Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes a key point. That was why I singled out the increase in the baby figures and the fact that we need to make the most progress in getting the hard-core cases, many of which are difficult and challenging teenagers who are not easy to adopt, out of the care system and into some form of permanent adoption if there is no way they can go back to their birth parents or other members of their family. That is where we are trying to get them. The hon. Lady makes a perfectly pertinent point, so I hope that the Minister will address those concerns in his reply. It is a genuine concern that we need to dispel, because it does no one in the business of adoption any good.
1.15 pm
Kevin Brennan: Perhaps I can express a little disappointment with the hon. Gentleman’s contribution on this occasion, just for the sake of symmetry. To be fair, he is usually pretty assiduous in his research and uses real evidence to support his points, but most of what he has just said did not seem to be based on evidence. He used words such as suspicion, impression, hypotheticals and fear, but then proceeded to claim that it does no good to spread suspicion or have those sorts of stories circulating in the wilder corners of the media.
I would like to make a few points absolutely clear. It is wrong to claim that local authorities were incentivised in any way to meet a national adoption target. That is not true and I will explain why later. It has always been and remains the Government’s policy that children should live with their parents whenever possible and that when necessary, families should be given extra support to help keep them together. Naturally, the expectations placed on local authorities through legislation reflect that policy.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was a member of the Committee that scrutinised the Children and Adoption Bill a few years ago, so he knows that the national adoption target, which ended in March 2006, applied only to the number of adoptions of children who were already in care and waiting to be placed for adoption and to the speeding up of that process, which we all agreed had to be improved. Those targets reflected the Government’s desire to reverse the long-term decline in the number of children already in care achieving permanent adoption.
The purpose of those targets was to give hundreds more of our most vulnerable children the chance to benefit from a safe, stable and loving family life and fulfil their potential. That is exactly the right thing to do, so I make no apology for it whatever. Local authorities were neither compelled to meet national adoption targets, nor financially rewarded against them. Having run its course and achieved its purpose, the national adoption target was not extended beyond March 2006 and the Government currently have no plans to reintroduce it.
Local authorities are relevant in this respect because some of them chose to develop local adoption targets as part of the local area agreements, formerly known as local public service agreements. As with the national target, those targets were focused on children already in the care system. In other words, some councils judged themselves weak at helping children find new families in a timely way and chose their own local targets that were linked, in general with other issues, to the rewarding of funding. The Government never imposed adoption targets on individual local authorities in any way whatever. Indeed, as I think the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham acknowledged, the local government White Paper commitments mean that the Government will now only agree targets with local authorities against indicators drawn from the national indicator set, which contains no indicator for measuring the number of adoptions from care.
The first point is that any targets that existed, whether the national target set by the Government or those that a local authority decided to set for itself, are no longer in place. As I have said, I make no apology at all for the national target set by the Government, because it successfully improved the speed at which children were able to go through the care system when they were already judged suitable for adoption. In the new system there will be no financial incentives for performance against specific targets; instead, local areas will be able to earn limited reward funding based on average performance across a range of targets agreed with the Government and their local authorities, but adoption will not be included.
Annette Brooke: Did that target specify how long the children needed to have been in care? Could they have been in care for just a day or two?
Kevin Brennan: The national target was to increase by 40 per cent.—more if possible—the number of looked-after children who were adopted within a specified time. That target was not quite reached—38 per cent. was the outcome figure. All councils were meant to bring their performance up to that level. If I have not answered the hon. Lady’s question, she might want to come back on that.
Annette Brooke: My question was whether the target specified how long the children that one wished to move out of care had been in care. Could an authority count children who had only been in care for seven days?
Kevin Brennan: I apologise to the hon. Lady. The target was nothing to do with how long the children had been in care, it was about whether they had been in care and judged suitable for adoption. It would be impossible for them to be part of a target if they had been in care for just one day. The target kicked in only after a judgment had been made that adoption was the right route. If they had been in care for only one day, they would not yet have been assessed as suitable for adoption.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Will the Minister clarify whether when he says that the child had been judged suitable for adoption he means that the child had then been placed through the adoption panel?
Kevin Brennan: Yes, that is absolutely correct. That is the point at which the target would kick in. When we debated the Adoption and Children Bill in 2001, concern was expressed that too many children were languishing in care when it had already been decided—the paramountcy principle having been considered—that the appropriate way forward for them was to be placed for adoption. They were not being placed for adoption quickly because local authorities were not being very effective or efficient in finding the right family for them. That was the purpose of the national adoption target, and it was successful.
Tim Loughton: Just to be clear on the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, on the back of the accelerated adoption processes for babies in particular—which we enabled through the Adoption and Children Act 2002—more babies could come into the care system and be quickly adopted, and they therefore formed part of the adoption figures that met the adoption targets. That would appear to be borne out by the fact that the biggest increase in adoptions has been in the adoption of young babies. That is the case, is it not?
Kevin Brennan: The key safeguard in all cases is that no child can be adopted unless it has been through the proper procedures, including the court procedures. We all agreed, and it was absolutely the case, that where it was appropriate that a baby be placed for adoption it should happen quickly. What are being conflated in the argument, perhaps deliberately in some cases—not here but in some of the media accounts—are the local area agreement targets and the national target on adoption. There is no evidence at local target level that the policy has resulted in any inappropriate adoptions—none whatever. In fact, the available evidence suggests that local authorities that included time-limited adoption increases as part of their local public service agreement were already well below average in using adoption as a permanent option for looked-after children in comparison to other local authorities. They set fairly modest targets, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham indicated, and even when they achieved those targets in full, the individual local authorities involved rarely became above average performers in terms of adoption as a permanent option, even in the short term while the targets were in place.
