The Child Protection System in England

UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE    To be published as HC 1514-iv

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

 

Education Committee

the Child Protection  system in england

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Martin Narey and John Hemming MP

Evidence heard in  Public Questions  334 - 410

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the  Education Committee

on  Tuesday 13 December 2011

Members present:

 

Mr Graham Stuart (Chair)

Alex Cunningham

Pat Glass

Tessa Munt

 

Craig Whittaker

 

________________

 Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses:  Martin Narey, Government Adviser on Adoption and John Hemming MP, Founder and Chairman, Justice for Families, gave evidence.

Q334 Chair: Good morning and welcome to this session of the Education Committee, looking into the child protection system in England. We like to deal with people informally here, so if you are both happy for us to use your first names, highly distinguished pair that you are, that would be good. Can I start by asking you about breakdowns in adoptions? Tomorrow night the BBC is screening a Panorama special, "The Truth About Adoption". From your experience, can you tell us why you think adoptions break down? Martin, can I begin with you?

Martin Narey: The first thing to say is there urgently needs to be some more comprehensive research about adoption breakdown because we known too little about it. From looking at what research there is, which I have done in some detail, my view is that the rate of breakdown is often exaggerated. It is frequently quoted in a number of sources as being as high as 20% or 30%. Overall, my estimate of adoption breakdown would be nearer to 10%. In some research by Rushton into the breakdown of adoptions of children aged five to 11, who were very challenging indeed, adoption breakdown to their 14th birthday was only 23%. Adoption breakdown is about 10%. The key for the Committee’s consideration is that adoption breakdown for children who are adopted quickly, before their first birthday, is probably about 2% or 3%.

John Hemming: One point the Committee should recognise is the Government has a very good data set, called SSDA903, which is an annual return from the councils, and it would be quite easy for the Government to change the specification of this so that whenever a child returns to care through a disrupted adoption-many of which are from reactive attachment disorders-that would be tracked so that you could identify precisely when this has happened. I recently asked the Government to do this and they refused. It is actually quite a simple thing to do, although it would take a while to have some effect. It may be a worthwhile recommendation for the Committee to consider.

Q335 Chair: An article in the Daily Express-not often mentioned in this Committee-yesterday, suggested that social workers are sexing up dossiers on problem parents in order to remove children into care. Is this a real concern or just press hysteria?

Martin Narey: Mr Hemming and I would appear to disagree on a lot of things about this. There are some things on which we might agree and Mr Hemming might be surprised at that. I think it is entirely possible that occasionally there are cases which are-to use that expression-sexed up. There is evidence of cases where the removal of a child seems inexplicable, but I am quite clear, from my experience at Barnardo’s and as I have been studying adoption pretty much full time since January, that overwhelmingly, certainly until very recently, the pressures on social workers have been the reverse. All the research we have-I could offer the Committee a number of references-indicates an optimism in the system that somehow a family will fix themselves. I think you had a very good submission from Professor Nina Biehal that summarised the position about care. It talked about the delay before intervening to remove a child and the damage that causes. My view is overwhelmingly that social workers have traditionally been gripped by a sense of optimism and a hope and a belief that somehow families will improve and that children do not need to be removed. During that process, children are damaged.

John Hemming: Unsurprisingly, I agree very much with the excellent work by Ted Jeory of the Sunday Express, who spoke to a whistleblower who I think is willing to speak to the Committee and whom I have written to you about. He is not the only whistleblower who has spoken to me, but obviously you would expect people who are upset with the system to contact Justice for Families and those who think the system has got it right not to contact Justice for Families. So I can only talk about those where the system has gone wrong. I do think it is worth going through the details of how care proceedings operate, because often when you look at issues like the threshold, it ignores the difference between Section 38 and Section 31. I did provide some background papers to look at some aspects of the assessment process. If there was better scrutiny of those processes, silly reasons for taking children into care would not be accepted. It is quite clear that a number of children are wrongly taken into care. That then frequently leads to the adoption of those children. That is quite clearly the case, but exactly what proportion of cases go wrong that way I cannot assess, because I will only see the ones that are bad, basically.

Q336 Chair: Whatever the proportion, one needs to have suitable systems in place in order to stop the inexplicably unfair happening.

John Hemming: Exactly. The checks and balances fail and that is the problem.

Q337 Pat Glass: In care proceedings there does appear to be something of a pendulum effect. After Cleveland, it appeared to swing away from state intervention and towards non-intervention with parents. Then from 2008, the numbers have risen dramatically. Is that purely down to the Baby P effect?

John Hemming: One thing we should learn from all of this is whatever jobs you have in society have to be doable by real human beings. To go after social workers when some evil parents kill their children is, in my view, a wrongful strategy, because it creates a defensive environment where everyone is frightened to do anything that may deem them to be making a mistake. Whereas there is effectively no criticism for taking a child wrongly into care, there is a sort of witch hunt that goes on when people make a mistake. I do think that it was quite clear from the 60 visits that there was something going wrong with the Khyra Ishaq case in Birmingham. There was a systemic problem there, in that case with the educational welfare organisation. However, we need to make sure that the jobs we have in society are doable ones, not ones which go after people, create a defensive culture and a culture in which one social worker in Birmingham said to me that he was pleased to get out of child protection because there is no hope. Once the system starts going, it grinds and grinds and grinds until the child has gone into care and most likely been adopted, for younger children, anyway.

Martin Narey: There had been a recent rise in the number of children in care. There was a similar rise after the Victoria Climbié disaster, as there was after Cleveland. On both those previous occasions the numbers slid back somewhat. There has not been a sliding back after the death of Baby Peter and I think that reflects a wider recognition about children living in neglect. I think we need to put recent concern about the number of children in care into some relative or recent historical perspective. There is a lot of anxiety at the moment about a children-in-care population of about 65,000 or 66,000, but as recently as 1981 the children-in-care population was 92,000. Interestingly, about 60,000 of those were living in children’s homes. Relatively speaking, the number of children in care we have right now is about a third lower than in the 1980s.

Q338 Pat Glass: Mr Hemming, you said that "the current system has low thresholds". I have to say, after working with children for about 25 years, I disagree with you. I think the thresholds are far too high. But if that is the case-and you have said that they are taking the wrong children into care-which children are we failing to take into care and what evidence do you have that children are taken into care incorrectly?

John Hemming: In the background papers, I gave an example from a threshold document in Haringey where one of the reasons used for taking two children into care was being spoken at in a manner that undermined their self-esteem. That is in the background papers you have got and it is the fourth item. Speaking as somebody who used to be Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council, who knows how budgetary controls in councils operate, you often have a limit on the number of children taken into care. If things get tight, it becomes one in, one out. If you have children in care because they have been spoken to in a manner that undermines their self esteem, that then creates a situation where there is managerial pressure not to take other children into care, such as Peter Connolly. In my submission, I went through all the financial documents from Haringey and found the statements from the various managers and the various roles, which indicated how they were trying to control the number of children in care. Not co-operating with professionals is another reason that is used. If you accept that is a valid threshold then, because there is a limit on the number of children into care, you squeeze out the Peter Connollys. I picked the Haringey one because it was Haringey and because those children were in care there at the time that Peter Connolly should have been taken into care.

Q339 Pat Glass: I do not know the case in Haringey, but I have been involved in cases where care proceedings have resulted from parents not co-operating, but that is the final straw; there are many, many concerns leading up to that and the care proceedings only come when everything else has been tried, which is, in my view, too late. That is not the reason; it is the myriad neglect and so on that goes beforehand, surely.

John Hemming: Yes. I think the difficulty is that there is lots of different practice. As I explained, if you have a limit on the number of children taken into care and if you are allowing some practitioners to take children into care for really low threshold reasons-and I think being spoken to in a manner that undermines your self-esteem is a really low level of threshold, and I would assume you would agree with me about that-then once you have filled care up and you have hit the budgetary limits, the difficulty is that when somebody wants to take another child into care, managerial gateways come into operation. One of the difficulties with the care system is that it is in fact a lot more complex than it is represented, as you know from your experience. For example, section 38 of the Children’s Act on interim care orders allows a child to be taken into care if there is a belief, not necessarily that there is evidence. The interim care order threshold is much lower than the final care order threshold, and frequently during care proceedings the threshold changes from the start of the proceedings to the end of the proceeding.

