plan and seeing how it is being implemented. The loss of birth parents can be difficult for children as they grow up, but the loss of siblings with whom they may have been very close can be something of real regret. More needs to be done to improve and encourage not just the placement of siblings together but sibling contact if children have to be separated.

The issue of Criminal Records Bureau checks also needs to be considered and changed across many Departments. A constituent of mine wanted to volunteer to work with the local Home-Start charity. Erewash is lucky to have such a good Home-Start team who do great outreach work, especially for young mums, and work very well with the local authority. The constituent put in for her CRB check and she was confused with another lady who did not even share the same name. The check came back saying that she had a number of convictions. That is simply not the case and it has taken months to resolve the matter. My concern is again with the system that we have. We are dealing with an individual who wants to help; she wants to volunteer in her community and help young mums, and the system has done everything it can to try to prevent her from doing that. We must not let such problems with bureaucracy get in the way. Such problems are also reflected in the adoption process, but I have already covered them in this debate.

Martin Narey, the former head of Barnardo’s, has been appointed by the Government to advise on adoption. He has worked extremely hard and been bold and direct in his conclusions about how we move forward. Both his work and the campaign that has been championed by The Times have done a huge amount to raise the issues across the country.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on today’s debate. On the campaign organised by The Times, would she join me in paying tribute to the newspaper for its leadership on the issue, to Martin Narey and to the Children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who commissioned Martin Narey to write his report and who has adopted his recommendations? The Prime Minister has both warmly welcomed the report and called for an overhaul of the adoption process. Does she not agree that for the first time in many years, this Government are showing real leadership on the issue of tackling these problems?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. I reiterate that there is a real momentum—within Government, across parties and across the country through The Times and other publications—to raise the profile of this issue, so we really must do more.

There are many threads and complexities to this issue, but at the heart of this debate is a wish to raise the profile of adoption, to encourage adoptive parents to come forward and to point out how rewarding and valuable adoption of children can be. Like any life-changing decision, it will not be without its challenges and ups and downs, but from the many, many discussions that I have had with adoptive parents I know that their lives have been enriched by the decision to open their homes and to care for children.

As politicians, what we need to focus on now are the real challenges of making the system of adoption as streamlined and as efficient as it can possibly be.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and she is making a very thoughtful contribution to it. Does she agree that although we must of course have more adoptions, we must also have more successful

adoptions? The research indicates that about 11% of adoption placements break down and that is heartbreaking, both for the adopted child and the adopting parents. Does she think that the Department for Education could take more of a lead in commissioning research into adoption breakdowns, so that we have a better perspective on what goes wrong and can secure more successful placements in the future?

Photo of Jessica Lee Jessica Lee Conservative, Erewash

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. In my view, the Department is doing exactly that; it is examining the entire process of adoption, root and branch, in detail. So I am confident that those points are being considered. Her point about the need for post-adoption support is a good one, and it needs reflecting on. Perhaps it takes us back to the points that I made about the role of the independent reviewing officer in reviewing case plans and reviewing the position of children.

I conclude by saying that better outcomes for looked-after children should be our goal. It is attainable; I feel that the momentum towards achieving it is there, and I ask everyone to do their bit to improve the adoption system.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:01 am, 9th November 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I will be brief, because I know that right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to this debate.

I congratulate Jessica Lee on securing this debate on an issue that is very important to a lot of people out there among the general public who are interested in becoming prospective parents. They are interested in this debate, because the hon. Lady has expressed a lot of the frustration that many of them feel when they have to go through the process of adoption.

In the research papers that we received before this debate, one figure given to us was that last year, only 60 out of 3,600 children under the age of one who are in care were adopted, and in addition the average time that the process of adoption took was two and a half years. We all know that when a child reaches the age of four, the possibility of their being adopted is very slim indeed. They may go into foster care, but it is certainly very difficult for them to be adopted.

The research papers state that one in four adopted children were forced to wait more than a year before they moved in with their new parents. I have to say that my experience as someone who has adopted—I will go into that experience more in a moment—is in relation to the prospective parents: those couples who believe that they can offer a good home to children and who have tried for many years to have a family in a natural process but have never been able to do so. They are frustrated with the legislation on adoption. We have heard about the form-filling. In the words of people who have come to me, they are frustrated with “the intrusiveness” of having to sit down with social workers. The hon. Lady mentioned the good work of social services, and I accept that point, as being a social worker is a very difficult job. However, for older prospective parents aged between 30 and 35, having to sit down and talk to a young social worker who has very little experience of life and rearing a family—their experience all comes from a textbook—and tell them why they cannot have a family is very difficult. The prospective parents have to tell the social worker all their personal details and the process is very frustrating from their point of view.

