5.45 pm

On resuming

Tim Loughton: As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted by the main Chamber, the Government have taken adoption seriously for a long time. It is helpful that we have the commitment of the Prime Minister, of my Secretary of State, who has great personal experience of adoption, and of Martin Narey, the Government’s adoption adviser, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson). All three have given the campaign great impetus.

I assure the House that everything we are doing is not just about improving processes, effectiveness and efficiency, but about getting better placements and better outcomes for children in care generally, and for those for whom adoption is appropriate, who will always be the minority. As the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said—it is good to see him here today, off his crutches—the Government have been doing a wide range of things across the piece for children in care, including a better deal for foster carers and for children in foster care, special guardianship orders, and this week’s announcements about children in residential homes. For us, there is no hierarchy of forms of care.

I want to pick up some of the points made. I have a deal of sympathy with the measures that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) tried to introduce via her ten-minute rule Bill. She mentioned our meetings with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; she is absolutely right to say that there is financial, social and moral benefit to be gained from getting children out of care, and that we spend a lot on the whole area.

Adoptive parents face challenges, and we must ensure that they have help with them. The worst possible denouement for a child can be when an adoption breaks down, and various Members have stressed the importance of adoption support services, an importance that I absolutely see. We are doing a lot of work in that area, and there will be further announcements throughout the year. We do not want false economy. It is common sense that if one does not put in the work pre, during and post-adoption, a placement is less likely to stick, particularly if the child involved brings with them lots of baggage, emotional trauma or abuse. We need to devote appropriate love, attention and professional care to ensuring that such children can recreate the kinds of empathetic relationships—attachment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) also mentioned—that are so lacking in their lives and that place them at such a disadvantage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North made a number of good points. Hampshire has an excellent track record, and I was with the director of children’s services, John Coughlin, only this morning. He has done much to support the heavy lifting that the Government have been doing, and we need to do more, to understand how we can recreate attachment and deal with the behavioural problems of many children who are appropriate for adoption. We must ensure that professionals recognise those special needs, and we are working with the College of Social Work and the Social Work Reform Board so that there

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is a better understanding of the problems faced by children in the care system, particularly those related to attachment.

Awareness of attachment is growing, but we need to do an awful lot more. The figures that my hon. Friend cited of the number of parents in her area who now seek adoption support shows what a false economy it would be not to recognise that such support is needed and do something about it.

Bill Esterson: The Minister makes an important point about the better understanding of attachment. The issue is incredibly important, and needs to be addressed. It is also important to have professionals with long-term experience, and to find ways of ensuring that we not only attract but retain high-quality staff in the profession, including foster carers, so that their expertise can be built up over many years. There is no substitute for long-term experience.

Tim Loughton: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is not just about training the professionals and raising awareness among them; it is about raising awareness among parents, as well as children, as to what attachment is all about. We can do that through training, but we can also do it by spending £4.99 on a very good little book that has been authored and published by the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. The book is about attachment and it is written in layman’s terms. It is a really good aid to try to get people involved in the process to understand the heavy, technical areas involved. I recommend the book to the hon. Member for Sefton Central and might even give him a free copy, because I have been provided with a number of samples.

I do not really need to speak, because the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who has great expertise in the area—more than anybody else in Parliament, I think—summed it up very well. It is always a privilege to hear his take on the subject. He has been hugely helpful with his work on the all-party group on adoption. It is always a challenge for someone to go into a crowded room full of experienced young people who want to challenge them and keep them on their mettle. My hon. Friend, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee), has also had input in the ministerial advisory group, and we have recently been joined by Baroness King, a former Member of this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, adoption is an enriching and rewarding experience, not only for the adoptee, but for the family who take in a new family member.

The role of voluntary adoption agencies is crucial. We have a lot to learn from their great expertise and success rate in finding adopters and making sure that adoptions are appropriate, work and last, which is why we are doing a lot of work with them. We must remember that we are trying to deliver child-focused services and to achieve child-focused outcomes, not just trying to make the system work better.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that councils have a responsibility all year around, not just for Christmas

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or for adoption week. I am sure that many of the directors of children’s services I have been with over the past 24 hours at their conference in Manchester would agree with that. They would probably also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash that it is important to raise the profile of adoption. This debate is part of that process, as are various other campaigns.

As Minister with responsibility for children, I have a responsibility to make sure that we do a lot better for thousands of children who enter care through no fault of their own. My first priority is to make sure that we support vulnerable families to stay together, but if the safety or well-being of a child is threatened, the next step must be to urgently bring them into care. Most children in care will, rightly, return to their families when it is safe for them to do so. Others will need a period in foster care or in a children’s home, but for some there will not be a realistic prospect of growing up with their birth parents or other family members. In such circumstances, adoption can be a lifeline and offer a vulnerable child the hope of a better future and a second chance in a loving, stable family, which is something that every child deserves.