Now, we have the wider question of The Lancet report from Friday, produced by Ruth Gilbert, which is a very important issue-whether the way in which we operate child protection is good for children in the sense of protecting children from abuse in the wider sense. One of the things that is frequently missed is that each change of placement is damaging for a child, but that includes the first change of placement. If you take the Devon/Irish case that I have also got in the background papers, what the authorities there were trying to do was something that was clearly damaging for the child. The Irish authorities thought that it was wrong for them to do that. The end result was that two years later it turns out the Irish assessment was correct and the Devon assessment was wrong. There is no question about it: there are good practitioners. I cannot say what proportion are good and bad. But the checks and balances do not operate, so you get children in care who should not be in care and then the budgetary limits apply.

Martin Narey: I mentioned that there may be occasional rogue cases but in the years in which I have been involved in this-nearly six years at Barnardo’s and a year looking at this and doing almost nothing else-I have never come across such a case. I have come across countless numbers of cases. I have met children and parents where I have, by contrast, been astonished that we have not intervened and I have been frequently very concerned that there is an acceptance of a good enough sort of care in the home environment when the best thing for the children would be to intervene. Nor have I ever come across an instance where I thought that finance was dictating the decision. There are real financial implications for taking a child into care, but I have never come across a case where I have thought that has been the reason for either taking action or not taking action and certainly never the reason for an adoption, for example.

Q340 Chair: So there are not pressures within the system to control budget?

Martin Narey: There are certainly pressures within the system, but my experience is that people do not make a decision just for financial reasons. There are financial consequences but I think the real reason for the reluctance to take children into care has not been, as is sometimes suggested, the fact that it costs a lot of money. It has been about certain myths: the belief that the law requires social work to balance the rights of the parents with the rights of the child. They do not; it is what is best for the child. Myths and misunderstandings also exist about attachment theory, but most of all-and I cannot stress how difficult it has been to change opinion in this respect-there is the belief that however bad neglect at home is, care makes things worse. The research is absolutely clear: care is not perfect, but it makes things better.

Q341 Pat Glass: It is interesting. Three of us visited some children in care last week and I was surprised, I have to say. These were mainly older children, all in foster care. I think one had had up to 16 changes of placement but they all said that overall they felt that care had improved the situation for them and they were better to have been in care than to be with their parent. I have to say, I was surprised by that.

Martin Narey: I have had very many conversations like that, including as recently as two or three weeks ago in Cambridge with a group of children in care, all of whom spoke warmly about their experience of care. The research is simply unequivocal. Care can be better, but care is much better than neglect, so the reluctance not to intervene because of bad outcomes for care is a misunderstanding of why there are bad outcomes for care. When I was running the prison service I came to this quite erroneous conclusion that care was causing all these young people to be locked up. I was wrong. I was making a classic confusion between correlation and causation. What was propelling all these young people into custody was failure to intervene early enough and get them into care or get them adopted, in which circumstances they would have done much better in life.

John Hemming: A research document was published in The Lancet on Friday called "Child maltreatment: variation in trends and policies in six developed countries", which contradicts the comments about compulsory care proceedings. It cites various things. There is no sense in me going through all the details. I have sent a copy to the Committee Clerk.

Q342 Chair: In what way does it contradict them?

John Hemming: It basically argues that it is known that there is trauma from taking children into care. Now, obviously, some children’s circumstances are so bad you cannot leave them with the family. Again, this is a threshold question. I argue the point and come back to the point that if children are being talked to in a manner that undermines their self esteem, that in itself is not, in my view, sufficient cause to take a child into care and go through the traumatic process of being removed from the family.

Also the Prison Reform Trust recently produced a report, which I have also copied to the Committee, which does contradict the arguments as to why children end up in prison when they come out of care. I have page 41 here and I will quote from it if I can find it. This is about which aspects of the care system have most influence on chances of offending, and the factors that the children who were convicted highlighted included: losing contacts with family and friends; poor relationships with carers; relations with peers and peer pressure; type of placement; and frequency of placement moves. The difficulty is that we are dealing with a range of cases and dealing with a range of cases cannot be done on an anecdotal basis. I accept that I see a subset of the problems. I see the cases where there has been over-intervention. I accept that. I also accept there is a need for intervention. The difficulty is in collating. Take the issue with adoption, or just runaway children: the Government will not even track runaway children properly from SSDA903 and that is really stupid when a large number of children disappear from care for other reasons. We are supposed to be in loco parentis in theory; it is the councillors who are in loco parentis. I would be very worried if I had lost one of my children and I did not know where they had gone, but the Government is quite happy to accept ‘other reasons’ as part of the SSDA903 data. That is ludicrous. What Martin says is incontrovertible is actually controverted.

Q343 Chair: Could you come back on the budget issue?

John Hemming: There are gateways there. There is a managerial gateway. When a council goes into deficit, it establishes managerial gateways to try to control thresholds. Parents have found recently that children who were in care for some time were suddenly sent home. My view is they should have been home earlier if it was safe to go home at that stage. Knowing, as I do, the system at other levels, sometimes a child in care in a specialist institution costs up to £500,000 a year. Normal foster care agency rates are about £35,000 or £40,000 a year. The court fees are negligible in comparison to all the legal costs. These things do have an effect, particularly in the financial climate we are in at the moment.

Q344 Craig Whittaker: I am a bit confused here. Listening to you, John, I get the feeling that we are in grave danger of just pulling out stats to prove the case. What I have not heard yet is the question that is being asked around budgets, which I am particularly interested in. You have mentioned one in, one out, and you have talked about managerial gateways. How big an issue is it?

John Hemming: Local authorities, if they want to manage their budgets, have to find ways of managing their budgets.

Q345 Craig Whittaker: How big is the problem?

John Hemming: I cannot say.

Q346 Craig Whittaker: I take a very keen interest in this, and in my neck of the woods, for example, there are huge budgetary pressures, but when I was lead member in Calder we had 250 looked-after children. We now have 376, which creates a huge burden, but that does not mean to say that that local authority is not taking kids into care because of budgetary pressures. I get the impression that you are saying that is a big issue. If that is the case, how big an issue is it and can you give us some evidence?

John Hemming: The only evidence I have is actually when I quoted from the Haringey documents that I put in my submission to the Committee. I have my personal experience in Birmingham of the proposal to establish management gateways to make sure that children taken into care have to be taken into care, so it is a greater control on it. The difficulty is I have not studied all local authorities and found out how each local authority operates.

Q347 Craig Whittaker: So you do not know whether it is a big issue or not?

John Hemming: I know it has happened in Haringey. I looked at Haringey because what seemed to happen there is that a decision was made to take a child into care because they were clearly at risk, but they were not taken into care because of financial pressures. That is how it looked to me. Obviously there was a media fuss after the criminal trial, but in fact, after the death of Peter Connelly, there was a quick change in Haringey and you could see the figures suddenly shift. Going back-I think it was to 2007-I extracted from all the local government documents and put various paragraphs in my evidence to the Committee. I would think that there are similar processes in most local authorities; there are some forms of controls.

Q348 Chair: I think you have made your point. It is a double-whammy, Martin, of the wrong children being taken into care in the first place, who should not be, and then, because of budgetary pressures, they are squeezing out children who do need the care. Do you recognise that?

Martin Narey: I do not see a subset of cases. For some years now I have seen a crosssection of cases. Some of the work I was most proud to lead in Barnardo’s was the work which fixed families; we did that an awful lot and that can be done. On the financial incentive issue: if finance was driving this, two things would not be happening. We would not have seen the increase in the numbers of children in care that Ms Glass has referred to, because that has significant financial repercussions. We would have seen more, not fewer adoptions. Adoptions can save, and generally do save, local authorities a great deal of money, but adoptions have fallen by 15% in the last few years rather than rising. Obviously, finance is a consideration but I have looked for this-when I did my research for the work I did for The Times-and I found that local authorities obviously have to cope with the financial consequences, but they try overwhelmingly to do what is best for the child.

In terms of your second question, Chair, about the wrong children, I stress it is not a perfect system. There is a capacity for human error. I agree very much with Mr Hemming about the demonisation of social workers, which has led to some very defensive practice, but overall my very firm view is that our thresholds for taking children into care have been too high. Social workers have written to me in so many numbers, talking about their frustration at witnessing neglect for too long and not intervening until neglect turns into abuse.

John Hemming: Can I come back on the issue of the numbers of adoptions? There are, in my view, four types of permanence that hopefully can work, one of which is returning to the parents. Then there are special guardianship orders, which can be in the form of foster carers or otherwise, residency orders and adoption. What has happened is that, whereas the numbers of adoptions has gone down, the children leaving care to permanence has in fact gone up. I find it rather sad that the Government do not quite understand their own statistics because the reality is if you put pressure on to achieve adoption rather than, say, special guardianship or residency, what you are saying is that we want children not to go to their granny, aunt or uncle but instead to be adopted. At least the previous Government, when they changed the Best Value 163 target to include permanence, included special guardianships and residency orders. We should not make the mistake of ignoring special guardianships and residency orders. The idea that those are much better than the children returning to the parents is also dangerous.

