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21 Feb 2007 : Column 125WH—continued

That, of course, is the great contribution of the voluntary sector: independence and choice.

The hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned finances, and I want to touch on that because it is serious. There is a suggestion that local authorities are using the voluntary agencies less because they are too expensive. If we are putting children first, I do not understand how we can use such terms. Barnardo’s was used to place only 50 children last year, compared with 70 in 2005, and that situation seems to cross a number of agencies. I understand that the fees are about £12,000 for a local authority and £19,000 for a voluntary agency such as Barnardo’s, but, if we are concerned about the best interests of the child, there is no comparison to be made if the child remains in foster care for a longer period and there are multiple placements.

On economic grounds, the figures just do not add up because of the cost of foster care. I should add that long-term foster care is the best solution for some children, and it is important to do the right thing for each individual child, but I do not think that cost should be a reason for not placing children through the agencies.

It is also important to consider how costs are calculated. Local authorities may not include all their overhead costs. There needs to be a much more accurate assessment of the cost of adoption placements, and local authorities should be encouraged to work with voluntary agencies to plan the services required. There are also issues around the quality of the local authorities’ commissioning processes.

I have a question for the Minister. He usually says that I ask him lots but, as this is a repeat question, we should definitely get an answer today. The Department for Education and Skills commissioned a review of adoption services—the Deloitte report. Will he give us a date for publication? The leaks that we are getting now cannot be helpful to the overall debate. It would be better to have things out in the open. As this is such an important area, the report should be published and put before us.

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Do we want voluntary adoption agencies to become a last resort? That is how things are beginning to look. It is important to secure their financial viability. The issue is much bigger than the sexual orientation question. That is my main point.

I would also like to praise the voluntary agencies for the wide range of services that they provide, which, of course, pull in extra money. Barnardo’s, for example, offers more support to adopters than is usually available from local authorities because it is able to visit the family more often and each of its social workers has a manageable case load. The voluntary sector generally brings a stable staff group. We need to tackle many of those problems in the public sector.

I have asked many parliamentary questions about the situation in the courts but have not had an answer. I am concerned about differentials up and down the country in the time it takes to get a placement order, but the figures are not available. The Minister should undertake an inquiry into how the court process is working following implementation of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

Mr. Brazier: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Annette Brooke: I apologise, but I will not. I am very short of time.

On the sexual orientation aspect, the National Children’s Homes stated:

As far as I am concerned, those are the important ingredients. I cannot believe that it is helpful to bring discrimination into our consideration of the best interests of the child.

The British Association of Social Workers says that the Government would not be right to consider exemptions. It states:

All children need loving and accepting parents who, incidentally, do not display prejudice against other people. I do not question the Catholic agencies’ professionalism, commitment and outstanding record of finding stable and loving homes for some of the most disadvantaged children in society, but we must put things in context, consider the overall situation and look at adoption on a case-by-case basis. I cannot understand how an organisation that is, in effect, operating on behalf of the state can operate a policy that is possibly in conflict with the state’s policy. Overall, we need to think about social workers and the managers of the schemes. We need to recruit sufficient skilled and experienced social workers and to retain them. We need an effective work force across the board.

This is a timely debate. There are challenges to the Government to give leadership to ensure that every child matters by getting the right relationship—the best
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relationship—between the state and voluntary sector and by working with the Catholic agencies in the months ahead.

3.40 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I warmly congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing the debate. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said earlier: it is surprising to learn yet again that the regulations that form the core of the two challenges raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury will be pushed back by another month and will not be published until April, whereas we had the benefit of the Prime Minister’s view in his statement. The matter was not discussed when the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 were published and adopted, although I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members received correspondence, because adoption did not form part of the Northern Irish remit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has pointed out—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has been greatly exercised by this, too—we did not have the chance to discuss the subject during the passage of the Equality Act 2006 through both Houses until an amendment was tabled at the latest possible stage on Third Reading in the House of Lords. That cannot be democratic, and it cannot be in the Government’s interests not to allow debate. Perhaps the Minister will confirm my understanding on reading the Library note that the consultation document that formed the basis of the regulations, which we will discuss at a later stage, did not put the question of adoption services provided by either local authorities or voluntary agencies out to consultation. If that was the case, it is regrettable. That is why I warmly welcome the opportunity to debate the matter.