There is a balance to be struck in all of this. I understand—and I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members realise this—that some of the things that have happened to children over the years, and even in recent months—baby P, children being starved to death and all those sorts of things—are horrific. In my opinion, anyone who does that sort of thing to a child is not fit to live in society.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issues that people who want to adopt, or even foster, children are faced with. There is a myth that if someone is a smoker, or unmarried or even overweight, they will not be considered a suitable adoptive parent. Of course, many parents throughout the country face all those issues and it does not make them any better or any worse parents. We must also address the issue that people are expected to be paragons of virtue in everything that they do before they are regarded as perfect adoptive parents.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Certainly, if being overweight had been an issue, I would not have fitted the bill. Later on this afternoon, my hon. Friend Mr Campbell will introduce a Westminster Hall debate on the Government policy on obesity, and he has dared me to attend. [ Laughter. ] I will go to it.

Caroline Dinenage is right. No one is perfect and it is very hard to get a role model of a parent. We all have frustrations. Even if people have children through the natural process, they experience frustrations because they do not know how those children are going to turn out, which is difficult. Claire Perry raised the issue of the age of prospective parents and I think that she said she is 47. May I say that she looks very well for 47? If I was a social worker, I would take her for 27, but we will not go down that road.

Returning to the serious point, it is nonsense for social services to restrict the number of prospective parents just because someone is over 40, or 45. That is absolutely scandalous. One of the prospective parents who had come to see me and who had been told that they could not adopt, was told that one reason was were over 45, so when the child reached their teenage years the prospective father could not play football with them. That is absolute nonsense—the whole thing is crazy.

We must try to get a balance in all of this. In Northern Ireland 25 years ago, what my wife and I did was very new. We went to an agency, we went through missionaries, and we adopted our first child from India. That was 25 years ago this December. I think that we were the second set of parents in Northern Ireland to adopt a child from a foreign country. The reason was simple; it was because the waiting list to adopt a child in Northern Ireland was horrendous. It was unbelievable. We felt that we could give a child a home, and as we could not have that child from the British system, we were forced to go down another avenue.

We did that 25 years ago. We have had no problems whatsoever from a cultural or ethnic viewpoint, and we have experienced no racism in any way. My daughter is now 25 and she runs her own business. Then we adopted twins from Paraguay. At that time, the dictator in Paraguay made it very clear that he would prefer it if children died on the streets of Paraguay than be adopted by a western society. He did not have his way and we adopted the twins. Someone asked us after we did that if we were trying to start our own United Nations, but we decided to stop at just the three children because we knew that the United Nations was nothing to be proud of. We did not go down that road.

Our twins are now 22, and again that adoption has worked well; there are absolutely no issues. However, the point that I am making is that because of the system we were forced to go in that direction. The system needs to be looked at. Two and a half years is much too long for any prospective parent to wait for a child. We need to deal with that, and we must address the ageism involved in beliefs about the age a prospective parent should be.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on securing this excellent debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that families who put themselves forward for adoption often have had fertility problems? Not only are they waiting throughout the lengthy bureaucratic process of adoption, but they might have been trying for children and have had a desire to contribute, by bringing up a family, for a long time—perhaps up to five or six years.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

That is 100% right. The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue, and we need to get to grips with the situation. On many such issues, the policy of the present Government and of previous Governments for many years—I am not pointing the figure at any one in particular—has been, “We’ll put a sticking-plaster over it and that will last for another while. Then we’ll perhaps bring out a wee bit of legislation or else we’ll go out for consultation.” The period involved is frustrating for potential adoptive parents. Last year in the United Kingdom, only 60 out of 3,600 children under the age of one in care were placed with families. That scandal must be dealt with, and I trust that the Minister will take note. Many families who are willing to give children a loving home are not given the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West 10:12 am, 9th November 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on securing this debate. We have had an overview of the situation from her, and a personal story from my hon. colleague David Simpson. I want to look at two issues raised by constituents of mine, one about the choice and selection of adoption agencies, the other about awareness in the education system of the needs and sensitivities of adopted children.