The danger with all of this is if you manage what is a subtle issue of judgment through blunt targets or, even worse, just saying, "Increase this figure", without a limit on the increase. Then you are skewing the decision-making and you are putting pressure on people to make the wrong decision. I think this approach is very wrong. It shows a misunderstanding of permanence and it needs to be re-thought. Again it is an area the Committee could look at; I have got all the stats here, they are from the SSDA903 return in the first statistical release and I can leave it here if you want. Permanence has gone up in the last few years each year, it is just that SGOs and residency orders have gone up, whereas adoption has gone down.

Q349 Pat Glass: Can I just clarify the issue around budgets? You have said that Haringey in 2006 had a forecast overspend of £2.3 million. I can recall when education and children’s social care were put together. I was in education and was really rather shocked looking at the children’s social care budget, which appeared to have been underfunded for years and topped up from the adult social care budgets, and those budgets were never adequately sorted out. The children’s social care budget came over in the authority I worked in, which was Sunderland, with something like a £2.5 million deficit. I was rather shocked to be told, "Oh, that’s nothing; in Bristol, it is £8 million", as if that was quite a good thing. Is that deficit not part of that? Children’s social care budgets were never adequately funded until they came into Children’s Services.

John Hemming: It is an interesting question as to whether viring occurs within budgets. Obviously, even with the managerial gateway, what happened wrongly in Haringey was that the managerial gateway did not operate properly. They should have increased the number of children in care and taken Peter Connolly into care.

Q350 Chair: The managerial gateway, I assume, is where you have to refer up higher than you would normally do.

John Hemming: It is a management system. You take it up the line before making a decision because it is quite a major commitment. I went through in some detail the reports in Haringey and I obviously have personal knowledge of processes in Birmingham, where, if there is a key decision that will incur costs of £100,000 in the next year, it is not taken at the bottom but at a higher level. That does not necessarily mean that you do not allow the numbers to go up, of course, although one in, one out has been used at times.

Q351 Pat Glass: They have gone up.

Martin Narey: They have gone up, yes, significantly.

John Hemming: Yes. Obviously the numbers taken into care compulsorily-obviously there are Section 20s as well-but those taken into care initially through a PPO, EPO or on section 31 or 38 have gone up since 1995, when there were about 5,500 a year, to about 10,500 a year where the year is the financial year to 31 March. So, they have gone up over that period, and gone up substantially since 2008, when the criminal prosecution occurred. It was 2008, wasn’t it? Although Peter died in 2007, and they went up a little bit then as well. There are real difficulties in how you handle something like this, where, in theory, you should not ever refuse to take a child into care if that child is at risk, but in practice there are limits on the finance. It is a very difficult balancing act that does not have a simplistic solution.

Q352 Tessa Munt: Some of this you have outlined already, but I wanted to ask you about your cases for and against adoption. I realise that is going to be confused slightly by the other things that you have mentioned, John, but can I just ask you to set out the case for and against adoption quite clearly? Just specifically about adoption.

Martin Narey: What children need is permanence. All the research on attachment shows that children need permanence and stability. Mr Hemming is quite right to point out the crucial period between seven and 18 months. If you are struggling to achieve permanence by that period then the damage to the child, while still reparable, may be significant. There are a number of forms of permanence, and I have made some recommendations in my report about making special guardianship easier, for example. That is valid, although I do not think it is synonymous with adoption. Adoption is unique; adoption is forever; adoption does not finish at someone’s 16th or 18th birthday. I have a 27-year-old daughter who phoned me last night because she is getting married, and I am going to be there with her and help her through that, and she is 27. It is not a thing that finishes at 18. It is forever.

All the research on adoption is clear. Adoption is only ever for a minority of children in care, but for those for whom it is appropriate it can be transformational. It can be transformational in the most remarkable circumstances. The Committee will be aware of the experience of the Romanian children who were brought into this country after the fall of Ceauşescu: the most damaged children, children who had lived in depravity, children who ate gruel from bottles with enlarged teats; children who, when they were washed, were hosed down. Some 168 of those children came into England, and Professor Michael Rutter has followed their fortunes until their teens. There were only two breakdowns. Every child recovered the developmental delay because love and stability and permanence can make an enormous difference. For those for whom it is appropriate-for many children it is not appropriate, particularly for some older children for whom I would say special guardianship is frequently a better option-adoption can simply transform a child’s life and give a deeply neglected child the sort of upbringing that we like to think we gave our kids.

Q353 Tessa Munt: Do you want to give me a snippet about the special guardianship then as well?

Martin Narey: I very much welcome the introduction of special guardianship. It was an attempt to try to find a greater permanence for children for whom adoption was not likely to be appropriate. The puzzle about special guardianship is that it was thought it would go to older children, children who might have been removed from their families but who were six, seven or eight and knew mum and wanted to keep in contact with her, and there was a gran or an uncle on the scene who could give permanent care and take a lot of the daytoday decisions and the primary decisions on things like schools, rather than the parent-not being able to take the ultimate decision of placing child for adoption, but ultimately being in charge of the child. It can be very helpful indeed and we need to make sure, particularly for grandparents, who might have fixed incomes, that there are not financial disincentives. To get a child out of care and to pay financial allowance to special guardians would be a good deal for the local authority. However, special guardianships overwhelmingly have gone to babies and young children and nobody expected that. I do not know the answer to this and we need research, but we need to find out what is happening to those special guardianships and we need to investigate the claims made to me by a number of practitioners that sometimes, when adoption is recommended as the best way forward, courts are making a compromise in agreeing to a special guardianship. Yes, they are putting somebody with a family member, but the considered evidence from the local authority is that the best thing for that very young child is the permanence of adoption.

John Hemming: The first thing is obviously you get some children who are abandoned outside a hospital. Some babies are abandoned at a hospital and the obvious long-term solution that is best for them is to be adopted in some way, if you do not know who the mother is or anything. So there is always a role for adoption. I got the Government to do some figures on the SSDA903 return, just for children who are aged four and under, because at the end of the day the older children are less likely to be adopted. One of the dangers of the American system of adoption from care is that it is not a lot different to foster care, although it is called adoption. There is an issue potentially about long-term support there. More study would be needed to see if that is actually arising from it or whether in fact it is a myth. I do not know either way, but the American system has really just substantially re-branded some aspects of foster care as adoption, because people are still getting large sums of money for doing things, but then there is an issue about support for people looking after children in any circumstances.

For instance, from 31 March 2010, 4,700 children aged four and under left care in that year, 2,000 of whom were adopted, which is, in my view, quite a high proportion. Of the larger numbers-obviously there are small numbers going to other local authorities, etc-880 went back home to their parents; 370 had a residence order; 320 had an SGO made to former foster carers; and 190 had an SGO made to carers other than to the former foster carers. That contradicts what Martin was just saying about SGOs. The grandparents, uncles and aunts do need consideration in all of this, and if it is possible to keep a child within the family that is a far better solution than adopting the child to another household. I think if people are going to argue that it is not, we need to see some evidence base for that. Again, in the background papers I have given the case of a mother who failed a parenting assessment in part for putting her baby on a mat with another baby. That is in the background papers you have got. If people are going to fail assessments for stupid reasons like that, we need to know. We need accountability and transparency, not necessarily identifying the people but the reasons that are being given. I can leave copies of all the papers I have got here, but adoption will always be a function for some children in care. The question is why it is so much better these days with far fewer children returning to their parents than did so in the past, as children who would have gone to their parents in the past now get adopted. The stats are here. You are welcome to have a copy of them.

Q354 Tessa Munt: Martin, can I just test that idea of the grandparents, aunts and uncles having a greater case for being the long-term carer, the person who takes responsibility? That is not at odds with what-

Martin Narey: It is not at odds and, indeed, opinion does not matter because the law requires local authorities to look first at finding a placement in the family, and very frequently that will be the very best option. Grandparents particularly play a huge role in caring for their grandchildren informally and formally after special guardianship. I just want to be clear that if there is a consideration that there is a member of the family who can offer care but that care will be of a significantly poorer standard than likely to be afforded by adoption, we do what is best for the child. Children are not property. They do not belong to anybody. They deserve the very best possible upbringing. When social workers have talked to me over the last few years about the reason for either keeping a child with the birth parents or for special guardianship, they use the expression, "Blood is thicker than water". I do not accept that. Very frequently the best option for the child would be to go to gran or uncle or whatever and that is fantastic, but we should just be quite sure that we are not compromising the best interests of the child. I do not think anybody quite knows that and I will send the statistics that Mr Hemming disputes, about special guardianships going to babies.

