Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

In section 171ZL(2)(a) of SSCBA 1992 (entitlement) at end insert "including an adoptive parent who was initially a foster parent under a concurrent planning scheme"."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, I speak to the consequential amendments in the group.

As I explained in Committee, the amendment inserts additional wording into the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 to enable foster parents who have become adoptive parents on a concurrent scheme to be entitled to adoption pay. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 ensure that similar provisions are added to Clauses 4 and 7 enabling them to qualify for additional paternity leave for adoption and additional statutory paternity pay for adoption.
25 Apr 2006 : Column 96

Since Committee, I have tried to take into account the Minister's comments and have included Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 to Schedule 1 to try to ensure that these provisions would also be included in an entitlement to adoption leave and ordinary statutory paternity pay for adoption in the Employment Relations Act 2006.

For noble Lords who may be unaware of the concurrent planning schemes, they are bold initiatives aimed at the least possible disruption and upheaval to the baby, and yet the risks potential adopters face are enormous. Potential adopters are approved both as foster carers and adopters for the same child. The baby, or child, is placed with them on an interim foster basis while the birth family is assessed. If it is established that the baby or child cannot return to his birth parents, the placement is converted to an adoption application. However, as the law currently stands, the adoptive parents are not eligible for adoption leave or pay, nor are their rights to return to work protected. We on these Benches are the first to recognise the requirement to balance out the needs of the family and employers in this delicate situation. In Committee, I welcomed the Government's recognition of the important role that concurrent planning schemes can play.

The Minister stated that the Government wish to consider in more detail how statutory pay and leave entitlements apply and what further legislation and guidance might be required. He also said that officials and lawyers from the DWP and the DfES are working jointly on the matter. Can the Minister inform the House what progress has been made on this issue since Committee? What discussions have the officials had with organisations such as BAAF as well as those running the schemes?

I would also like to take the opportunity to share the feedback I have had since the Committee debate on the industry. I am predominantly repeating its words. It says that it picked up on the correct reminder of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that concurrency carers will already have had a period at home where they have received fostering allowances when applying to adopt their child. However, the experts highlight that the fostering payments may have been less than individuals might have received if they had been entitled to statutory adoption pay. In addition, while individuals were fostering, they would have been acting as carers not as parents—for example, bringing the baby to the office for contact with its birth family for up to five times a week and attending statutory reviews.

Once the child's placement is converted to an adoption placement, the prospective adopters will need a period to relax and develop their role as parents without the pressure of the constant fear and uncertainty that the child may be returning to its family. Coram, the charity leader in this field, suggests that these parents should receive statutory adoption pay for a period in recognition of the fact that at this stage they need mentally to shift gear to allow them to deepen their emotional bond with their child. The other issue it wants to highlight is that concurrency
25 Apr 2006 : Column 97
carers do not have their right to return to work protected, as is the case for adopters. That is because the placement of their child is initially made on a fostering basis.

However, the reality is that concurrency carers are not making a long-term commitment to be foster carers. They are committed to fostering only until the courts decide on the long-term future of a particular child placed with them. At the end of that period either the child will return to its birth family or it will be adopted by the concurrency carers. In the first scenario, the currency carer will lose the child and the fostering allowances. If they do not have a right to return to work, they will be left not only without a child but also potentially very disadvantaged in terms of their employment and career.

In the second scenario, the adopters will wish to make decisions about the right time to return to work, just as any other parent would do. In either case, I believe that the Government need to look again at the balance between the needs of employers and the concurrency carers, who arguably should have the right to return to work. One way to do that may be to establish concurrency as a sub-category of foster carers, in order to enable them to be treated differently from other foster carers in this regard. Concurrent planning schemes are still in an embryonic stage, but they produce a number of advantages, with 90 per cent of these schemes having already been successful and leading to adoptions, giving vulnerable infants the nurture and security they desperately need.