Statistics show that the number of children being adopted has fallen, with decreases of 5% from 2010, 20% from 2005, and 8.4% from 2009. I will look at that significant 2009 figure a little later. We must, however, look at the reality of the situation. We are talking about a child’s journey, about the most formative years in their life when they are at their most vulnerable and learn the most, not from the spoken word but from the things that shape their characteristics and personality traits for the rest of their life—how they are accepted and rejected, how they form a loving bond with their parents or new adoptive parents, and how that has a significant impact on their future relationships. That is key. Some 33% of children who leave care are not in education, employment or training, compared with a national average of 18%, so there are huge implications and ramifications later in life.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Part of this debate is about policy that has social benefits down the line. There are clearly issues about parents being able to adopt as quickly as possible, but the critical point is that this is part of an early intervention policy and we need to get it right because it has benefits for society.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I completely agree. There are benefits to society, but also huge benefits to the child who progresses into adulthood.

My constituents came to see me about the significant changes to adoption agencies under Labour’s 2010 equality laws, which state that the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is a fundamental principle of human rights laws and that such discrimination can be permitted only in the most compelling circumstances. I completely agree. That is the law; that is the way forward. The consequence, however, has been the closing of Catholic adoption agencies across the country. We have a huge problem, because those adoption agencies were the best at finding parents for older children—the most difficult to place with adoptive parents—and were the most successful in ensuring that those children remained in families.

People said to me, “You put the Catholic Church in a situation in which Parliament’s laws conflicted with the Church laws,” which they considered a higher law. They said, “When does tolerance become intolerance? Why were we tolerant of other people but not of the Catholic Church? When did equality for the Catholic Church become inequality?” We have seen that inequality, as all of a sudden the help that the agencies provided stopped because they were no longer given funding. Agencies that can trace their origins back to orphanages set up in Leeds in 1863 ended up closing down. Of course, we have to live within the law—of course, we must have the correct outcome—but surely that does not mean that we cannot have choice in how adoption agencies go about their work and in how they meet the needs of parents who come to them.

I looked slightly closer at the falling numbers of children being adopted. At the moment, there are 177 adoption agencies, 150 in local authorities and 27 voluntary ones, but if we go back, there were 11 more—Catholic ones that closed. That was a 5.83% decrease in the total number of agencies, but a 30% drop in the number of voluntary ones. How do we replace those valuable agencies? How do we find a selection—a choice—for people wanting to come forward, and how do we find those people? Some people come forward via the Church. This is a fundamental need for them, and they feel they are helping the Church, local communities and children. We must look very carefully at how we reach out to people who want to adopt, but for the past couple of years feel that they have been overlooked. There must be equality for everyone, but we need choice, which will ultimately provide equality for everyone and for the children who so desperately need to be adopted.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport

I want to reinforce my hon. Friend’s point. In my constituency of Gosport and in the wider Hampshire area, only 35 children were adopted last year. The older children are, the harder they are to place, and looked-after children have half the success rate of other kids in English and maths. We therefore need to explore every possible avenue to enable older children to be adopted, and the Catholic agencies were very successful at placing them and other harder-to-help children.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

Absolutely. The key point is, “When does tolerance become intolerance?” The Catholics who came to see me thought that that had happened. They believed that providing choice could bring about equality, but that what we had stopped was choice.

My second point, which a constituent of mine, Paula Davies, raised with me, is about the lack of awareness in the education system. She had adopted a daughter, and thought that she had unique needs arising from the adoption, which had happened later in life. She was concerned that the schools did not seem to be fully aware of the requirements of children from such backgrounds. She did not want something specific for her child; she did not want anybody taking her aside or teaching her differently. She was not looking for something different or extreme. However, she told me that two county councils, Hertfordshire and Somerset, have documents for staff who work with looked-after or adopted children in schools, and she wondered why every county council could not have those documents to hand for teachers to read, so that they could be aware of such children’s unique sensitivities and awareness.

Children adopted later in life are particularly vulnerable to rejection. They might take being told off or made to sit over there in a slightly different way, having been rejected early or later in life. It would be a simple change. The documents already exist, so I am not asking for anything with a cost implication. We are asking that they be made available to other councils, and therefore to teachers across the country.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about education for adopted children. Does she agree that local authorities treat adopted children differently from children in care, in terms of the support that they get and the schools that they go to? Does she agree with the proposal to change that and enable adopted children to receive the same support as children in care?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was not aware that there were differences, but if so, of course they need to be addressed. Particularly for children adopted later in life, it is painfully apparent that they might need the same support as children in care. I will conclude on that point, but I would like replies from the Minister on my points about choice, equality and awareness of the need to help children in school.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Two colleagues are seeking to catch my eye. Just to let them know, I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.40 am, so they can divide the time between them.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport) 10:22 am, 9th November 2011

I want to make a few points to give the Northern Ireland perspective. I commend Jessica Lee— I am sure that my pronunciation is totally wrong, but that is by the way. I hesitated to mention her constituency, because I was not sure it would come out right. I also congratulate my hon. Friend David Simpson on his heartfelt contribution. He has walked that road and knows it well.