We need to do some research, and I have urged the Department for Education to commission that. I believe that it will do so, not only to understand more about adoption disruption but special guardianship disruption. Some local authorities follow special guardianships; others turn away. For example, we do not know, and it may be the case, whether a couple of years after special guardianship the child is right back where they belong, with the parents from whom that child was removed.

Q355 Alex Cunningham: I have met with grandparent carers in my constituency and they offer struggle financially to provide the best environment for the child and look after them properly. Is there any evidence at all that local authorities are seeing that as an easy option, a least expensive option, to place with grandparents, who they do not actually have to fund in many cases? Is that something that is happening? The grandparents would say it is.

Martin Narey: My honest answer is that I do not know, but it is a possibility, because it certainly can be a cheap option and that is why I recommended it to the Government and they are considering it at the moment. We have to make sure that there is not a financial disincentive, particularly for grandparents. I have met people who do this and I had a good meeting last week with Grandparents Plus. They are remarkable people. They should not be financially disadvantaged by taking on a child who would otherwise be in care. There is a very good deal for a local authority: the fairly modest sums that you might have to give a grandparent to make caring for their grandchild possible are, as we all know, much smaller than the costs of keeping that child in care. Some local authorities are reluctant to commit. I think the law requires them to consider support but there is no requirement to provide it.

John Hemming: The money side of this is important in lots of different ways in terms of outcomes for children: not least, if they are with a wealthier family and have got more money, it makes life easier. If any analysis is done, that factor should be taken out of the analysis because it is very unfair to allow money to drive these things. There is no question about it that the money that potentially comes with a residency order or an SGO or through foster care, or whatever it may be, is important. It is important also to recognise this issue about stability. To change a placement to theoretically give permanence, when in fact that placement could have lasted a long time, is a mistake. The legal status does not affect a baby.

Q356 Tessa Munt: I just wanted to look at residential homes. I think some of the Committee have experience from their Barnsley visit that there are children who deliberately sabotage their placements with families, but who flourished in a residential home. Have you any comments to make about that sort of thing?

Martin Narey: I have some sympathy with that position. Interestingly, by the time I arrived at Barnardo’s in 2005 we had all but abandoned residential care. We have a number of residential schools but virtually no residential care at all. The voluntary sector retreated from residential care, in my view, with undue haste following the controversies over abuse, although there was very real abuse in some homes. One of the things that first got me interested in Barnardo’s was visiting a very small residential home, one of only three or four we still had in Northern Ireland, where I met an autistic boy who was clearly, to my layman’s observation, a very challenging young lad indeed, but he was doing very well in this residential home with a group of other children and with a professional staff who worked in shifts and could share the burden. That boy was moving on the following Monday to his 13th foster placement. The staff told me with absolute confidence that he would wear the most willing foster carers out within six week. He took four weeks. I have since met countless children who have had 24 or 25 foster placements and 21 or 22 different schools. We would never dream of doing this to our children and for some children the very best option for them is, I believe, high quality residential care. If you look at residential care in Germany, and if you use the measure which is used here-which I do not favour terribly because I think it is an unfair measure-of academic success, then children in residential care in Germany do extremely well and do almost as well as the general population.

Q357 Tessa Munt: It is slightly strange, since you are working for the Government as well, but your recommendation to this Committee is that maybe we should have a threshold over which children should not carry on moving.

Martin Narey: I would greatly welcome a recommendation along those lines. There is a constant search to find a foster placement that might work-I am not saying you only try once because fostering is the nearest thing to family life and can be very good, and foster carers are remarkable people and sometimes succeed. The Christmas before last I had lunch with some foster carers in Belfast and one woman there had a young girl with her who was 14 years old and on something like her 24th foster placement. She told me that every time she and the foster girl fell out that girl went upstairs and packed her bags. Her assumption was that she would just be on her way once again. We need to find stability. There is no reason, if we do it well, that residential care cannot be done. There is a bit of a myth within the system that because most residential care is done by the private sector it is necessarily bad. What I have seen of residential care recently has impressed me very much.

Q358 Tessa Munt: Can we be really brave? At what point do we say the numbers are too large? Clearly 24 or 25 is a ludicrous number of placements for somebody. Should we have something that kicks in after you have moved four times?

Martin Narey: I hazard to pick a number but yes, I think we should be very cautious. If a child has faced a fostering placement four or six times, we should be thinking about finding stability in some other way.

Q359 Pat Glass: Can I just come in on that? When we spoke to the staff at the school we were at last week they were talking about foster placements and they said that there was, in their view, one really good reason why they broke down, and I suspect it is similar with adoptions: the foster parents are not given the proper information and the training before those children arrive, and they are just not prepared for what they are faced with. Moving on from what Tessa said, they also said that individual decisions are not made based on what is best for children, and in their experience some children were better placed in residential schools where their needs were better met. Now, these tend to be very expensive. Would it not be better if the people who are making final decisions about children’s placements are not the people who have the budget?

Martin Narey: I am not persuaded that these people are making decisions based only on financial considerations. When it comes to residential education, that may be more of a possibility because it is so expensive.

Q360 Chair: What does drive 25 placements? The autistic boy you spoke about who, in the opinion of the people around him and in your opinion as a layman turning up, was simply not going to survive in a foster placement was nonetheless being repeatedly put through the process, doubtless to his detriment and that of the foster families.

Martin Narey: I think it is driven by a belief that somehow foster care is going to be best, and by a very significant shortage of residential places.

Q361 Chair: He is squeezed out. Basically, he is pushed back to foster care even though everyone can see it is not good for him because there is a shortage of places, and if they can get him out they can stick someone else in the bed?

Martin Narey: And because residential care gets such a bad press and is considered to be the most damaging of all, when for some children it can be the best option. I do not speak on behalf of Barnardo’s anymore, so I am not doing this for anything that would benefit them, but one of the things that most impressed me about the three residential secondary schools that Barnardo’s ran was that it was good for the children. I knew it also made fostering doable. Having a challenging child for 20 weeks of a year might be doable, but having one for 52 weeks is very nearly impossible. The combination of foster care and residential education could be-I know it is, because I have seen how well the children have done-very successful, but it is very expensive.

Q362 Chair: Sorry, just picking up on that last point, were you suggesting that you could have 20 weeks a year with the same foster family year after year?

Martin Narey: Yes, that was what I was meaning.

Q363 Chair: Is it possible that multiple placements can actually be good for the child?

Martin Narey: No, I think we need fewer placements. "Stability" is the word. Stability is what children need above all else. Every time we speak to children in care they talk to you about stability and tell you what it means. What I was saying is that for some children, fostering can be a workable and successful option if it is accompanied by residential education.

Q364 Chair: So respite?

John Hemming: There is plenty of evidence about psychological damage; that each change of placement causes a problem. That includes the first change of placement into care and I think that often is ignored in the cases I have cited.

Chair: As you have said already.

John Hemming: If you look at the Irish case when they were looking at traumatising a seven-year-old boy, taking him from his brother and his mother and putting him in for adoption, without contact, in England, when the Irish authority said he was perfectly safe, it shows that there is something going very badly wrong with the judgmental systems. Everything Martin said just now I agreed with. One group it may be worth taking evidence from is some of the people in their forties and fifties who run NGOs-campaigning organisations-who were themselves in care, so they can speak from the perspective of people with some experience of life who were in care and who recognise the merits, and agree that at times residential care is the best option.

Q365 Tessa Munt: Can I just go back to something you said, Martin? Clearly there are young people who have special needs-many more special needs. I am talking about learning disabilities or a problem with autism or something along that spectrum. Are we looking specifically at that particular group of individual children who might be suited to that shift care system? That is what resonated with me: the idea of having maybe two or three shifts of people who are looking after people in a residential situation, whether it is a care home or residential school, where you have got 24-hour care. Is that what we are looking at? Is it that particular group of children?