I have seen no evidence of inappropriate adoptions resulting from the target. It is very sad that some accounts—not from anybody on the Committee, but elsewhere—have given the impression that Ministers, judges, social workers, lawyers, solicitors, CAFCASS officers and a range of other people are involved in some sort of conspiracy to kidnap babies from otherwise loving families to meet adoption targets. That sort of swivel-eyed nonsense is exactly what contributes to our problems in improving the image of social workers and in ensuring that children in care, whom the Bill is largely designed to assist, have the best possible outcomes. The extent to which we pander to those views is very dangerous to what we are trying to do.
Let us base our deliberations on evidence. There is no evidence of inappropriate adoptions. There are no national targets in place now, the national target having achieved its outcome. Councils set local targets for themselves because they felt that they needed to challenge their poor performance; the Government did not set them. They are no longer in place and there is no evidence whatever that they resulted in inappropriate adoptions. I see no need to adopt an amendment that would tie the hands of future Governments seeking to improve adoption performance, although targets are not currently needed because of the improvements made directly as a result of the 2002 Act and the national target set at that time.
I call for consensus on adoption across the Committee and across the parties in the House, and hope that we can reach it. Given that no targets are in place at this point, and that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham fundamentally disagrees with targets, consensus should be possible without the necessity for his amendment. On that basis, I invite him to withdraw it.
Tim Loughton: We needed to have this discussion. I think the Minister and I are entirely at one on what needs to be achieved, which is an increase in adoption, particularly for those who are in the care system for far too long and in many cases spend their entire youth in the care system without the chance of adoption. I have been very careful not to make wild allegations about inappropriate adoptions. One cannot deny, however, that the system is such that they could happen, nor could one say that they would not happen. There would be no question of anybody pandering to the allegations if the Government had not introduced the performance reward grants in the first place, or subsequently allowed local authorities to include any adoption target within local area agreements. That is where the problems come in and that is what we warned about in 2001. A question remains. I am interested in further analysis from the Minister’s Department as to why there has been such a big increase in the adoption of babies, which is part of the targets, but little movement in the adoption of older children, on whom we should be concentrating.
Kevin Brennan: I will be happy to send the hon. Gentleman some further information on that point. It is true that more children aged between zero and one are coming into care, but the compensating figure for children aged between one and four balances that. In other words, early intervention is working exactly as we want it to. We have learned the lessons about the need to ensure that we intervene early where children are genuinely at risk and the statistics absolutely bear that out.
However, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that for those aspersions to be true in some way—aspersions that the system conspired to put people up for adoption inappropriately—the court system itself and the judges involved in it would have to have been part of that conspiracy?
1.30 pm
Tim Loughton: I entirely take the Minister’s point and I am not suggesting that there was a conspiracy. However, the evidence supplied by social workers closest to the case will weigh heavily in court and, without there having to be any sort of conspiracy, if a claim is being made by an employee of the local authority and that authority stands to benefit from a performance reward grant, clearly there is the potential for that employee to over-egg the claim when otherwise they might not have done so. That situation does not require a conspiracy.
Part of the problem is the pressure on the courts at the moment. I have sat in family courts where the judge will tell me that there have been changes in social workers and the paperwork is enormous—we will go on to talk about transparency in family courts when we discuss another amendment very shortly—so I know that the scrutiny of some of these cases is not as tight as it might be. On that basis, some of these numbers, hypothetically, could be raised higher than we would like.
The point is that, ultimately, the overall adoption figures have not risen recently and we need them to rise; in particular, we need them to rise more for older children than for babies. That is a real problem that we need to face. However, I hope that when the Minister endeavours to tackle it again—I realise that all sorts of things are happening that are ongoing—he will not revert to coming up with some sort of financial incentive that is based on numerical targets, because that will only give rise to further suspicions that children are being inappropriately adopted at an early age who would otherwise not necessarily justify being adopted.
I do not wish to put this matter to a vote. On that basis, I am grateful for the debate that we have had and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
The Chairman: If the Minister is going to write to Mr. Loughton, it might be helpful if that correspondence was copied to other members of the Committee.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 13

Responsibilities of parenthood
‘(1) In section 10 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) (power of court to make section 8 orders), after subsection (9)(b) insert—
“(ba) in relation to residence orders, whether or not the person with whom it is proposed that the child should live is likely to be able and willing to accept the responsibilities of parenthood in relation to the child;”.
(2) In section 8 of that Act (residence, contact and other orders with respect to children), after subsection (4) insert—
“(4A) In this Part “the responsibilities of parenthood” means, in so far as is practicable and in the best interests of the child, the safeguarding and promotion of the child’s health, development and welfare, and the provision of direction and guidance to the child in a manner appropriate to his age and development.”’.—[Tim Loughton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 17—Issue of written judgment relating to a court order in family proceedings
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 8 insert—
“8A Issue of written judgment relating to a court order in family proceedings
(1) When issuing an order in any family proceedings a court shall issue a written judgment in respect of that order.
(2) No children under the age of 16 shall be identified by name in that judgment.
(3) A judgment issued under subsection (1) will be issued to all parties to proceedings.
(4) Parents of children in family proceedings who were party to those proceedings, may publish the judgment issued under subsection (1).
(5) Parents of children in family proceedings, who were party to those proceedings, may publish any other documents that are part of such proceedings on the condition that documents are redacted to remove the names of any children under 16.”’.
New clause 18—Family proceedings: evidence
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
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