I am a great believer, as I have said in other debates, in the importance of family life. Family is the core of society, and we build society around the family. I am fortunate enough to have come from a good family environment, from my point of view. I have three boys and am a grandfather to boot. I see the importance of family life in giving children stability and ensuring that they do well in life.

In my position as an MP, I have had the opportunity to meet many constituents who adopt and foster, and who give love and meaning to those who need help. Many wish to adopt, and I will make a couple of points relating to them. Some of those points have been mentioned, but I want to put on record the situation in Northern Ireland and the importance of family life to those who find themselves on their own.

I have seen many products of adoption and the good work done by foster parents. I know a family in my constituency who have adopted or fostered numerous children over a period of years. I remember one young boy; I mind well when he was adopted, and I have watched him grow all the way through the process. He started as a vulnerable young boy, and found parents who gave him an opportunity in life. Now he is a young man. I have watched his progress from a child seeking adoption to his present employment. He is stable, kind, well-mannered and a credit to both his parents and his foster parents.

Northern Ireland had 2,660 children in the care of the authorities in March last year, to give some statistics. Their needs included short-term care as well as long-term adoption and fostering. The breakdown is that 50% were boys, 17% were between the ages of one and four, 30% were between five and 11, 31% were between 12 and 15 and 19% were 16-plus. They all have their own unique needs.

Fostering and adoption are absolutely important, but in Northern Ireland, only 61 of those 2,660 young people found adoptive parents that year. That is a minuscule drop in the ocean. I have spoken to fostering authorities and organisations in Northern Ireland, and they have indicated some of the problems with the process. A better way is needed through the paperwork and bureaucracy that we have all mentioned and know about. I made a comment earlier about people going overseas to adopt children. It is not that children from across the water should not have the opportunity for adoption. It is not only celebrities who adopt them but people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, who wanted to give children a home, as do many people I know, who have looked at photographs in the paper and read stories on TV and in magazines about multi-millionaires who go overseas to adopt children. Such people give young people stability and opportunity.

The process worries me, because it takes so long. One key factor that other Members have mentioned is that the process can take anything from two to two and a half years. For those who are starting the process and are anxious to enable quick fostering or adoption, we must do something about that.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Conservative, Devizes

I wonder what the hon. Gentleman would say about a case in my constituency involving an officer returning from Afghanistan. He and his wife had been trying for five years to have a child and decided to adopt. He was a smoker and was told that he had to give up, that he could not then restart the process for a year and that it would take another two years, by which time he is likely to be on deployment again. Surely we should do better and make the system more streamlined.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the hon. Lady for that example. We are all frustrated by the process, which does not deliver when needed but adds anomalies, in this case in relation to smoking.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

On that point, when we were going through the process, we were told that it would take a year or a year and a half to do the home study and so on, but if we were willing to pay for it, social services could do it in four months. That is exactly what we did. People who cannot afford that have to wait a year and a half or more, but those in a position to pay for a home study through social services can do it in four months, a bit like the health service. It is not right.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. There is something seriously wrong with a process where those who can pay get it and those who cannot pay have to wait.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

On that point, does the hon. Gentleman share the ambition that Martin Narey set out regarding the scale of change needed when he suggested that the number of adoptions ought to double and the time taken to complete them ought to halve? Is that not the scale of change that we must press for?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I welcome those constructive comments. I would say that the number should more than double. If only 61 people in Northern Ireland were adopted in a year when 2,660 were awaiting adoption—I am mindful that those figures are for both short-term and long-term care—I would like that figure to more than double. However, I accept that point.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I mention that ambition because that is what Martin Narey said. He set it in context by saying that even people who are pro-adoption—incredibly, he comes across people who are anti-adoption—have a feeling that that is too ambitious and undeliverable, but like the hon. Gentleman, I think that we ought to be capable of doing better than that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I think that we all agree that we have to set targets that meet the need. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he represents Strangford, my old hunting ground. On the difficulties for those who wish to adopt or who have adopted, does he agree with my constituents, Mr and Mrs James, who told me the other day that, as people who have adopted children, had they known what they would have to go through, they probably would not have done so? Moreover, Mr and Mrs Nash told me that they did not know about the difficulties that they would have in relation to education or about the hidden trauma of the children whom they adopted—it was waiting to come out, but they did not get the same support as children in care. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with them that, if we could overcome those difficulties, we would be able to raise the rates of those who are adopted—in Gloucestershire, only 27 out of 500 children in care are adopted—and that the problem would be much less grave?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I wholeheartedly agree with him and think that every other Member present does, too.