Martin Narey: I think that group of children will frequently do better in residential care-for all the reasons you state-rather than being placed in successive foster placements. We will know that by the number of times children fail. Historically, it is important to say the system has failed children who are not on the autistic spectrum. A few years ago I took a young woman leaving care around all the studios, from the Today programme in the morning to Newsnight at night. Barnardo’s were making an issue about poor academic attainment. I did not get a word in the whole day because everybody was so transfixed by this young girl, because it was quite obvious to anybody who spoke to her for two minutes that if she had been your child she would have been celebrating getting 10 GCSEs. This was a day when she had got none. This was a bright, well adjusted child but she had been to something like 19 different schools, and that is what the care system had done to her. As she moved from foster carers to foster carers that sometimes meant moving 20 or 50 miles and starting at yet another school. We would not do it to our kids.

Q366 Craig Whittaker: John, I am a little bit confused. You said something is going badly wrong with the judgemental system. You have also said that you have no evidence of the number as you only deal with obviously the people-

John Hemming: Yes, the subset where it has gone wrong; the checks and balances fail.

Q367 Craig Whittaker: The checks and balances stuff. I think you deal with 1,000 cases?

John Hemming: Over 1,000, yes.

Q368 Craig Whittaker: There are well over 65,000 kids in care, so your cases only represent 1.5%. We have also seen Christopher Booker get a bit of a slamming from Tim Loughton earlier on in the year, saying his campaign was "damaging, demoralising and very unhelpful". I do not think anybody is disagreeing with you that there are some cases in the system that are clearly wrong but what evidence is there to say that actually there is widespread occurrence of forced adoption, for example?

John Hemming: We know there is forced adoption because the statistics are there.

Q369 Craig Whittaker: Do not change what I said. I said we are talking about widespread occurrence. There is a huge difference, because going on the stats of what you deal with as an organisation compared to those in the system, we are talking about, on that premise, over 98% being done well. Let us talk about widespread.

John Hemming: First, to be able to deal with my organisation people have to be literate and use email. That is because we do not have masses of resources to deal with things. Most of the people who do McKenzie friend work are volunteers. Immediately you cut down dramatically the number of people who can get involved. Of the 65,000 children in care other than respite care, I think about 35,000 are on Section 20, so they are voluntarily in care, accommodated by the local authority at the request of the parent. So they are not really relevant to this, although at times parents are bullied into putting their children into care through Section 20 on the threat of legal proceedings otherwise. You are really looking at the current 10,500 children who are taken into care compulsorily. They would normally go on an ICO rather than a full care order, or a PPO or an EPO. So you are looking at those 10,500 cases. Now, our 1,500 are not all wrong either, but you are talking there about 10% of that number. That is an exaggeration, to be fair. Take the case of the woman who was living-

Q370 Craig Whittaker: I understand ; you can bring up cases and you have submitted lots of cases here for us to have a look at, but I am quite interested in pure evidence around numbers about how widespread it is. Yes, I think everybody agrees there is some forced adoption in the system, but where is the evidence to say this is a major, widespread occurrence?

John Hemming: I can just say a linguistic thing first? Forced adoption is adoption where the parents’ consent is dispensed with and that is quantified in the SSDA903. I am talking about wrongful adoption as well, where all the miscarriages of justice occur.

Q371 Craig Whittaker: How big is it?

John Hemming: I estimate it is around about 1,000 a year, on the basis of looking at comparative stats over a number of years.

Q372 Craig Whittaker: Where is your evidence?

John Hemming: The evidence is based on stats. I can go through the figures. It is on the SSDA903 return.

Q373 Craig Whittaker: If you have the actual evidence I would ask you to submit that to the Committee so that we can-

John Hemming: To get it done properly, you need to take a set of cases from a number of local authorities and go through them in detail. That is really what needs to be done. The difficulty we have is that it is all done without real transparency. As much as there were supposed to be anonymous judgments produced by the county courts, they are not generally produced; the whole process has not got integrity because it operates in secret without accountability. Then, as I said, you have these assessments where somebody fails an assessment because mum puts a baby on a mat with another baby and that is deemed to be risky to the baby. That is just not on.

Q374 Craig Whittaker: Are you not in danger of concluding that adoption is always inappropriate on the basis of a few mishandled cases? I still have not heard any evidence to say that this is widespread.

John Hemming: I know it is across the country because of the cases we see. I did say just now that there are cases where it is very obvious that adoption would be appropriate. The case where a baby is abandoned at a hospital and the mum goes off and you do not know where the mum is. That is a very obvious case. Wherever you set the line, the line will never be set at zero adoptions. I have always said that there are some cases where adoption is appropriate. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say precisely how many miscarriages of justice occur, simply because, to do that you would have to go through the cases and assess them, and that is a very difficult process. We have all the international cases where the Nigerian Parliament has passed a resolution saying that there is a problem. We have the French High Commission getting involved in a case where there is a problem.

Q375 Craig Whittaker: With all due respect we do not live in Nigeria. We live in the UK.

John Hemming: That is true but the case is in the UK.

Martin Narey: I differ very strongly from Mr Hemming’s answer there. To suggest there are 1,000 adoptions that were wrong last year-first of all, it has to be said that there were 3,040 adoptions last year. Only 1,360 were without the parents’ consent. It is a very small number. Overwhelmingly, in all the cases that I have looked at and in all the research I have read, I do not think there is any evidence to suggest a significant proportion of those are inappropriate.

Q376 Chair: Do you have an idea of what proportion are inappropriate?

Martin Narey: I could not give you a number, Mr Chairman, but I think the core process is so hesitant-and part of the consequence of that is that you have very significant delays-that first of all I do not think local authorities rush into adoption. They take a great deal of time before they reach a decision.

Q377 Chair: You said some are inappropriate. Can you give us some feel for how many might be inappropriate?

Martin Narey: It would be wrong for me to say there are none that are inappropriate. I do not know. It is very possible that some are. I think the proportion would be tiny-1% or 2% might be as far as I would go, and to suggest that 1,000 out of 1,300 forced adoptions were inappropriate is, I believe, very misleading.

Q378 Craig Whittaker: Clearly we have two wildly differing opinions and clearly no evidence to say what the figure actually is. What would you suggest the Committee recommended to Government to find out how large or small this problem really is?

John Hemming: There is a constitutional problem here, in that the difficulty lies in the accountability of a secret judicial system. In many ways, Parliament should attempt to do this job. Constitutionally, Parliament has the powers to do this. This Committee could potentially take a subset of cases, identified in a proper manner-so it could be a local authority’s cases-and actually try and come to some view. We could task and finish a Select Committee of the House to do that. It has not worked; if you look at what happened with Munchausen by proxy syndrome, it was recognised there was a very severe problem with false allegations of Munchausen by proxy syndrome. The then Government said, "Let’s ask local authorities how many problems there are". I think one local authority-to some extent for insurance reasons, because if they admitted full fault they would not be covered for insurance for any claim against them-said that there was one problem.

Q379 Craig Whittaker: So your recommendation is what?

John Hemming: What Parliament needs to do is start with a special investigation into secret expert evidence reports-those ones where people say, "You need 18 months’ therapy before you can look after your child and that is too long and therefore we are putting your child up for adoption".

Martin Narey: I would suggest something relatively simple and straightforward. You might do what I have done, which is to ask local authorities for papers that are going to adoption panels recommending the adoption of a child. I have sometimes attended panels to follow the discussion, but you can glean much of this from just looking at the papers. I have yet to see a case where a child had been recommended for adoption where I have thought that there was a shadow of doubt that adoption was inappropriate. Overwhelmingly when you look at these cases, you wonder why intervention did not take place at an earlier stage.

John Hemming: That depends on people not sexing up dossiers. We know from whistleblowers and from the excellent work of Ted Jeory-

Martin Narey: One whistleblower.

John Hemming: Actually more than one whistleblower, because I have spoken to other whistleblowers; people sex up dossiers and that means you cannot rely on what is written in the report.

Q380 Craig Whittaker: We have heard of children being inappropriately removed from their mothers, where there is domestic violence, particularly against the mother. Is there still a culture of mother-blaming in the child protection system, especially in the courts?

John Hemming: Again, the Irish case I cite is one where the mother was a victim of domestic violence and they were aiming to remove her seven-year-old son, a year or 18 months after she had previously seen her ex, from her and his 18-month-old brother because the court was worried that at some stage she might meet her ex again. I think that is very nebulous. We are now two or three years on from that point and the evidence is the Irish assessment of that was correct and the judicial process, which basically came to the conclusion that the ex would be a threat to the children, was wrong. The decision of the courts-you have an extract of the judgment in the background papers-was that this would never have been allowed to continue had this remained in the UK. They could not do it because the Irish authorities under the Hague Convention would not allow them to take the child. There is a women’s refuge organisation that would be good to take evidence from on this. There is great fear among women about reporting domestic violence, because they feel that they will lose their children if they report domestic violence. I think there needs to be an attempt to protect the women and children together rather than just take the children away.

