As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate Mr Carswell on securing this debate. I recall all too vividly our early comradeship on the then Children, Schools and Families Select Committee between 2008 and 2010. Our paths have gone in slightly different directions since then, but I have always looked on in admiration of his crusade to bring greater transparency to public life, and this is another area to which his attention has been drawn.
I thank my hon. Friend Lucy Allan for her contribution. I know that she, too, will pursue the subject personally in the months and years ahead.
The debate gives me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position in an important and sensitive area for which I have had the privilege of being the Minister responsible for the past three and a half years. The first principle on which the system of family justice in England is rightly based is that children live with their family wherever possible.
When concerns about a child are raised with a local authority, the law under the Children Act 1989 is clear about looking at what support or help a family might need to enable the child to remain with the family. Achieving that objective includes work not only in the local authority, but with other agencies.
As hon. Members have recognised, however, where a child remains at risk of suffering “significant harm”—we could have a long debate on a definition—the local authority may apply to the courts to take a child into the care system as a looked-after child. Many tens of thousands of children are either a child in need or on a child protection plan and should be receiving support services from the local authority and others to ensure that they have every prospect of remaining with their family and the vast majority of such cases never get anywhere near a court.
When cases do go to court, parents should have legal representatives who are appointed to support them—for which legal aid rightly remains available—to ensure that their views are heard and that evidence presented by the local authority can be challenged. I am someone who spent many years doing that myself.
In addition, applications made to the court are subject to separate scrutiny by the child’s guardian, who must submit his or her own analysis of the evidence. On many occasions in my experience, a child’s guardian was the one who was able to give a robust challenge to the local authority’s case on behalf of the child. That is an important part of providing an independent view of the veracity of a case before any decision by the judge. The court’s paramount consideration is, of course, the welfare of the child, which is known as the paramountcy principle.
Where it is decided that it is not possible for children to remain with their parents, the law is clear that local authorities must consider placing a child with relatives—including grandparents, thousands of whom do an excellent job of supporting and bringing up their grandchildren —and friends before considering other permanency options. We have supported that approach through means such as the advancement of family group conferences, at which families are brought together at a much earlier point in their contact with local authority services, so that they may come up with a plan to keep the child in the family and to enable the family to have the support necessary for a sustainable situation. We have announced the extension of shared parental leave to grandparents, so they are in a better position to put themselves forward as potential carers.
In some cases, however, despite the best efforts of the family to provide an alternative, it is in the best interests of children to be placed in foster care or to be adopted. I know from my family’s experience about the huge difference that fostering and adoption can and does make to children who have had a difficult start in life.
The key is always what is in the best interest of the child. That is why we have not, as the hon. Member for Clacton suggested we have, set targets for the number of adoptions—there is no chasing of adoption targets, which simply do not exist. Every decision must take account of a child’s individual circumstances and need.
In discussing adoption, it is important to remember the context. Without giving too long a history lesson in the few minutes I have remaining, the Adoption of Children Act 1926 was the first time that adoption was made legal in this country, but that was after the United States of America, Canada, Australia and many other countries had already done so. In 1968, 25,000 children, a large number of whom were babies, were adopted under adoption orders. In 2014, about 5,000 children were adopted, of whom 230 were under the age of one, according to the latest figures. Therefore, only 16% of children leaving the care system were adopted, with the majority returning to their own families after a period in care.
That illustrates, first, that societal shift has meant a corresponding shift in the role of adoption and, secondly, that the outcome being pursued for children is not relentlessly that of adoption, irrespective of what is in their best interest. Many children are now achieving permanence through many different routes, such as supervision orders, what used to be residence orders and are now child arrangements orders, or special guardianship orders, which I will come on to.
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 makes it clear that children cannot be adopted without the consent of their parents unless the courts are satisfied that the welfare of the child requires such consent to be dispensed with. The circumstances in which a court might take that view can be that it is satisfied that the parents cannot be found, that the parents are incapable of giving their consent, or that it has reason to believe that the welfare of the child or children requires parental consent to be dispensed with. That is a stiff and strict test, which Lady Hale reiterated in a recent judgment.
England is not alone in having an adoption system that includes adoption without parental consent; so, too, do Germany, Italy—in what is known as a special adoption—Sweden, Norway and 24 other European countries. The recent announcement by the Prime Minister was all about ensuring that where adoption is in the best interest of the child, there is an early placement for the child, to form the bonds that are so important as children grow up and as they are starting to be nurtured by their adoptive family.