I am conscious of the time, so I will come to a conclusion. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has indicated that he is keen and anxious for a time scale of six months. If that is to happen, we will need more than a verbal commitment. I want action. It would be good to see that happen.

Finally, I am concerned that, in some, not all, cases, it is as though Christian families are interrogated about their ethics and morality, their homes, and their desire to adopt. In some cases, Christians, Christian families and Christian parents are being penalised because of their beliefs, but we cannot pass by what they have to offer. Those potential parents wish to adopt and we have a list of young children who seek adoptive parents. The answer is simple—let us put the two together and do it right.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 10:32 am, 9th November 2011

It is an unmitigated delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on her deeply knowledgeable and constructive speech, which set out all the issues with which we need to grapple in order to improve our adoption system. It is worth setting down a marker from the outset that adoption is only one route to permanency for children who need to find another home, and that many foster carers and family members take on a caring role. Although adoption is a route to permanency that many more children could be the beneficiaries of, we have to recognise that it is not always the right option for every child.

I declare an interest. Like my hon. Friend, I am a family law barrister, although I do not practise at present. I also have two adoptive brothers—Oliver, who is now 35, and Henry, who has just turned 24, I think. They are an integral part of our family and one thing about which I can be absolutely confident is that they have enriched our family’s lives. I hope that we have provided them with the stable and loving environment that they so desperately needed.

It is worth acknowledging that successive Governments, including the previous one, did their best to try to help vulnerable children who were in need of a stable home. That included trying to work in ways that would help adoption become a more successful route. We could talk about whether targets are a good or a bad idea, but I think that the motivation behind them was absolutely right. It was to try to give the opportunity to more families to offer a home to children through the adoption route. Ultimately, this is about finding the right home for a child, rather than the right child for a home. I believe that the current Government’s work to achieve that end is moving the system in the right direction, but be under no illusions—there is no quick fix and it will take a whole cultural shift over a long period.

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

My hon. Friend is making a valid point. Although we recognise that there will be no quick fix to the problem, one of my concerns is that, in the meantime, we as Members of Parliament must do our level best to make sure that those looked-after children and those going through the process are given the best possible voice and opportunity. Foster carers in my constituency have told me that they want looked-after children to have a voice and to be heard by us in this place, so that we can understand the issues that they face.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which gives me the opportunity to remind her of the groups that I chair—the all-party group on adoption and fostering and the all-party group on looked after children and care leavers. Every time we meet, we manage to bring to Parliament about 150 people who are in care or have left care, so that their voice can be heard here. We are trying to begin a scheme whereby MPs will be matched with a care leaver in their constituencies. I encourage all Members present to engage with that and to ask their local authority if they can sit on an adoption panel, so that they can learn exactly how the decision-making process works.

In this debate, we have elaborated on the myth-busting that needs to take place in relation to the issue of who can adopt. David Simpson has mentioned his experiences in Paraguay, which leave a lot to be desired. I remember visiting some Romanian orphanages in 1990 with my parents, who were so distressed by what they saw that they inquired about adopting a Romanian child. My hon. Friend Claire Perry, who has left the Chamber for now, has told us that she was turned down for being 47. My parents were turned down in Romania for being over 35, which shows that some other countries have even more stringent conditions for adoption.

We need to bust myths. If someone has a body mass index that they are not proud of, it does not mean that they cannot adopt. If you like a flutter on the horses,

Mr Davies, it does not mean that you cannot adopt. A lot of myths need to be shaken out of the adopted system. The Government’s important measures in relation to new adoption guidelines, particularly those centring on black and minority ethnic children, are an important step in that direction.