Q381 Craig Whittaker: Is the culture still there or not? Yes or no?

John Hemming: I think so, yes.

Martin Narey: I think the answer to your questions, Mr Whittaker, is no. If anything, I think because mothers are so often abandoned by the men in their lives, who take no financial or emotional responsibility, sometimes social workers identify with that particular young mother overmuch; their concentration is on trying to make the mother a success and their attention moves from what is best for the child sometimes to what is best for the mother. I do not think there is a culture of mother blame.

Q382 Craig Whittaker: John, you have called for a review on how child protection is managed in situations where there is domestic violence. What specific questions should the review address?

John Hemming: You have got to start from the children’s point of view. There is no question about that. You need to do longitudinal studies of cases that occurred, say, about three or four years ago. One of the difficulties in studying all of these things is often people look at a snapshot, and that can be very misleading. Obviously, I have been dealing with some of these cases for five or six years now. You watch as they go through step by step by step and where things go after there. There is no sense in studying cases that are live now. You want to study cases which were live.

Q383 Chair: What questions need to be answered in a review?

John Hemming: Again, you need to study what has happened, what actually does happen to individual cases where this happens and what could have been done differently.

Q384 Craig Whittaker: Is it simplistic to believe that all children can be made safe without ever needing to be removed from the parents?

John Hemming: It is simplistic to say that. There are some children you have to remove from parents. There is no question about that.

Q385 Alex Cunningham: There have been many statistics talked about this morning but both the number of looked-after children placed for adoption and the number actually adopted has fallen since 2007. What, if anything, can we infer from this about whether the system views adoption as a good option for children?

Martin Narey: If I may start, I think adoption for some years has been drifting out of fashion. It is seen as somewhat a solution of the past. I was very surprised in my research for The Times to find that universities taking social workers through their first degree either did not mention adoption at all or touched on it only very briefly. There was a bit of a renaissance following Tony Blair’s personal leadership on adoption when he became Prime Minister, but the numbers have slid back again. It has somewhat gone out of fashion and some practitioners-a minority-see adoption as a failure because they believe that it is always appropriate to make a success of the family. They see adoption and that irrevocable decision to achieve a new permanence as somehow a commentary on their failure to make intervention and support work.

Q386 Chair: Is it always appropriate that there should be a presumption that care placement should be sought within the family first?

Martin Narey: Yes, I think the law requires that.

Q387 Chair: Is that right?

Martin Narey: Yes, it is right. The caveat that I would put on is that we have to make sure, in making the decision that a family placement is right, that it can offer the same or reasonably the same prospects as adoption. If adoption can offer a much better prospect for a young child’s life, particularly for a baby, then we should consider adoption.

Q388 Chair: You are saying it is always right to have a presumption in favour of placement with the family and I am thinking: what about where there is forced marriage or honour-based violence and the wider family might be complicit in the problem? Surely it would not be right in that context?

Martin Narey: You look first at the family but you make sure that you are not compromising the interests of the child. That is why using the argument that blood is thicker than water is the wrong way forward. There are many circumstances where the family will not offer the same prospects for a successful life for that child as adoption, and when that is the case we need to follow the law there and make sure that the interests of the child are unequivocally put first.

Q389 Alex Cunningham: It is clear that you lament the reduction in the number of adoptions and you have actually said it should be radically increased. What kind of proportional increase do you have in mind? Should the number of children being adopted be doubled or trebled?

Martin Narey: No. It has sometimes been suggested that I think that adoption should be quadrupled, and it is generally a conflation between what I have suggested about very early adoptions of children under one and more general adoptions. There is scope for a significant increase because there is a significant and growing backlog of children who, for all the delays in the system, have been cleared by the courts for adoption and there is no one to adopt them. One of my most urgent recommendations to Government is that we need a new assessment process to bring forward more adoptive carers. But after that I would see a sustained increase, but I am not talking about a massive increase.

Q390 Chair: You called for a radical increase. You say they should be "radically" increasing the number of adoptions.

Martin Narey: I did. I am unwilling to try and put a number on that because I agree with Mr Hemming that there absolutely should not be targets. There should be lots of performance information, but we should not have targets for adoption. I think there is scope for adoptions to certainly increase by, let us say, 50% or more.

Q391 Alex Cunningham: Is that realistic, though, in a world where my local authority is forever having to search for more foster parents and adoptive parents across the North East of England? There seems to be an issue; there are not the people there to become adoptive parents in the first instance.

Martin Narey: I think there are the people there, Mr Cunningham. From the initial information we provide to potential adopters and our attitude towards those potential adopters-the way they are sometimes treated with suspicion-if we approached this with a bit more enthusiasm and were much more welcoming to potential adopters, I think we could hugely increase the number of people coming forward. I know from my own postbag the number of people who have written to me to say they were so keen to adopt and either they were turned away for all sorts of reasons or they were simply treated so poorly in the assessment process that they gave up. I think the scope for more adoptive carers in England is vast.

John Hemming: Going back to about 2000, when there were proposals to bring in the adoption target, the British Association of Social Workers warned that that could result in children who would otherwise have returned to their parents being adopted. I have got the papers somewhere. I can probably find them again but I have not got them to hand. What I do have to hand is the 2011 first statistical release, which looks at adoption. The figures for 2007 to 2011 are as follows: 3,320, 3,163, 3,320, 3,200, 3,040, which is a slight reduction. But the figures for permanence are 5,110, 5,200, 5,490, 5,500 and then 5,960. Now, that is what the Government was asking social workers to do. For the Government to give social workers a kick for the numbers of adoptions going down when the numbers of SGOs and residence orders have gone up by far more than the number of adoptions went down shows the Government do not understand the statistics: the social workers are doing what they were supposed to do. I still remain concerned that children who should return to their parents are not returning to their parents, but if the Government asks social workers to do something and they do it, the Government should congratulate them for doing it, not criticise them, which is what has actually happened.

Q392 Chair: What about the 50% increase?

John Hemming: This is where I disagree strongly with Martin. We have a complete data set of all the children in care. He needs to identify in that data set where those children are. I look at the flow of infants, children four and under, because they are generally the children who are most likely to be adopted. These are done up to 2010. The Department have promised me the 2011 figures sometime this month. I am happy to share them with anyone at all. If you look at the flows in and out of care rather than the total number in care, you see actually a substantial proportion-2,000 of those leaving care of the 4,700-get adopted. There is not actually leeway in the system to have more children adopted. Yes, okay, if you get the older children adopted, but generally, it is not appropriate for the older children anyway.

Q393 Chair: So 50% is not possible.

John Hemming: There are already miscarriages of justice going on. An additional 50% is not possible, in my view, without causing even more miscarriages of justice than already go on.

Martin Narey: That is not a figure I want to stick to. It is an example of what I might mean by a radical increase. We are united in the belief that there should not be targets for this. Although I do not represent the Government-I advise them-I know of no intention on their part to introduce adoption targets; I do not think they will return. Before taking on the advisory role, I did a piece of work for Kent County Council. I can talk about this now because it has been put in the public domain. I spent four weeks looking very intensely at what they were doing. The reason I believe we could have more adoptions is exemplified by the statistics there. When I finished that piece of work, in July, more than 90 children were cleared by the courts for adoption and were waiting for adoptive parents. There were only 21 sets of adoptive parents available. Many of those children would grow out of adoption.

Barnardo’s have estimated, in evidence they gave to me when I was writing for The Times, that about one in four children whose plan for permanence is adoption grow too old to be adopted. We have a significant backlog. Some of them are older, very-hard-to-place children, but I know of lots of people who are very willing to adopt an older, more challenging, more disabled child and they are turned away, I might add-and I am afraid it is true-sometimes on spurious grounds around ethnicity. We do not have all of the information we would like. I would like to know, but we do not know, in England right now, how many children have been cleared for adoption who are not in placement. I think that number would be in the thousands. They are the children who we should be concentrating on getting adopted very quickly and that would provide a 50% increase.

John Hemming: That figure can be obtained from the SSDA903 return. I probably can find it myself, so I will have a look later on. That information is available because the SSDA903 return tracks the legal status change and the placement change separately.

Martin Narey: Honestly, I do not think it is available.

Q394 Pat Glass: Where do the delays come from in the system? I accept what you are saying about not having targets for adoption, but should we have some statutory guidelines around assessment timescales?

