I beg to move,
That this House
has considered forced adoptions.
Forced adoption is necessary; sadly, there are circumstances in which it is right that the state removes a child from their birth parents. I have seen cases in my constituency that made me think, “Thank goodness that there is a system of adoption, that there are good people working in social services who intervene and that there are foster parents willing to care for children. Most of all, thank goodness that there are loving adoptive parents who offer loving homes to children who tragically were not born into one.”
But I have also seen cases that made me feel a little uneasy. I have met tearful grandparents who are about to see their grandchild for the last time and are adamant that social services never seriously considered them as alternatives to adoption. I have often listened to those who feel that their families have been broken up by what they regard as a cartel of family courts, family lawyers and social services. Taking a child from their birth mother by force is a very big deal. Those who make such decisions need to be accountable, but currently they are not. The family courts are shrouded in secrecy. There are too many cosy vested interests operating in ways that are simply not fair or just.
I am sure the Minister will tell us that we need to increase the number of adoptions. In a sense, I do not disagree. I am sure he will point out that there are almost 70,000 cared-for children in this country, and he will make a sound case when he says that surely more should be adopted. Superficially, that is a powerful argument. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the life chances of children who are adopted, rather than cared for, are vastly improved. Should we not, therefore, seek to adopt more? That is great, but if the unintended consequence of setting targets is that there is pressure to break up families who might otherwise stay together, I think that is wrong. Many of those 70,000 cared-for children are young people and teenagers. We need to ensure that the pressure to adopt does not lead to infants being removed from mum or toddlers from granny and grandpa.
It is reassuring to think that the adoption system and the family courts are presided over by dispassionate, wise experts who are always right—if only that were so. The Court of Appeal, in a judgment only two years ago, expressed real concern about the
“inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption”.
Criticism does not come much more strongly than that.
We like to think that expert witnesses must be right. Surely they weigh up all the evidence; after all, they are paid to do that for a living. But the truth is that many of the social workers and medical experts who testify on behalf of local authorities do so anonymously. Often, those unnamed experts give evidence about families they have never met and situations of which they have no first-hand knowledge. There is the notorious case of Fran Lyon, who I believe has, in effect, fled to Sweden as a result of the heavy-handedness of our family court system. Solicitors represent families in particular court cases, but the local authority against which the family wants legal advice is often also a long-term client of those solicitors. It is all a little too cosy. The Law Society might be happy with those arrangements, but others might worry that there is a legal cartel in the family court system.
I could make lots of cheap points by highlighting individual examples of injustice, but I am not going to do that. One does not need to look to far on Google or in the tabloid newspapers to find outrageous examples of injustice. The powerful case against the family court system and the adoption system at the moment comes not from individual cases, which rightly make us feel uneasy, but from the aggregate data. I submitted freedom of information requests to every local authority in England and Wales to see what proportion of care orders were converted into adoption orders. I will give hon. Members just three examples.
In the London borough of Enfield, over a six-year period between March 2009 and March 2015, there were 96 care orders, 93 of which were converted into adoption orders. That is a 97% conversion rate. In north-east Somerset, over a one-year period in 2013-14 there were 16 care orders, 15 of which were turned into adoption orders. That is a 94% conversion rate. In Reading, over a one-year period in 2013 28 care orders became 22 adoption orders. That is a 79% conversion ratio.
It all seems pretty automatic: if someone gets a care order, they lose their kids. The staggeringly high rate at which care orders are converted into adoption orders suggests that justice is not being done. Once the legal process begins, almost nothing—not legal advocacy, not the circumstances of the family, not the willingness of loving grandparents to raise their grandchildren—can stop it. It is a done deal; it is a fix.
It is urgent that we make the process and the family courts much more open and transparent. Of course, being a cartel, they are not going to like it. Cartels tend not to like transparency. Hon. Members who were in the House in 2009 will remember a famous example of a cartel not wanting openness and transparency. But those are not arguments against openness and transparency; they are the arguments of a cartel.
Jack Straw, the former Minister, came up with some excellent proposals to ensure openness and transparency in the family court system. Unfortunately, his civil servants got their claws into the proposal, and the legislation that was passed was a watered-down measure that did not achieve what he set out to do. Sir Humphrey prevailed. The law does not belong to the lawyers; social services do not belong to social workers; and the family courts are not the fiefdom of a self-referential legal profession. I hope that Sir James Munby, who is leading a review, is prepared to take on the vested interests and has the courage to open up the system and break open the cartel.