Examination of Witnesses (Questions 130
TUESDAY 1 MAY 2001
130. Could I welcome you to the second part
of our session and welcome our witnesses. Would you please introduce
(Ms Staples) Meg Staples, Adoption Manager
at Nottinghamshire County Council, representing the ADSS.
(Mr Hutchinson) Robert Hutchinson, Director of Social
Services for Portsmouth. I Chair the Children and Families Committee.
(Mr Christie) Andrew Christie, Assistant Director
of Children's Services, the London Borough of Hammersmith. I am
here with the LGA.
(Cllr Rutter) Maureen Rutter. I am a Gloucestershire
County Councillor and I Chair the Children Task Group on the LGA.
(Ms Blatcher) Dorothy Blatcher, Policy Officer, Children
and Families from the Local Government Association.
131. Thank you for your written evidence which
will probably be the basis for some of our questions. Perhaps
we could start with a general point, to the ADSS and other witnesses
as well. You will be aware that there has been concern about the
marked difference in performance between local authorities on
adoption. I have never been a great fan of league tables because
I am well aware there are all sorts of factors behind it. What
would you say from your own point of view, looking across a range
of authorities, are the reasons for the marked discrepancies in
apparent performance on adoption?
(Mr Hutchinson) There have been a number of inspections
by the Department of Health, and there has been the Prime Minister's
review, which have highlighted a number of issues. The inspections
have raised the issues of lack of clear policy guidance. They
raised issues on practice, delay and making decisions. They raised
issues about training. All of which are down to local authorities
to improve performance. They also raised other issues related
to delay which are linked with procedures or the absence of procedures
that local authorities had. They observed that there were delays
in court process, and in that in some areas there were particular
difficulties in recruiting staff and recruiting carers/adoptive
couples. They also saw that there was good practice in some authorities,
but the major problem of course, and what is unacceptable, is
the lack of consistency between authorities. Therefore the national
standards internally, things like best value, quality protects
initiative and, of course, the Bill, will hopefully establish
that consistency which has been lacking. I have to say in defence
of my colleagues that they had received that message loud and
clear, and the increased numbers of children adopted between 1990
and 2000, which I think was something like 700, demonstrated that
messages had been received and action was being taken and people
were determined to do better.
132. One of the issues that came out of the
previous session which rather surprised me was that the BAAF witnesses
suggested that there were serious discrepancies in authorities
handling of the review procedures for children in care, in particular
where nobody appeared to be addressing this question of permanence.
I was rather surprised at that. Would you feel that is a problem
in itself? Is it something that, in the process of improvement
you are describing, is being looked at specifically?
(Mr Hutchinson) One of the problems that the Department
of Health inspections showed up was in some places a lack of seniority
of officers who were scrutinising, monitoring and agreeing policies
in relation to permanence. That is an issue that has been clearly
pointed out to all directors by the Department of Health and the
ADSS. I would be surprised if the reviews and the importance placed
on the reviews was not now at the centre of the adoption policies
within each local authority.
133. Do the LGA have any thoughts on these general
(Ms Blatcher) The councillor's role and the senior
management role has been very much highlighted by the LGA, and
by the Task Group that Maureen Rutter chairs. There has certainly
been a lot of awareness-raising over the last few years. As Rob
said, there has been an increase in adoption as a result. There
has been an increased awareness at all levels, from councillors
down to staff working with children, that permanence needs to
be looked at, at each reviewone month, four months, ten
months and in between.
(Cllr Rutter) I think there is a difficulty. I think
everything that Rob has said about the reasons for differences
is probably true, from a shortage of social workers and trained
social workers. My own perception is that the actual emphasis
has been on working as long as you possibly can to keep a child
with its natural family. It may well be that social workers have
got that in the back of their minds. So that the issue of adoption,
or the issue of some permanent change, has not been right at the
front. I am not actually saying that that is the case, but I would
not be surprised if it were. It might account for some of the
different performances in different authorities.
134. In a sense we are back to previous sessions
we have had when this question of the balance between the natural
family and the rights of the child and the role of the state has
been at the heart of debates throughout social policy on child
care. I wonder, from the point you have just made, whether you
feel this Bill as it stands achieves a better balance than in
the pastparticularly bearing in mind the point you made
about social workers having in the back of their minds this issue
of the child's natural family?
(Cllr Rutter) I think the Bill will help; it will
change minds and it will change the emphasis and it will certainly
be a new agenda to some extent. From that point of view I think
it is to be welcomed. Obviously I have got my reservations about
some of it. It is always going to be a balance. I would emphasise
that really I do tend to speak from the point of view as a councillor
of being the corporate parent and being very much involved in
the children and looking after as a corporate parent and what
is best for them. So I am coming from the point of view of the
child, and I do think that the balance needs to be readjusted.
I will go no further than that.
Chairman: We have attempted in our questions
in previous sessions to focus on the key elements of the Bill.
One of the main elements, of course, is the welfare principle
and Ann Coffey would like to ask you a question.
