Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
Yes. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I have just come from a meeting organised by the Who Cares? Trust, for which the Minister does amazing work. It supports children who have spent a lifetime in care, so it is pertinent that I am here today to make some comments. I congratulate Mr Carswell on raising this issue, which is long overdue for debate in this House; it has had far too little exposure, and I hope that this debate will be the first of many.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House will have received in their mailbags heartfelt pleas from desperate families who have been caught up in the system. Such pleas often appear wholly incredible on first reading. It is only when hon. Members have themselves had experience of the system or get to know an ordinary family affected by it that they can ever fully comprehend what can happen to the families caught up in it. Few hon. Members will be aware that, in this country today, the state can remove a child from the care of its parents without consent and when no harm of any kind has occurred.
Before I first came to this place, I sat on fostering and adoption panels. For the first few years of my involvement, I was completely unware that the natural parents in the cases we were considering were contesting the removal of their children with increasingly despairing battles against the state. It struck me that many children had been removed because a professional believed a child might be at risk of future harm. That risk is not confined to neglect or physical harm; it includes emotional harm.
During the cases heard by the panel, natural parents were repeatedly depicted as having mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems and complex family histories. Those human defects would be elaborated upon such that it became unthinkable for panel members to challenge the depiction of the parents as unfit and incapable of parenting. If we ever questioned whether the parents could, with the right support, offer adequate care in future, we would be reassured with familiar phrases such as, “The child’s timeline could not wait for the parents,” “The parents were unco-operative with social services,” and, “The parents failed to prioritise the needs of their child.” The focus throughout was on finding fault in parents, rather than assessing whether their child was happy and thriving in their care. I can say from my family’s personal experience that there is no doubt that the process is one of the most stressful that any family will go through. Their voice counts for nothing. Their evidence is always doubted. There is nothing that they can say to prove their innocence.
A short debate cannot do justice to the seriousness of this issue, its consequences for children and families or the wider impact on society. Children taken from their parents, as I have just heard first hand, suffer the trauma of separation, rejection and loss. They also lose their identity, wider family, home, school, friends and all their connections. A childhood spent in care leads to permanent labelling, which is exactly what one young person said to me in the past half an hour. We discover that children who leave the care system are also labelled as potentially unfit to parent their own children. I have come across many cases in which care leavers have lost their child to the care system because they were deemed to have inadequate parenting capacity due to their childhood spent in care. That sums up the situation.
The families affected are too often the most disadvantaged and least able to defend themselves from the powerful machinery of the state. I have often thought that if Charles Dickens had heard the stories and met the families whom I have met, he would have written a book about it—I am sure that George Orwell probably did. Despite forced adoption being the most draconian power that the state can exercise, the subject is hidden away, leaving families voiceless and impotent against officialdom.
I hope that we will have further opportunity to discuss the matter fully, and I hope to secure a Chamber debate. I thank the hon. Member for Clacton for his work in this area, because he has taken the first step, and encourage him to continue to fight this cause. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are slowly becoming aware of the matter through their casework, but they are often unable to take up such cases because they are already in the legal system. The only way in which we can represent such families is to be a voice for them here. It is an incredible privilege that we have a platform on which to raise the issues that the world does not get to hear about. I also thank the excellent Minister for Children and Families for being here. He is all too well aware from his extensive experience of the family courts of the difficult and sensitive issues and of the impact on children and their families. I know that the subject is of utmost importance to him and his Department.