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Mrs. Spelman: I am very sensitive to the extra burden that Kent has borne. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, proportionally, Kent offers more places for children in care than many other counties do. I know for a fact that my own local authority--all the way from the west midlands--looks to Kent to place some of our most difficult cases. Although it is recognised that the particular expertise of some of the care homes in Kent is available nowhere else in the country, I am sure that my hon. Friend would want me to make the point that the resources provided to Kent do not always reflect the fact that it carries that additional load not only for some of the other London boroughs, but for places as far afield as the west midlands. We should recognise that.
I do not wish to imply, by citing those statistics, that I think that all care provision is bad, as that is certainly not true. Many people work extremely hard with inadequate resources to provide care for children who often are quite damaged and have many difficulties. That is not an easy task, and I recognise that they try their very best in difficult circumstances.
I recognise also that not all children fail because of being in care. That would be a false conclusion to draw from the statistics. Nevertheless, the outcomes are poor for many of those children. That issue is inextricably linked with this debate. I feel very strongly that if more of those children had an earlier opportunity of permanence in a family, their subsequent life chances might be better. That is the point.
In the adoption debate, we must not generalise about adoption provision across the country because it varies greatly from one part of the country to another. Currently, council adoption rates range from between 0.5 and 10.5 per cent. of looked-after children being adopted each year. The average time spent being looked after before the decision is made that a child should be adopted is one year and four months, and from decision to placement takes another seven months--a total of nearly two years. I know that it is the Government's aim to speed up the process through their Adoption and Children Bill. A clause in my Bill about fast-tracking tries, in a complementary way, to improve on that for younger children.
There is another point when considering the issues of children in care and the need to reform adoption. An estimated 14 per cent. of children who are adopted have experienced six or more placements in their care history. That is another feature of our failure as a corporate parent. That is an excessive number of moves for a child who has already had to be severed from the birth family.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): In my experience of sitting judicially in the courts and having to deal with young people, youngsters of 17 and 18 have frequently had half a dozen placements. That results, I am afraid, in
Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. His experience will make an important contribution to the debate. The magistracy sees a great number of these court orders and has important things to say. I look forward to my hon. Friend's contribution, as some of us do not have his direct experience of such matters.
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Does she agree that the emotional and educational damage done by repeated replacements of young people in different settings undermines their life chances in the most serious way possible?
Mrs. Spelman: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. In human terms, it is bound to be damaging for children to be constantly uprooted from a setting, not to know where they belong and constantly having to reform relationships. It must get to the point where it is very difficult to form any sort of permanent relationship at all.
Before this debate, I was interviewed by four young people, all of whom had been in care until the age of 16. One of them had been placed in as many as 20 homes. That flabbergasted me--it can be as bad as that, although it is estimated that 14 per cent. of children who are adopted were moved six times. However, this young woman was remarkably well organised. She put some searching questions to me about the care system, and I am confident that she will go on and make a success of her life, but hers is not a start in life that we would desire for any child.
The severity of the problem is great. The frequency of placements and replacements often has to do with the system's failure to provide permanence for the child. One of the objectives of the Government's Bill is to speed up the process so that permanence is achieved much sooner. I hope that my Bill will complement that.
My Bill deals with the important question of finance. Just as there is quite a wide variation in the percentage of children adopted by local authorities, so there is variation in adoption allowances. I know that the Government want to consider that issue, which I think has contributed to some of the problems in the process of adoption. Some 20 per cent. of adoptions, having been made, do not work. Undoubtedly, one reason for such a high failure rate has to do with post-adoption support. Most of us have had constituents, friends or relatives who have tried to adopt and might have gone on to do so. The amount of assistance available to them once the children are received into their home is lamentable.
If children have gone through the very difficult experience of having to leave behind their birth families, it will not instantly be sunshine when they arrive in another family. There is a lot of hurt and difficulty, and much assimilation is required. However, we have been weak when it comes to post-adoption support, and I would like to see that addressed.