I very much hope that the Minister can comment on the industry's point in his reply and give his commitment that this issue will be looked into fully and properly. I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am right behind the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, on this group of amendments. Although concurrency planning is still at an early stage, the evidence is outstanding that it is in the best interests of the child and is highly successful. We need to give it a boost at this early stage. Although we have the interests of employers in mind, the numbers that we are talking about are relatively small and the parents should be considered, as closely as we can, in the same way as birth parents and adoptive parents in order to encourage more people to move along this particular route from fostering into adoption. The idea that such people, who take on this onerous role out of kindness and concern for children, should put their future employment status at risk is quite horrifying. For that reason, I am very firmly behind the amendments, and I hope that the Minister has had an opportunity since Grand Committee to consider this whole issue further and will be able to reassure us that such people will not suffer that sort of disadvantage. Perhaps he may even be encouraged to table amendments himself of the sort that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, has tabled.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I shall speak very briefly in support of both noble Baronesses on the
25 Apr 2006 : Column 98
amendment. Four years ago, a colleague of mine and his admirable wife adopted three severely damaged little girls. Over the four years in which they have looked after them, I have watched the incredible improvement in those children, which depends on the dedication of those two parents. I really do think that we as a society should show appreciation to the people who take on that kind of work.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I, too, shall speak very briefly in support of the amendment. It makes absolute sense. Indeed, the people who take on this responsibility are doing so for the good of the community, which will end up with more responsible and better adjusted adults—and, my goodness, we need them. I very much hope that the Minister will think again.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I share the convictions of all four of those who have spoken so far.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, for bringing this issue back on Report, and other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. The noble Baroness hoped that we had made progress since Committee, and I hope that what I have to say will indicate that I believe that we have. Since Committee, officials from the DTI, alongside officials from the DfES, have been considering the regulations, and officials will consult stakeholders, including agencies and employers, as the next step.

When we discussed the matter in Grand Committee, I said that we would carefully consider the way in which concurrent placements were operating to see how the existing legislation on statutory adoption pay and leave might affect them. As we agreed in Grand Committee, there is no question that the role played by adopters in society is tremendously important. That is why this Government introduced, for the first time, the entitlement to statutory adoption pay and adoption leave in 2003. We are proud of having done so. Thousands of children and families have benefited as a result. The Government strongly support concurrent planning. Although only four adoption agencies currently operate the concurrent planning model, and although the numbers of adoptions by concurrent carers is relatively small—figures suggest that children adopted in this way have represented about 0.3 per cent of all looked-after children adopted in England—the benefits to children are in no doubt. Concurrent planning reduces the number of placements for children, identifies potential permanent families early on, reduces placement disruption and cuts the time needed to reach adoption where this becomes the plan.

The statutory adoption pay and leave regulations were drafted in line with the policy rationale for the new entitlements—that is, to support adopters in taking time off work when a child is first placed with them. This helps the adopter and the child to adjust to their new relationships. The Government's view is that this helps to reduce the number of disruptive
25 Apr 2006 : Column 99
placements and improves the life chances of looked-after children. We deliberately excluded adoptions—for example, adoptions by step-parents—that take place outside the formal process. In Grand Committee, I informed the noble Baroness that officials were examining the detail of concurrent placements and how that sat alongside more conventional adoption arrangements for statutory pay and leave. These detailed considerations continue. However, I am pleased to be able to tell the noble Baroness that officials have now concluded that we see no reason why such adoption arrangements are not compatible with the existing legislation setting out eligibility on adoption leave and pay. In concurrent planning arrangements, there is, as in more conventional adoptions, a readily identifiable date by which the adopter is matched with the child for adoption and by which the child is placed for adoption as required by the statutory adoption pay and leave regulations. That also fits the policy rationale for leave and pay.

4.45 pm

During the rehabilitation plan, the child will typically spend time with both the birth parents and the foster carers. In the event that the adoption plan is implemented, we recognise that the nature of the relationship between child and adopter changes and it becomes more permanent, which is precisely the point made by the noble Baroness. We are still looking in some detail at the administrative arrangements and will need to consult employers and other groups on any changes that they might consider necessary, including what further guidance might be appropriate. The low numbers involved mean that it is likely that general awareness is not high. It is important that employers are given clarity over who is and is not included in the definition. Once that work is concluded, I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness with a further update and to let her know what changes we consider necessary to the official guidance.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness would obviously amend primary legislation. We do not consider such amendments are necessary in this case to achieve the desired effect. I should also point out that there is still a small drafting error in the amendments. While they would make changes in respect of statutory adoption leave and pay, and for ordinary paternity leave and additional paternity leave and pay, they would not, however, make the relevant change to the ordinary paternity leave adoption legislation that would be necessary in order for the employee to take the pay.

Given that we appear to be in agreement over the effect that we wish to achieve and given the need for us to conclude our analysis of existing administrative and guidance arrangements, I would ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendments. We have concluded that we do not need to change existing primary legislation for that to happen. As I have
25 Apr 2006 : Column 100
explained, a fuller analysis enables concurrent planning to be adopted in current legislation. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Baroness.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page