It has been suggested that the way to try to improve the number of people who put themselves forward to adopt and to ensure that more children are adopted is to go back to the targets system. I have already touched on that and do not believe that it is the right way. We need to do something similar to what has been done in Cheshire East council, in my constituency, which has a local but direct campaign called “Fostering and Adoption in Cheshire East”. FACE brings together people from all sorts of different backgrounds—married, single, gay, pensioners—who adopted successfully, to try to ensure that people realise that they do not necessarily need to count themselves out and that they are very much welcome. We also need to make sure that those local authorities that get more inquiries, as has been the case in Cheshire East, have the capacity to deal with those cases and provide those people with the services that they need. We do not want to end up in a situation in which people make the emotional decision to present themselves as potential adopters, only to be told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

I would have liked to have covered many other issues, many of which have been addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, but what I will say is that it is outcomes for children that matters. If all children are going to be placed in an adoptive placement, it is important that the outcomes are successful. We need to look carefully at organisations such as Coram, which has a 100% success rate in finding adoptive parents for children with adoption plans. It has almost negligible breakdown rates, and post-adoption support plays a vital role in that. Adoption UK and After Adoption are just two of the voluntary adoption agencies that offer specific courses for adopters. I have spoken to adopters who have benefitted from those courses, which are valuable in ensuring that adopters understand the issues they face, and that the children they look after get the support they need post-adoption. Just because a child is adopted does not mean that the problems disappear. My brother Oliver is 35. He still has difficulties that all relate to his early life trauma. I am pleased to say that he has just completed his first year in employment without changing jobs. That has been a huge breakthrough for him. For our family, it is a measure of the success from where he started.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) 10:40 am, 9th November 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I sincerely pay tribute to Jessica Lee for securing this important and well-attended debate. Her work in this area, both in Parliament and as a family law barrister before her election, is highly regarded, and she gave an excellent speech that acknowledged the complexity of the issue. The debate has been extremely interesting, with excellent contributions from all hon. Members.

The debate is timely. As mentioned, last week was national adoption week. It has been running since 1997 and provides us all with a reminder of the need to raise awareness of adoption, the importance of encouraging adoptive parents to come forward, and the need to highlight the importance of adoption for those children who, for whatever reason, cannot remain with their birth parents. Ministers used last week to make a number of important announcements on this issue. I add my support, in particular, to the announcement that adopted children will be given the same priority in terms of school admissions as looked-after children, which builds on the work of the previous Labour Government.

I welcome the new adopters’ charter, which sets out clear principles on how adopters should be treated, and I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is giving his backing to the Give a Child a Home campaign, which was launched by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering and the Fostering Network. As Mr Timpson set out so well, it is as important to focus on fostering and the people who give up their time to foster children as it is to focus on those who adopt.

The most high-profile announcement last week was on performance tables, which the Department for Education will use to assess local authorities. The aim is to act

“as a challenge to local authorities to do better for the children in their care.”

I agree that all local authorities, and society at large, could and should do better in terms of support for looked-after children. We all know that outcomes for looked-after children are unacceptably poor. We all accept that the fall in the number of adoptions is a concern, and we certainly all acknowledge that an average waiting time of two years and seven months for a child to be adopted is simply far too long. However, I am concerned that naming and shaming local authorities seriously risks painting too simplistic a picture of an incredibly complex issue. Have Ministers considered what impact the threat of tough action against those local authorities will have on the morale, recruitment and retention of already overstretched social workers?

The Government’s performance tables risk failing to present a true picture of a local authority’s performance. Hackney borough council came bottom of the new league table, placing only 43% of children with adoptive parents within 12 months of a decision to do so. However, as Hackney borough council stated:

“Placing a child quickly should not be the only consideration upon which authorities are judged. A placement breaking down is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to an adopted child. In Hackney, we have one of the best records of stability of placements; such is the quality of our placements, hardly any, if any, ever break down.”

There is also the risk of creating perverse incentives for local authorities to push for rushed adoptions—in place of special guardianship arrangements, or concurrent planning that might be more appropriate in the circumstances—to meet what risk being arbitrary targets. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned, we need to listen to Coram, one of the country’s leading voluntary adoption agencies. It stated that the Department for Education’s performance indicators

“don’t tell the full story of the experience of children in care…For example, they do not reveal how delays owing to court processes may affect the speed of adoption or how a child who appears to have been ‘waiting for adoption’ may have in fact been consistently fostered by the same parents who go on to adopt them.”