The register will allow better matching throughout the country because it expands the pool of parents who want to adopt and children who are available for adoption, which is a good thing. However, the difficulty of making a match, which is often a cause of delay, is not simply down to knowing who wants to adopt and which children are available for adoption. There is also a problem with finance. Local authorities are, not unnaturally, deterred from travelling the length and breadth of the country to find the best match because they have to finance that out of their budget.
I suspect that the local authorities of most right hon. and hon. Members present are in the same boat as mine, and have substantially overspent, not for the first year, on social services. The breakdown of the overspend in my local authority of Solihull--and it is the same with neighbouring authorities--shows that it has occurred on children's services. The main reason for that is, sadly, the amount of family breakdown. We cannot run away from the fact that local authorities have to spend a disproportionate amount on services for children because family breakdown is a key feature of British society. Therefore they do not start from a strong position, even given the £66 million that the Government put on the table to support the changes to the adoption process. My concern is that, given that the budgets are already overspent, will that money ever actually find its way to where the Government want it to go and be spent on providing the kind of post-adoption support that is so vital in making adoption matches work well? I seriously wonder about that.
Specifically, clause 1 would passport money with the child. That important proposal is designed to support the national adoption register. Without such an arrangement, it would be difficult to make the register work as effectively as it could. I shall explain that by referring to a local authority--Coventry--that abuts my own. It is interesting that its policy is not to look very far outside its own area when making adoption matches. Coventry city council would not look beyond the A5 and, if possible, not outside north Warwickshire to make such matches, simply because of the cost entailed in travelling to and fro and in making the assessments. The council made a practical point in asking how parents would travel the long distance to the preparation evenings that the local authority would regard as an essential precursor to its assessment and acceptance of prospective adoptive parents.
There is a real practical problem, in that the match is unlikely to be made unless the resources flow with it. We may create the power to make a match, but it is significant that the Adoption and Children Bill, which the Government are proposing, does not contain the power to make the match happen. That Bill includes a requirement to make an assessment, but the local authority can still
At present, responsibility for adoption allowances falls to the authority where the child ultimately resides. That is a disincentive to the matching process. A local authority that has spent resources on recruiting and assessing a set of adoptive parents is unlikely to allow them to adopt a child who is in the care of another local authority, even if the national adoption register exists.
The local authority where the adoptive parents reside will lose money relative to the local authority where the child resides because, first, it will not save money by moving one of its cared for children out of care. I understand that the average cost of that is between £2,000 and £3,000 a week. Secondly, the local authority may have to pay an adoption allowance, depending on the circumstances of the receiving family. Thirdly, the local authority may have to pay for the child's special educational and health needs. A high percentage of the children who have been looked after often have statements and often struggle to find the resources to support themselves through education. Fourthly, the local authority's social workers may have to provide post-adoption support, and they are already stretched by having to undertake the assessments, and so on.
Clause 1 would require the local authority from which a child has been adopted to refund the cost of the adoption allowances that the local authority to which the child has gone has had to pay. I hope that that passporting mechanism will solve the practical problem of resources flowing with the child who needs them to the family who will also need them.
Under the Bill, adoption allowances would be classified as direct payments to the family and support services provided by the local authority. I mention that because, under the procedural acrobatics that I described at the outset, I have had to propose the reform of existing legislation that is not explicit on post-adoption services, and I want to make it clear that the word "allowances"--the plural--embraces the very important concept of extending the financing to post-adoption support.
It may be helpful if I dwell for a second on some examples of those support services. Counselling for the children to help them come to terms with their circumstances is very important, as the failure rate can be high without it. There is little support for adoptive siblings in coming to terms with a new brother or sister, but that is an important dimension. Short-term domestic help should be provided to enable the adoptive parents to spend more time helping the child to settle in.
I was struck by the contrast in the experience of some friends of mine who adopted two children, who, I think, were seven and six at the time. When a woman carries her own baby, she has nine months to get ready for the bombshell that will hit her, and she is helped to prepare for that. She is also helped when she has given birth and is assimilating a new life into the family. However, the life of a couple who adopt can change overnight. They have less time to prepare and less thought is given to how