135. I would like to widen it out because adoption
services are part and parcel of wider children's services. I guess
the key to successful adoption as part of those services is to
have better children's services. I wonder about your comments
on this. Most children when they come into care are placed in
foster care, not in children's homes. I think it is about 70 per
cent. that remain in foster care. Do you think that planning for
children has got significantly better, because of course it is
easier to leave children in foster homes and review from time
to time the placement there, and they could continue which often
can lead to delays in reaching plans for permanence for those
children. Is it your view that that is improving?
(Cllr Rutter) I think it is improving, but I think
it is early days really. Certainly from the point of view of the
Children Task Group, what everybody sees as being absolutely vital
is permanence for children. We feel that long-term fostering,
for instance, has its place, and that that might very well be
more suitable for some children than adoption. In particular,
we had very strong feelings about the possibility of more kinship
care being part of the overall solution; because we did feel that
lots of friends and relations would take on this task with more
support; and that that was very much part of the whole issue of
permanence, and of course good adoptive parents were extremely
desirable. I do think there has been a change. I have some reservations
about some of the changes but, yes, I think it has changed.
136. Were local authorities not always able
to do thatto place children with grandparents or relatives
through de facto fostering; was that not quite widely used
by local authorities?
(Cllr Rutter) They were certainly, but it was never
suggested that they should be giving them support, either financial
or other kinds of support, after the adoption. I think that is
what put a lot of people off, especially grandparents. I think
they found it difficult to contemplate taking on young children
when they were older without a degree of financial, emotional
and moral support. Some of the suggestions in the Bill would help
(Mr Hutchinson) May I make a comment about the wider
charter of services. The number of children in care at the beginning
of April 2000 was 5 per cent higher than in 1999, and 18 per cent.
higher in 1994. The numbers on the Child Protection Register are
increasing. Of those children who are registered, neglect is one
of the highest category. If you put this together with research
the Department of Health has commissioned, that the increase in
numbers of children tend to be around the four and five age group
rather than teenagers, the previous reason for the bulge; and
if you put that together with some of the research done for Portsmouth
University, which is many of the characteristics of the parents
of children on Care Orders, 75 per cent have drug and alcohol
problems, and 55 per cent have mental health problems; the role
of adoption, that whole process, is absolutely critical, because
it sounds as if children are coming and staying for longer.
137. Could we get a copy of that?
(Mr Hutchinson) We could certainly submit something.
With regard to planning better, we have to plan better because
our rules, regulations and inspections require it. One of the
performance assessment framework criteria is about stability within
foster care and placements, so we have to do it. There is a capacity
problem, because you should know that we are experiencing the
same problems with recruitment of social workers as other public
sector employers are having. In some places that problem is more
acute. My own authority goes between 20-30 per cent. With regard
to relatives, we learn as we develop as organisations. Mr Brazier
mentioned Australia, the family group conferences which come from
New Zealand. They are conferences which work with particularly
the Maori people. Families are put into a room and asked to sort
out their problems. They agencies are there to support them and
not the other way round. That kind of research is finding its
way into our practice. I think now there is far more emphasis
on kinship placements there. Mr Brazier said in Australia it has
dwindled; I believe in New Zealand it has dwindled almost to nothing.
I think we recognise the need for kinship placements. There is
more likely to be more commitment with the grandmother around
looking after the child.
138. On the welfare principle issue, we had
a discussion with someone who presented a previous session about
this whole issue of the unmarried parent question within the Billthe
bar on unmarried adoptive parents and the conflict between that
and the welfare principle. In practical terms as the Bill stands
at the present time, do you see that causing problems in looking
at some of the cases you are dealing with, and the situation where
you feel that such an arrangement, as discussed in the Bill at
the moment, would impact upon the welfare of the children you
are dealing with?
(Ms Staples) I think we welcome the idea of permanency
and the notion of working together with adoptive parents and birth
parents to come to some agreement about where children are best
placed. I think historically birth parents have been put in a
very adversarial position in respect of adoption. If the Bill
is able to move birth parents into a position where they feel
they have a positive part to play in giving agreement to their
children's adoption, then maybe the issue of whether they are
married or not may not be so significant. What we are focusing
on are the abilities that the parents bring to securing a child's
welfare through the rest of their childhood and beyond.
139. If you have a situation now where you may
have within your local authority foster parents who are unmarried,
who are caring in the longer term for a child whose interests
will be best served by being adopted in such a situation, would
the Bill as it stands really not help that child? Or do you feel
the guardianship arrangement takes account of that situation and
we do not need to worry about the issue of unmarried adoptive
(Ms Staples) I think if adoption is right for the
child then one should pursue adoption; if it is the special guardianship
one, one should pursue special guardianship. I think the perspective
needs to be from the child really rather than from the parents.
In terms of them being unmarried, they are significantly disadvantaged.
In fact, one of the ways they would be disadvantaged if they pursued
an adoption application would be that if one of them died, and
it was the parent who was the adopter and they had received adoption
allowances, the remaining carer would not receive the adoption
allowance because they would not have an entitlement.