The Government are determined to see more children considered for adoption, but, as I have said, they will always be a small minority. Even if we doubled the number of children who are adopted—I am not in any way setting a target—they would still amount to fewer than 10% of the children who are in care in this country at present. The children we want considered for adoption include those who, in many cases, have been overlooked in the past, particularly older children, kids with disabilities and children in sibling groups, who are a particular challenge; we have to do much better to try to keep sibling groups together, if possible, and find placements for them. We need a special kind of foster or adoptive carer to come forward and take on those responsibilities. When adoption is right for a child, we want and need it to take place without delay, because we know only too well the detrimental impact that delay can have on a child’s development. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, the first 1,000 days are key. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall mentioned the crucial early years. The sooner a child has an appropriate adoption placement, the more likely it is to work and the more likely it is that attachment will click.

Over the past couple of years, a great many things have been going on, a few of which I have mentioned. Revised statutory adoption guidance for adoption agencies has been issued, and we have established an adopters’ charter, which sets out clear principles on how prospective adopters should be treated. I developed the charter with a group of young people who have been adopted and who come to see me regularly. I meet similar groups of children who are in foster care or residential care, and young people who have recently left care. I get some of my best information from those kids. They tell it like it is. It is always a joy, and a challenge, to have them in my office and get their input. Our whole work in this area has been hugely informed by the experience of the child, and it is absolutely right that it should be.

We have worked with Ofsted on strengthening the inspection regime. I had breakfast with its deputy director this morning and we talked about the new regime being introduced by Ofsted to make sure that we inspect the

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right things in adoption, so that it is all about the outcomes for children and not about processes. We have announced changes to the schools admissions code, which will mean that children who were previously looked after but who left care through adoption, or a special guardianship order or residence order, will retain the same priority for school places that they had as looked-after children. That is essential in trying to narrow the scandalous gap in achievement between children in the care system and their peer group.

We have published children in care and adoption tables, which show wide variation between local authorities in the number of adoptions and the timeliness of placements. The tables have led more recently to adoption scorecards, which I will come to in a moment.

Everything that we are trying to achieve is not pie in the sky, because it is happening in certain parts of the country. I need everybody who has a responsibility in children’s services to up their game and try to emulate the performance of the best for their children in care.

We have commissioned research into the number of adoptions that break down and the reasons behind that, because the last thing an adopted child needs, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall mentioned, is to be returned to care. We have published an adoption action plan in which we set out our proposals for tackling delay in the adoption system, including a new, shorter, two-stage approval process for prospective adopters and a new national gateway for adoption, on which we will provide further details at a later stage.

We desperately need more people to adopt. At the moment, too many people who pluck up the courage—it is a huge ask—to knock on the town hall door or pick up the phone and say, “I’m interested in becoming an adoptive parent,” are told, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” We should be grabbing those people by the throat and saying, “Fantastic—we’ve been waiting for you! Let’s talk you through the process and see whether it’s for you or not,” and, if it is appropriate, then for goodness’ sake let us get them into the assessment process and not put obstacles in their way. Let us do the checks as speedily and as thoroughly as possible, and then let us have them as prospective adopters and see if we can find a suitable child to match with them. That message goes out loud and clear from everything that the Government are doing; we need more people to come forward. It is a big ask but as everybody present with experience of adoption has shown, it is a hugely satisfying achievement, not only for those who adopt,

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but for the child who is being offered a home and who, in so many cases, has been through an awful lot.

We are making good progress in delivering the action plan commitments. Alas, I have only two minutes left, so I will not be able to give them in full, but we are developing the scope and remit of the gateway, which we hope to launch later this year. We will consult in September on changes to the new adopter approval process and a new fast-track approval process for previous adopters and foster carers; on changes to speed up and encourage adopters to lead the process of finding a suitable match with a child; and on changes to make it easier for prospective adopters to be temporarily approved as foster carers. I expect all those changes to come into force in June 2013, and there will be further announcements—I cannot go into them in detail until tomorrow—to speed up that process.

Other commitments include legislation to reduce delay caused by local authorities seeking adoptive parents who are a perfect or near ethnic match for a child, which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) mentioned earlier, and acting on the family justice review recommendation to remove the adoption panel function with regard to a child’s adoption decision. That is also a duty for the judiciary, which is why David Norgrove’s review reforms are so crucial to ensuring that everybody is doing their bit to make adoptions happen more speedily, efficiently and effectively in the best interests of children.

The action plan announced new scorecards, the first of which were published in May, on adoption timeliness for local authorities. They are crucial in providing transparency on how local authorities are doing and in ensuring that we have a contextualised record. I recognise, as various hon. Members have mentioned, that there are more challenging children to be adopted. We want to make sure that they are not excluded from the process simply because it might take longer. That is why the adoption scorecards are contextualised and sophisticated, and not just raw targets and tables, which has been a problem in the past.

Following publication of the scorecards, officials met the councils identified as being of the highest concern. A real willingness has been shown by all areas to get the process working better.

6 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).