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21 Feb 2007 : Column 106WH—continued

There is considerable encouragement to be had from the progress that has been made. I commend Elevate’s partnership work with the private sector and registered social landlords to deliver a much better choice of social housing for people in east Lancashire. I am aware of some of the excellent wider working that Elevate has enabled through programmes such as “Constructing the Future”, which offers residents the opportunity to improve skills and gain qualifications to improve their ability to access good employment opportunities. Elevate has also worked closely with Lancashire county council to develop a new regional economic strategy across the sub-region, and that is
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directly related to raising the housing offer. It is worth putting on record that unless we deal with the economy and businesses, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said, we will not provide sustainable communities.

I pay tribute to the partnership work that has been done in east Lancashire, and local people clearly have a role in determining the future of the places in which they live. I also pay tribute to all those in the sub-region who have risen to the challenges. They have made a personal commitment to, and put effort into, enabling their communities to develop clearer strategies and significantly improve performance. The local strategic partnerships of Pendle, Burnley and Hyndburn have undergone significant change, which has made a real difference to changes in those areas.

Let me say something about liveability, because regeneration is about more than just housing and the economy; it is really about people, although I sometimes think that that gets lost in the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn and for Rossendale and Darwen made it clear, however, that people are the crux of the issue. Regeneration is about raising aspirations, improving the skills of the community, improving the environment and creating places where people really want to live, raise their families, work and spend their leisure time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said, we are seeing improvements in all those issues in east Lancashire. The local area agreements covering the area have been well regarded and have been important in strengthening partnership working, developing proposals for continuous improvement and ensuring a joined-up approach to rationalising and aligning resources to deliver the priorities agreed by the community as a whole.

I assure hon. Members that I will take on board the issues that they have raised and take them back with me. I understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen about the town of Darwen, and my colleagues in the Department will look at the issue. Her commitment is clearly to ensure that people who live and work in the area have the best possible services, and I pay tribute to her for that.

In closing the debate, let me say that we are working, and will continue to work, to support the economic regeneration of the sub-region. I look forward to a day when east Lancashire has re-established the vibrancy that it experienced during the industrial revolution, with the economic diversity providing a varied and sustainable offer for the whole community. I pay tribute to all hon. Members involved for playing their part, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn, who raised the issue. He can take some credit for the changes that have been made, as they are due in no small part to his efforts.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Voluntary Adoption Sector

2.30 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the triumphs of and, I am afraid, the threats to the voluntary adoption sector. Children in the so-called care of the state, despite the efforts of many fine foster carers, have a miserable and insecure existence, all too often shuttled between carers. That is reflected in appalling outcomes, and I provide just two examples of that: one quarter of girls who go through the care system become pregnant in the process and more than half the inmates of young offenders institutions have been through the care system.

Having children in care adopted by loving families is a noble objective. That is why a small number of MPs established an all-party group in the late 1990s. We welcomed Government announcements that gave priority to improving the miserably low levels of adoption that prevailed then. They have introduced the national register, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and targets to encourage local authorities to adopt. All those measures have been blessed with some success, and adoption numbers rose from about 2,000 a year to a peak of 3,800 in 2005.

However, when we realise that more than 50,000 children have been in care for six months or more, and when we consider the best performance of a few really good local authorities, we see that the figure should at least double again. Thousands more children could and should be placed in loving homes. In fact, last year the number of adoptions fell, and the rumour going around is that last year’s number will be 2,600. That is the context for the role and the plight of the voluntary adoption sector.

In 2004-05, the last year for which detailed figures are available, voluntary adoption agencies placed almost 500 children, one eighth of the total sector. Most were hard-to-place children: older children, disabled children, children from ethnic minorities and severely damaged children; and more than half of them were in sibling groups. The latest report from the Commission for Social Care Inspection pointed out that 82 per cent. of voluntary adoption agencies reached the required standard on matching, against only 52 per cent. of local authorities. Some 92 per cent. of voluntary adoption agencies reached the standard for adoptive parents, which is so important. Only 55 per cent. of local authorities did so.

The report goes on to say:

Only 5.5 per cent. of planned placements break down for voluntary agencies in the period up to the adoption order. The Prime Minister’s report mentioned a figure of about 20 per cent. for local authorities. At a time when an independent report has estimated that of the most recent cohort of children selected for adoption, 40 per cent. are awaiting adoption, such agencies are a precious resource.

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However, the agencies are under attack from two separate angles: first, the problems of financial squeeze, exacerbated by delays in the courts, and, secondly, the sexual orientation regulations. Voluntary adoption agencies are reimbursed for each parental group they find, typically at a rate of £19,000, and rather higher in London. Barbara Hutchinson, deputy chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering commented:

In fact, some local authorities have free inter-relationships.

The use of the voluntary adoption agencies is sharply declining because of costs. Barnardo’s has written to me to say:

However, the fees that voluntary agencies charge are often heavily subsidised from fundraising. Delay—let us remember that that means already damaged children waiting months and years for placements—is demoralising for the children and it can sometimes lead to eventual failure in adoption. Stinting on placement fees with voluntary agencies, when children are waiting because a local authority cannot place them, is the economics of the madhouse anyway. Fostering a child costs anything from £12,000 to £25,000 a year, so an up-front fee, even at the upper end of that range, represents in the long run a massive saving to the authority.

That problem is exacerbated by problems in local authorities and the courts concerning the implementation of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which only recently came into force. There has been a massively disappointing downturn in the numbers of children adopted, from the peak of 3,800 to—the Minister may be able to confirm this figure—2,600 last year. That is the figure doing the rounds, but it has not been published yet. Much of the downturn has been driven by horrendous delays.

The Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies has sent me a string of cases in which the legal process from beginning to end, which is not the whole delay that a child faces, has taken 18 months or longer under the new system. It is extremely damaging for the children, who can no longer be placed temporarily with a couple, and for the agencies because of the delay to their cash flow caused by the delay in payments. Many are on the financial edge.

I call on the Department to publish the report that it commissioned from Deloitte. Perhaps the Minister could explain the delay—I understand that it was finished last autumn—and provide us with a date for publication. More importantly, the Department should impress on local authorities that at a time when they have been provided with extra money for the purpose,
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the use of voluntary authorities to cut waiting lists of unhappy children is vital to those children. It makes excellent economic sense, even though it means social services departments having to bite their lips and pay out of stretched budgets for out-of-house activity. Equally, local authorities must sharpen up their court work in some parts of the country.

The other main problem is the sexual orientation regulations, the publication of which has been delayed until April. They threaten a number of agencies, especially the 13 branches of the Catholic Children’s Society, which accounts for one third of the voluntary adoption sector. Like the rest of the sector, it takes a very difficult mix of children: almost one quarter of its clients have severe medical problems and well over half are in sibling groups. However, it has the lowest breakdown rate of any agency in the country, with an average of 3.6 per cent. in the latest year’s figures. It is heavily subsidised by the Catholic Church—in fact, the annual collection for the society took place at my church last Sunday. Like all voluntary sector agencies, it provides a full range of activities, from information through to excellent post-adoption care.

It may bring matters alive to provide an actual case. I am grateful to the Salford branch of the society for sending me details of three children with suspected autism. Time allows me to quote the details of just one:

I stress: a video of him—

Happily all three children have now been adopted, and they are progressing well within their own limitations. However, all that is being put at risk. Nobody is missing out on the opportunity to adopt under the current arrangements. Gay couples form only 4 per cent. of the pool and, as far as the records show, only one gay couple has ever applied to the Catholic Children’s Society. They were courteously and immediately referred to another agency.

The society has for many years accepted single people, provided that they are not engaged in sexual activity, whether heterosexual or homosexual. However, the regulations require that every adoption organisation should have a charter explicitly declaring gay partnerships to be on a par with marriage. Jim Richards, who is, incidentally, a former Labour councillor, is the long-serving director of the largest branch of the Catholic Children’s Society, which is in Westminster. He has commented:

The problem is not confined to the Catholic Children’s Society. I have received an e-mail from Cornerstone North East Adoption and Fostering Services, a small but highly successful evangelical-based organisation which makes very similar points. Anyway, the strong statement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York brings a wider dimension to the whole business.

We should surely not be discussing the rights of a small number of prospective adoptive parents, who can approach a range of agencies anyway under the current arrangements. We should be thinking about the welfare of desperately disadvantaged children, who are currently handled by some of the best practitioners in the field working for the Catholic Children’s Society. It is a field where good practitioners are in very short supply.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As a strong supporter of the early and undiluted implementation of the sexual orientation regulations, I put it to my hon. Friend, in all courtesy and sincerity, that people are entitled to their religious views, but they are not, and should not be, entitled to elevate their views above other people’s right to equal treatment. I commend to him the statement of the chief executive of Barnardo’s, Martin Narey, who says that the objective is to find suitable parents to help children:

Mr. Brazier: Barnardo’s is entitled to that view, and it does an excellent job. The people who work for the Catholic Children’s Society and the bishops who are its trustees take a different view. However, the issue is whether we put the rights of parents or the welfare of individual children first. If the regulations go through in the form suggested—we have not seen their published form yet—the Catholic Children’s Society will have to close when they come into force in two years’ time. The regulations will not provide a single extra place for any child in the country, but they will mean that hundreds of children who are currently being placed will no longer get that opportunity.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when legislation went through the Scottish Parliament allowing gay adoption, a guarantee was given by a Minister that it would not affect the work of Catholic adoption agencies? That will now be overridden by the operation of the sexual orientation regulations made in this place.

Mr. Brazier: I was not aware that that was the exact position in Scotland. I had heard conflicting reports from there. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right, and it is shameful that that exemption has been abandoned.

There are some wider issues. In future, are we going to say that Christian doctors and nurses must participate in abortions? They have a principled objection to it, so must they participate in it?

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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I speak as a member of the British Medical Association medical committee. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s point on doctors, the correct comparison is whether doctors should have the right to conscientiously object to treating gay people. They do not have that right, and they would not be able to maintain their job and their position on the register if they did. The right comparison is whether people are treated without discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation, not whether they participate in a certain activity, such as abortion, because, as he said, it is up to Catholics whether to choose to engage in placing children for adoption.

Mr. Brazier: The essential issue with regard to a refusal to treat gay people is whether an individual gets treatment. Ministers themselves have said that the most important issue in this case is the welfare of children. Stopping the activity of the Catholic Children’s Society will not allow a single extra placement, but it will mean losing the hundreds of placements that are handled at the moment by the most successful group of social workers in the country, according to published statistics.

John Bercow rose—

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Mr. Brazier: I have nearly finished and other people want to speak. However, I shall give way twice more, but these will be the last two occasions.

Mr. Cash: In strong support of the marvellous work that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has done and the speech he has given, and somewhat in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I want to say that it is not entirely a question of entitling one group of people to have a view that is placed above the views of others. The problem originates from the human rights contained in the European convention on human rights and the universal declaration of the United Nations, in which there are competing principles of equal value. They are the rights of the family and the rights of conscience and religion, and also the question of not discriminating against people on the grounds of gender or race.

It is impossible to say that the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is placing one above the other. He is arguing, quite rightly, for a proper and fair degree of consideration to be given to conscience and religion, and to family.

Mr. Brazier: I was about to cover some of the ground that my hon. Friend mentions, but I shall take the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham first.

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