Martin Narey: If we move on from care and the delays that I believe take place before we intervene, we have an assessment system for adoptive carers that I do not think is fit for purpose. It is hugely well intentioned. There is not anything on the adoption paperwork that you will see that you might think is unnecessary but the system has become very repetitive; it takes a great deal of time. It is supposed to be done in eight months; it very frequently takes longer than that. Lots of parents turn away from it in absolute frustration. We need an assessment system that is modified. We need less prescription from the centre. If we want to encourage local authorities to achieve more adoptions when it is in the best interests of the child, we should not be quite so prescriptive about how they assess carers. We need to attitudinally change what we do with carers so that when they come forward they feel supported.

Q395 Pat Glass: There are some practical things, Martin. I remember being persuaded, I think in 1996, to take on special needs in an authority, with absolutely no background in special needs, which I think was actually a positive move. I walked into a room and opened filing cabinets and they were full of full assessments of kids’ special needs. At the time, the Government were moving towards having an assessment and a yes-or-no decision, which could be challenged, within 26 weeks. There were at least 50 to 100 who had not been assessed in six months. I would doubt whether there would be one in two years. That moved very quickly because there was suddenly a statutory timescale. In 26 weeks, there was a multidisciplinary assessment: "You will pull these things together and you will make a decision, yes or no, which can be challenged". Should we not have some rigour in the system?

Martin Narey: I have run three big organisations in my life and I have never attempted to run any of them without a lot of information about performance. Management of information-particularly, comparative information between local authorities-tells you how we are doing. I do think specific targets are difficult, but certainly I think there should be some guidelines. I believe, for example, that the current guidelines on carer assessment, which suggest that the assessment should be done in eight months, are frequently breached. I do not want to bring that eight months down very significantly-I would not bring it down to shorter than six months, because I think prospective adopters have a lot to reflect upon, but I would like to bring it down to six months. Local authorities have to demonstrate they are fulfilling it.

Q396 Pat Glass: Even if we stick to eight months, how many are properly assessed and how many prospective parents get an answer at eight months? I would guess very few.

Martin Narey: Very few. It goes on, and that is not counting those who just get so frustrated and do remarkable things. I have personally met, in the last few months, remarkable people who have adopted children from Russia, China, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico-all of them started out on the adoption journey wanting to adopt a child in England. They gave up or were given up or sometimes turned away and they have gone to the most extraordinary lengths to give a child a home. We have to make sure that those people are supported when they want to adopt a child from care.

Q397 Pat Glass: Courts exist to providing a living for judges and for lawyers and very little else, in my view. How much of the delay is in the court proceedings?

Martin Narey: There are significant delays in court, but I am enthusiastic about David Norgrove ’s family justice r eview, which really got a grip on delay. We will have to see how implementation goes on that. Delays on the courts are there. I do sometimes think that local authorities hide behind those delays and it is a bit of knee-jerk reaction to say it is all the courts. I do not think it is always the courts. Local authorities could move much more quickly. There is one other area that could make a radical difference. After quicker-but still rigorous-assessment of adopters, we need a matching process that works differently. The research on matching is very clear that if you give adoptive parents a greater initiative in matching, and if you recognise that there is a bit of chemistry in the relationship between parents and child, you will achieve adoptions faster and they will be successful. Generally what happens around England is we approve people as adopters and then they have to stay entirely dormant until eventually-and sometimes this will never happen with people approved-they are offered a child selected by a social worker.

Q398 Pat Glass: So your recommendation would be a much swifter process around assessing parents and put that time into matching the child with the parent?

Martin Narey: Then I would move quickly. One of the things that the British Association for Adoption and Fostering have done recently, which is very brave and which I am hugely enthusiastic about-I cannot remember the proper term-is having adoption parties, in which cleared adopters and prospective adopters and children needing adoption are brought together. I met lots of adopters who went into the process thinking they were going to adopt, say, a single child of three years of age, who have ended up almost accidentally adopting three siblings of eight, nine and ten and consider it is the most wonderful thing that has happened in their lives.

John Hemming: What really needs to be done is to look at the process-again, it is a longitudinal study of where everything happens. By the way, on the reviews, I think the family justice review is rubbish; I think the Munro review is very good. Munro has got it right. The use of a legalistic environment to resolve what are therapeutic issues is a mistake. There is a difficulty with the independence of the assessment process, but strengthening a case conference approach, with independence in that system, has a lot more potential. The difficulty is that you end up with half of the costs being legal and expert fees for handling what is effectively a therapeutic decisionmaking process. Over time it should be something subject to judicial review, but we are talking about very wide areas of discretion here; we are not talking about narrow points of law, so it is not the best suited to a legalistic, adversarial environment.

The difficulty comes if you just take the current system and speed it up, as they have done in Derbyshire-I am getting quite a few cases from Derbyshire where people are complaining about not having had fair assessments. So I do not think you can just take the current system and over-clock it, making it run twice as fast. There is a problem with the quality of assessments. There needs to be independence of assessments at the start rather than the local authority doing everything, because, again, if the local authority can produce nice tidy statistics it will win in court. The statistics from the Ministry of Justice, which I do not have to hand, show how rare it is that parents win in courts, compared to criminal proceedings. If somebody pleads not guilty in a criminal case, half the time they are found not guilty, but it is very rare for parents to win in contested care proceedings.

Q399 Pat Glass: It is a different balance.

John Hemming: No, the fact that it is "beyond reasonable doubt" and "the balance of probabilities" is not the reason for that. That is a different issue. Obviously the CPS are experienced and know what sort of evidence will get through on "beyond reasonable doubt", so I do not think that is the issue at all.

Q400 Chair: How rare is it?

John Hemming: I have got data for one year for contested ICOs, showing that parents only won 0.27% of the cases, but that is an understatement; it is slightly higher than that because the local authority can withdraw statements. I have not brought these figures. The Ministry of Justice have them all, so there is no great difficulty finding them. Under section 38 of the Children’s Act, you only need to have reasonable grounds for believing that a child is at risk. That opens up a Pandora’s box, and perhaps in situations where there should be a supervision order, immediately there is an ICO. I have the figures from a small, longitudinal study from 2004-580 children were taken into care within the first seven days in the year up to 31 March 2004. I do not know how you could do that any faster. The point is that, after the ICO is established, very often the final care order is given on completely different grounds. You need to watch how that process develops to study how to improve it. My conclusion is actually that we need to try as much as possible to get it out of the legalistic, secretive environment it is in and more into a sort of collaborative case conference approach. I accept that some of the decisions are very strong decisions, and they should be subject to judicial review, of course. I do not think it works well as it stands.

Q401 Tessa Munt: Some of the academics who have given evidence to us have said that for children to benefit it is critical that they are taken into care before they are one. I wondered whether that is the same for adoption and what your thoughts were about that.

Martin Narey: Adoption happens to a subset of children taken into care, although sometimes social workers will be of the view that adoption is the likely outcome. Care comes first and it is a separate consideration. It is important that children are taken into care at whatever age they need care, but I do agree that we could recognise problems and intervene earlier, particularly if we recognised the evidence-and I could offer some academic references to support this-that suggests that if parents do not respond to the support that they are offered within six months and start to improve their parenting, they are unlikely to do so at all. If we took account of that, I believe we would take, not necessarily more children into care, but children into care earlier. The outcomes for those children, whether or not it was adoption, would be much better.

John Hemming: This is where Michael Rutter’s research is very important. Michael Rutter studied the Romanian children and concluded that the golden period for reactive attachment disorder is between about six or seven months and 18 months. We come back to the point about placement stability. An 18-month-old child has no knowledge as to what their legal status is. It makes very little difference to them. What matters to them is who is looking after them and the stability of that placement. One of the difficulties with the statistics we look at is that they look at the legal status rather than the stability of placement. If we take the 580 children taken into care in the first week of their life in the year to 31 March 2004, 360 ended up adopted by 31 March 2007 and 90 returned to their parents. I have concerns about the validity of those decisions but it is actually the placement history that affects the long-term success of the child, because if the child was placed with somebody else and then stayed with them for the rest of their life then that child will almost certainly do well. It is the same for the child abandoned at the hospital.

The difficulty is how you make these assessments. How do you actually deal with all of these? How do you make sure that the assessments are valid and independent? Martin makes the point that we should take children into care earlier. How do you identify those? The Irish case demonstrates incontrovertibly that the decision-making here was wrong. It would have been bad for the child. It is all well and good to say children should be taken into care earlier, but how? We need to do proper longitudinal studies and identify: "At this point a decision was taken and at that point we could have done something differently". That evidence is not there.