Like so many who have spoken this afternoon, I put the interests of the children at the starting point of every stage of the debate. I want to nail my personal colours to my moral mast: I place particular emphasis on marriage as a special relationship and was delighted to see the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York recognise that so warmly. That is not to say that I do not recognise that there are other relationships and other partnerships, but I believe that children brought up in a traditional marriage have the best of all possible starts in life. We recognise that not every child is fortunate enough to be the heart of that traditional family, and we have all noticed, up and down the country, the disappearance of the extended family. That leaves some 60,000 children in care, some for short periods before they are returned to their natural parents and others for longer periods. There are 61,000 children in care each year.

I recognise and celebrate the work of all adoption agencies, including those which work for local authorities, and especially that of the voluntary adoptive sector. We know that adoption is a challenging and lengthy process, but it brings tremendous happiness and stability to a child, where they are successfully placed. In 2004-05, the voluntary adoption organisations in England and Wales placed 708 children, of whom 227 were placed by the Catholic
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adoption agencies. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), I believe that the figures for the two Catholic adoption agencies in Scotland, where we share a common interest, show that 47 children were placed by them in 2006, of whom only two were disrupted. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has given us a tremendous opportunity to debate the issues.

The Minister faces a difficult situation. Perhaps he has had sight of the regulations that cover the main subject of the debate. In passing, however, I shall refer to the financial squeeze and the problems of delays up and down the country that have been caused by the courts. I want to pause for a moment to refer to an article in The Sunday Telegraph. One of the problems that we face in placing children for adoption is the shortage of adopters. I have been left in no doubt that one of the reasons for that is that parents who put themselves forward, initially as foster parents and ultimately as adoptive parents, often feel that they are on their own. They would certainly welcome more mentoring and training opportunities, and I hope that we can reach a cross-party consensus on that. Another problem is the huge fees faced by local authorities, which The Sunday Telegraph put at up to £26,000 per child. Clearly, if that situation is affecting the number of children who are placed in families for adoption, I hope that we all—and most importantly the Minister—will have regard to it.

There is some good news. I want to pay tribute to the recent work of Kent county council—obviously, North Yorkshire county council is doing good work in this regard, too, but I do not have time to mention every county council. Kent county council has set out a wonderful example of best practice, and last year alone it placed 95 children with adoptive parents, which was a record for that council and for any other county council in the country. The methods that it has used have included family group conferencing and the staying together project. I hope that we can all learn from that and that the Minister will look favourably on those practices.

I wish to focus only on a couple of questions given the time available and the importance of the debate. I believe that when the House comes to consider the sexual orientation regulations, it should not be asked to choose which form of discrimination is higher or lower. We should not be asked to choose whether we are in favour or not; we all oppose any form of discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, religion or any discrimination that came under the human rights umbrella. To force the House to decide in favour of one type of discrimination might create a new form of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief by forcing the former on other agencies, which are predominantly Catholic although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has pointed out, other religious voluntary adoption agencies—such as Cornerstone, which operates in the very north-east of England—also do some excellent work.

Why are the Government forcing the House to make that choice? It was never made clear through the passage of the Equality Act 2006 that the matter would have to be faced in such a way. It was not made clear during the passage of the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 in Scotland that there would be a
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threat to the Scottish Catholic adoption agencies, and it was certainly never made clear that it was an issue in the discussions on the Northern Irish sexual orientation regulations.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that the regulations that his party proposes to put before the House in April will work. Have the Prime Minister and the Department for Education and Skills closed the door on any eventual compromise? Such a compromise would match the mood of those of us in this Chamber and of the House. We would all like to see a compromise, but my fear is that that will not be possible. There is not an umbrella organisation or a gateway process that would work. Who has been tasked with forming such an umbrella organisation to make the regulations work?

Why were the Government reluctant to debate the issues earlier? Why did the consultation document not cover the point that we have discussed? Why have the regulations not been published? How can we have reached a situation where the Minister’s party is considering not allowing a free vote, when such a vote should, by any stretch of democratic values, be allowed on moral judgment?

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It has genuinely been an interesting and well-attended debate. It is good to start with areas of common agreement.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing the debate. Over the past few months, ever since I took my present role in the Government, which is my first, I have had the pleasure of visiting many parts of the country to take part in events to do with the “Looked after Children” Green Paper, and I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the positive effects of the stability of placement. He was right in what he said about outcomes for children in the care system; not only do they not attain as well in their GCSEs and other qualifications, but 25 per cent. of those in our adult prisons have come through the care system.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Canterbury and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on their work with the all-party group on adoption and fostering. I was pleased to attend that group before Christmas, when we had a fruitful discussion.