As well as looking at how we increase the number of adoptions for siblings, black and minority ethnic children, children with disabilities and older children, surely the most important thing we must aim for is to increase the number of successful adoption placements, or talk in terms of permanent arrangements, rather than a simple increase in the number of adoptions taking place. That point was also made by my hon. Friend Ann Coffey. Perhaps the most crucial part of the jigsaw in increasing the number of successful adoptions is improving the level of post-adoption support available to adoptive families and their children. Despite the legal requirements in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to provide long-term support to families after adoption, we are all aware, from anecdotal evidence and constituents’ experiences, that such support is currently not at the level it should be.

Indeed, Adoption UK reports that despite the fact that

“Great strides have been taken in acknowledging the need for adoption support services for families, and delivering some practical support…far too many families still come to Adoption UK, desperate for support.”

I recently received a heartbreaking letter from an adoptive mother of 20 years, who put the issue very succinctly:

“Given the number of adoptions that break down as well as the number of relationships which collapse under the pressure of attempting to deal alone with challenging behaviours, not enough consideration is being given to the consequences of not supporting adoptive families properly.”

She went on:

“I now know that providing a loving family for children who have had multiple carers and suffered abuse will never be enough. The children and indeed their adoptive families will need access to proper psychological/therapeutic support as well as respite and proper pathway planning during turbulent teenage years”.

The hon. Member for Erewash acknowledged this issue and that it deserves consideration and reflection. However, it is a crucial part of the jigsaw if we are to bring about an increase in the number of successful adoptions, which we all want to see.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich referred to the issue of care leavers. Last week was not only national adoption week, but national care leavers’ week. I had the privilege of attending the recent special meeting held by the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers. I heard from several young people about the incredibly positive role that being in care had played in their lives, and their disappointment in the way that residential care, and being in care, is so often dismissed. I therefore wanted to put on record my serious concerns about some of the language used by Ministers in the media last week, who referred to children “languishing” in care. That language is not helpful for these young people, or in encouraging foster carers and adoptive parents to come forward.

Implicit in the Government’s decision to publish performance data is the view that adoption represents the gold standard for all councils to aim for. However, as was eloquently put by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, it should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution. Adoption is not the right option for every child. Indeed, that approach has been criticised by the Fostering Network, which believes that focusing overwhelmingly on adoption risks skewing decision making, oversimplifying enormously complex and difficult decisions and ignoring the needs of the vast majority of children who come into care, who neither need nor want to be adopted.

In conclusion, the Government are absolutely right to focus on looked-after children and adoption. I look forward to hearing more about how the work of Martin Narey, the ministerial adviser, will be taken forward in the next two years. However, the Government must also recognise that adoption is not a panacea for looked-after children, or society at large. While being the most incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience, raising a family can also be one of the most challenging and difficult experiences for people in the best of circumstances. Adoptive parents are not super-human. They, and their adopted children, need ongoing support if we are to increase the number of successful placements.

There is no doubt that the adoption process can and should be sped up, but that must not be done at the expense of ensuring the right path for the child. After all, to completely cut a child’s legal ties with their birth parents and family—choosing a family that can adopt them, making decisions about whether they will be able to live with any brothers and sisters and then moving them to live with a whole new family—is an enormous decision, which must be taken with great care.

I am sure that Ministers recognise that adoption is not the right answer for every child. I want to pay tribute in particular to the comments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. I am sure that he shares many of my concerns—that we do not focus solely on adoption but on a child-centred approach that ensures results and the best long-term outcomes for all children, whatever their circumstances of care.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education 10:50 am, 9th November 2011

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am not sure that I can exceed the florid language of Mr Timpson. I congratulate Jessica Lee on securing the debate hard on the heels of national adoption week.

The more observant Members in the Chamber have realised that I am not the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who is incredibly disappointed that he cannot be present at the debate today—so disappointed that we spoke twice on the phone yesterday. He apologised personally to the hon. Member for Erewash, but he was in Birmingham yesterday and Sheffield today, speaking at child protection conferences among many other things. I will not say that he would rather be here, because that would cause terrible offence to people in Sheffield, but he was desperate to be present.

The debate has been fantastic—knowledgeable, passionate and informed by personal stories of adoption, whether as barristers or as families, whether as a brother or as adoptive parents. Hard on the heels of national adoption week, it is helpful to be able to do some of the myth-busting of which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke. It is helpful to air some of the myths, then systematically knock some down. We want to be open to many more people as adoptive parents and to be robust in challenging some of the things that have grown up and which prevent people who have an enormous amount to give from coming forward.