Martin Narey: If I may move on from what is, I am afraid, anecdote to what the research is. People have studied this. Here is a recent summary of what we know about children taken into care. "A recent study of maltreated children who enter care, funded by the former DCSF, found that thresholds for entry to care were often high. 92% of the children in the study had experienced two or more forms of maltreatment, including neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. In a number of cases, the abuse or neglect of children had persisted for many years without decisive action by children’s services or the courts. In some cases, t here had been repeated referrals for serious neglect by schools, neighbours and others, but social workers had been reluctant to remove the children from home." That is what that research a nd lots of other research says about our hesitancy in intervening.

While John and I agree on attachment, it is important to stress that attachment is only a key issue when that attachment is healthy. There is no bond there which you are breaking for children who suffer from disorganised attachment or children who have lived at home but have been abused and neglected. Indeed, what we are doing is letting them be permanently damaged. Some of the problems with adoption-although I sought earlier to qualify exaggerated claims about adoption breakdown-grow out of the fact that children have had disorganised attachments and find it subsequently very hard to build trusting relationships.

Q402 Tessa Munt: The figure says the number of children adopted under the age of one fell from 150 in 2007 to 60 this year. The average age of adoption is now three years and ten months and if you look at the average length of time it takes, the average process length for a child of under one year is two years and three months, which means they are spending two thirds of their lives before they become adopted, in the process.

Martin Narey: That is right.

Q403 Tessa Munt: What are the consequences for those children who spend all that time in a process? If I relate that back to what you said before, one must assume that that is damaging, as opposed to neutral.

Martin Narey: It is damaging. All the research we know about adoption suggests there is an inverse correlation between the age at which adoption takes place and the likely success. We increase the chance of breakdown the more we delay adoption. Sometimes, ironically-because fostering can be very good for children-if we put a child in a fostering placement and then lose our sense of urgency about the case and the child stays there for two years until the child is perhaps three and a half and then goes to adoptive parents, adoptive parents have told me repeatedly about the terrible heartache they have because they know they are wrenching a child away from exactly the sort of attachment that John has described. We need to be very, very quick. Sometimes, of course, that means we should do rather more to make adoption perhaps possible by those foster carers, because moving a child on is very damaging. I am not suggesting the US system is perfect, and indeed, I have not visited to have a look at it. I hope to do so next year. Everything I have read about the US system suggests there is a real sense of urgency about stopping drift. From the moment a child is in care, if they are likely to be adopted, the system works really, really hard to make that adoption happen earlier. Here we tend to switch off. When the child is into care, everybody relaxes.

Q404 Tessa Munt: What is the likelihood of a child being adopted by foster parents? Does the system work in that way?

Martin Narey: I think the system could be more imaginative. It sometimes happens but I think there is a lack of imagination. I was at Harrow recently and I was so impressed with what they had done. Foster carers were caring for three siblings. The siblings were going to be separated to ensure that the younger child was adopted. The foster carer said, "It is a shame to separate them, they are doing well, but we cannot afford adoption and our house is not big enough". Harrow provides them with some financial support, they put an extension on the house and we had three children continuing from fostering into adoption with the same parents who loved them. It is a fantastic outcome. It just needs a bit of imagination sometimes.

John Hemming: It is the stability of placement that is the thing, not the legal status.

Q405 Tessa Munt: I understand that.

John Hemming: The low figure of the children adopted under one is probably those who are abandoned in a hospital because there is not an issue. There is no uncertainty. There are no parents to assess. There is nobody around. There is also the financial issue. If the former foster carers get a special guardianship order they are likely to get some funding go to with it, which makes things easier from their point of view.

Q406 Tessa Munt: What should the Government do to improve the process?

John Hemming: The process has to be properly studied. As I said earlier, the judicial process is too remote from reality. Rather than people going around and looking at the situation, you have a judge sitting in a room, reading piles and piles of paper. If you have ever seen any care proceedings, there are piles of paper that thick and it really gets very remote from reality.

Martin Narey: I think with babies, particularly, which was your original question, we need to do more to anticipate the probable adoption. The reality today is, if there is a young mum with a baby born today who decides to give that child up for adoption, that child will probably go into foster care and it will be more than one before finally being adopted. Concurrent planning, which is well done in Harrow and I hope will grow, anticipates adoption. It does not change the legal status, but it anticipates adoption. A baby is placed at a very early age with a couple who foster the child, but with the intention of adopting the child if adoption becomes the outcome for the child.

Q407 Chair: John, I assume you would support a speedier move to adoption. You have issues with the process before authorisation that the child is suitable for adoption, but after the child has been found suitable for adoption surely the system should move with the maximum urgency to find a suitable match.

John Hemming: There are some mothers, like Peter Connolly’s mother, who I do not think should ever be allowed to look after children. It would be better to have a judicial process, which said, having had what has happened there, "You do not look after children". That is a simpler process. What we do at the moment is a very torturous process. I worry because I see the unreliability of the system as it currently stands. Whatever it is, stability of placement is key. That is the most important thing. What you call it is not so important.

Q408 Pat Glass: Martin, is there a degree of gridlock in the system? Going back to what you were saying about the delay: once a child is in foster care, everyone relaxes. I have friends who are incredibly skilled and well trained with backgrounds in health and education. They are trained to take children in emergency situations: someone turns up at their door at 10 o’clock at night with a child. That happens, but they have kept those children and they have not moved on. Therefore highly skilled people who are there to take children in emergency situations end up having foster placements that last for years, and therefore that part of the system is closed down. Is there that gridlock in the system that a child goes into foster care and therefore the fire fighting is over, and it just kind of gets forgotten and put on the back burner?

Martin Narey: The system relaxes and people relax. When it is perceived that you have taken the child out of danger and the child is in care, then the system does relax and we do not see it as a priority. We should treat adoption the same way we should treat a child with an illness in hospital; we should want to move as quickly as possible to sort those issues out and get the child adopted as quickly as possible. There is an important distinction to make between fostering and adoption, because I agree that there are other forms of permanence, and adoption and fostering can sometimes be-

Q409 Pat Glass: Is that because individuals are lackadaisical or is it because the system is gridlocked?

Martin Narey: It is gridlocked. It is because the system is very slow. I would not just blame the courts. I think it is a bit of a cop out to blame the courts. I would like to see more adoptions, but you have to have a legal process. The most important decision the court makes, apart from the death penalty, is to take a child away from its parents. There has to be some legal scrutiny of the local authority’s actions in that respect, but yes, I would like it to be quicker. I am a fan of the family justice review and I think it will make a difference, but yes, the system is very slow. Some people suggest to me you need to change the whole system, have a national adoption agency and start again. I do not think organisational change is called for here. I differ from John. You could make the system move much more quickly by doing a number of things and there is no reason at all why we could not do that and unlock the gridlock that frequently occurs.

Q410 Pat Glass: What John is suggesting about a case conference type approach, with the courts clearly being there at the end of the process but not being there throughout the process: would that not make it quicker and safer?

Martin Narey: My problem with that is, while the interests of the child are paramount, you have to give birth parents the opportunity to demonstrate that the interests of the child lie in staying with them. I cannot see anyway through the need to have a legal process that oversees adoption, because it is irrevocable, it is forever, and the courts have to be able to look at that. However, it need not take the delay it takes at the moment. The family justice review’s recognition that delay in the courts was "scandalous" encouraged me a great deal to believe they are taking it seriously.

John Hemming: I have a case conference for my constituents today where they have deliberately moved the time of the case conference to stop those people supportive of the parents from being able to turn up. If you are going to have a case conference system, which I think would be a lot better, it has to be run independently of the Children’s Services Authority, so that there is independence and scrutiny at that stage. The real difficulty is the whole panoply of everything adds delay. The system needs substantial change and I disagree with Martin that the solution is 50% more adoptions. Saying that we need to increase the number but not how much is even worse than saying the target we need to increase it to is X. The Government needs to learn what their own statistics mean and make far better use of the SSDA903 return. We need much more scrutiny of the family courts and far more transparency and scrutiny of what the assessments are. Assessments on the basis of, "You cannot look after this child because you put it on a mat with another baby" are rubbish.

Martin Narey: To go back to the core of your investigation, which is the issue of safeguarding and the disagreement between John and myself over the appropriateness of taking children into care, if there is one academic who I would urge you to speak to, or at least read their research, it is Elaine Farmer. It is a most compelling piece of work, which looked at what happens to children taken into care and returned to their parents. She found that 59% of them are neglected or abused again within two years. That is not a system that is being reckless about taking children into care. It is a system that is too optimistic about the capacity of parents to improve.

Chair: Thank you both very much for giving evidence this morning.

Prepared 4th January 2012