I shall try to answer as many questions as I can in the eight and a half minutes that remain. There were many good contributions to the debate. I am happy to liaise in writing if necessary, but I shall try to cover as much ground as I can.

The adoption target focused attention on the need to increase the number of adoptions of looked after children. According to the latest figures, about 1,000 more looked after children are now being adopted each year than in 1999. That is excellent news for vulnerable children in need of adoption. For each child, it means being part of the loving, caring environment about which so many Members have spoken. Much of the credit for that must go to prospective adopters, social workers and adoption agencies.

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The 30 voluntary adoption agencies in England are an integral part of our adoption provision. They provide a range of services, including finding adoptive families for children, providing adoption support and working with birth parents. As has been mentioned, many VAAs specialise in finding families for children who are disabled or from black and ethnic minority groups, and those who need to live together with their siblings.

According to figures provided by Caritas social action, the Catholic Church's voice on social justice and care, adoptive placements supported by VAAs tend to break down less often than those supported by local authorities. I accept that entirely. In 2004-05, VAAs in the UK approved a total of 543 families, and 708 children were placed as a result of the services provided by those agencies. However, we need to consider how we might sustain and increase the overall capacity of the adoption market and improve the geographical spread of the voluntary adoption agency. Some areas have few, if any, such agencies. We need to ensure that children in need of adoptive placements benefit from improvements in local authority commissioning from VAAs.

We are aware that voluntary adoption agencies consider that the £12,000 fee that local authorities pay other local authorities for finding suitable adoptive families does not represent the full cost. The VAAs consider that the £19,000 fee that local authorities pay the agencies can deter local authority purchasers of VAA-approved prospective adopters. The difference in inter-agency fees is seen by the agencies as a major obstacle to realising their full potential. I accept that, too. They believe that they currently operate at a distinct disadvantage when compared with local authorities.

The hon. Member for Canterbury will know from what I said to the all-party group on adoption and fostering last November that we are considering the issue as part of a scoping study, looking at local authorities’ commissioning of services from voluntary adoption agencies. The report of that study is being finalised. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked one question on the subject, so I can tell her and the hon. Gentleman that we expect it to be published in early March. I hope that that is helpful.

I also want to put on record the fact that as a result of our ongoing dialogue with voluntary adoption agencies, we are providing £13,000 to fund independent support in order to help them strengthen their business management and marketing skills. That support will be led by Red Ochre, a social enterprise with expertise in helping organisations to obtain funding and to survive and grow.

A key issue that has recently been under consideration, and which I suspect may in part have prompted today’s debate, is whether faith-based VAAs, when providing publicly funded services, should be exempt from the sexual orientation regulations. That, unsurprisingly, has played a big part in the debate. I was asked a number of questions about the regulations. We are still working on them, but we plan to bring them into force in April.

As hon. Members will know, the issue is not whether civil partners and unmarried couples, whether of the same or the opposite sex, should be eligible to adopt.
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Such groups have been eligible to do so since the Adoption and Children Act 2002 came into force on 30 December 2005. The problem is the impact that the regulations may have on Catholic and other faith-based VAAs that, for doctrinal reasons, are unwilling to assess unmarried couples of the same or the opposite sex as prospective adopters.

There has been an interesting debate within parties as well. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has strong views on the matter. I sympathise with and relate to many of them, as does the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), but the latter would disagree with his colleague the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on many such matters.

Ministers have considered the matter carefully, and on 29 January the Prime Minister announced that there will be no exemption from the regulations for faith-based VAAs that provide publicly funded services. However, he made clear that there would be a transition period before the regulations come fully into force at the end of 2008. That will give those VAAs time to consider whether they wish to continue to operate when the new regulations come into force.

Mr. Cash: Leaving aside the merits of the argument—it is already being dealt with and will be dealt with in the big debate in the House—will there be a free vote on the Labour side?

Mr. Dhanda: As the hon. Gentleman knows—he has far more experience in such matters than me, as he has been around a lot longer—that is for the Whips to determine. I am not privy to those discussions, but if he wants to know my opinion, I am happy to give it to him.

Mr. Cash: What is it?

Mr. Dhanda: I will not be supporting an exemption, because I believe that the Government have made the right decision. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.

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