The hon. Member for Erewash is a member of the Under-Secretary’s ministerial advisory group on adoption, so she is aware of his particular interest and passion. He is very determined to ensure that more children who have been overlooked are considered appropriately for adoption, in particular older and disabled children, and to speed up the adoption process as much as possible, so that they can be adopted at a younger age.

Over the past year, a great deal of activity has been going on. The Under-Secretary has been leading a wide programme of reform. The Government have issued revised guidance and national minimum standards, and an adoption and special guardianship data pack is available for local authorities to use to challenge the operation and performance of their adoption service. The Under-Secretary appointed Martin Narey as the ministerial adviser on adoption, and approved funding for Barnardo’s in partnership with the Coram Foundation, to engage with 24 local authorities and help them to improve adoption outcomes for children and the adoption services. The Government have approved funding for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, to raise awareness of and to promote adoption, and for a one-year pilot project with a number of local authorities to gain a better understanding of how the adoption register is used to find families for children in need of adoption, and how matching decisions are made, which picks up on a point made by the hon. Member for Erewash. Findings from the project will inform the work of the register in helping local authorities to increase their matching rates.

As a number of hon. Members stated, disappointingly, adoption figures have fallen this year. I recognise the point made by Catherine McKinnell, as well as by the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich and for Erewash, that adoption is not the only process. Special guardianship and permanent residency orders might well be more appropriate for some children in some situations. However, today’s debate is specifically about adoption, so what I want to say from here on in is specifically about adoption.

As the Prime Minister made it clear last week, for too long, many children have been let down by the whole system, which was a point well made by the hon. Member for Erewash in her opening remarks. One person at fault is not what leaves so many children who should be adopted not getting that opportunity. The system has many different barriers at the moment, such as local authorities or the family justice system. The Under-Secretary has a chart on his wall, on which he can see the particular blocks in the system that cause the delays—a visible image that he looks at every day, to remind himself of the barriers and of where the Government is pushing to make the whole system more efficient.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned performance tables, which we released last week. I absolutely recognise her point, that we need to get under the skin of what some of that data means. In some cases, local authorities might appear to have a slower rate, but they may be extremely good at placing older children, for example. However, that is part of encouraging local authorities to look at their practice and perhaps that of their next-door authorities. The lack of such a process, in particular with children in care and adoption, is a continual frustration to Ministers and I have heard the Under-Secretary speak about it. Often, one local authority appears to be completely oblivious of the good practice in a neighbouring authority that is fantastic in some areas. By putting the information out there, we hope that local authorities will speak to one another more and question their own work and that of their neighbours, and so understand how they might improve their practice.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

If the underperforming authority does not improve, would the Minister go so far as to support the authority with good performance taking over the responsibilities of the underperforming authority?

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

Local authorities have been working with the Government to improve their performance, with more peer-led performance improvement across the piece, particularly in this area. We are encouraging much more peer mentoring and working together to challenge performance on the ground. I will ensure that the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is brought to the attention of the Under-Secretary when considering what action we might take.

Last week, we published an adopters’ charter, to ensure that anyone who really wants to adopt a child is welcomed with open arms and can receive all the help and support that they need. That picks up on what many hon. Members have said. We want adopters to feel valued and respected for offering a chance to transform a child’s life. Many of the issues raised earlier, such as age, smoking or obesity, are not written into statutory guidance or legislation. Some things build up on the ground, unfortunately, as an expected way in which people will be rejected, but those are not things that the

Government are facing or that local authorities ought automatically to use to rule some people out as parents. The child’s needs must always be paramount. I hope that things such as the adopters’ charter will help to deal with all those issues that potential families might face, to ensure that they are given the necessary support.

Ann Coffey asked whether we are doing any research on support for adopted—

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

I will, but I only have two minutes left.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I have two specific questions, one about the loss of 28% of voluntary adoption agencies because of the 2009 Labour legislation, and what we as a Government will do to fill that huge gap. The other is about support in the education system for children who are adopted.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

On the first point, as I only have one minute left, a number of the agencies that closed reopened under new structures and new names. I will ensure that I or my colleague write to the hon. Lady with more information. On schools, that is exactly why we have commissioned research through Bristol university to look at support for adoptive families. Another specific issue raised was ensuring that the school admissions code, for example, takes such matters into account. How children are considered throughout their school life is something that the Under-Secretary keeps very much in mind. We are considering how we can support young people who might be vulnerable, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, for the rest of their life but certainly during their school life.

I have only one minute left, unfortunately, and so many issues were raised—in fact, it is now 11 o’clock. I thank hon. Members for their many contributions.