Secondly, we believe absolutely in the importance of early intervention. This means early intervention in supporting birth mothers and early intervention if a decision is needed to remove a child into care. This is why we have been so frustrated that the Government have allowed the Sure Start schemes to wither on the vine through lack of funding. This was and is a cost-effective way of providing community support and education to new mothers, particularly in deprived areas. It encourages new mothers to step out of the isolation of a potentially dysfunctional home environment and learn how to nurture their child successfully. It is

16 May 2013 : Column 617

crucial for identifying family problems from birth. I echo the points made by my noble friend Lady Armstrong concerning the role that health visitors and midwives can play. No other schemes that the Government are proposing come anywhere near the scale and comprehensiveness of the services that are being disbanded.

Early intervention also requires social workers with the training, judgment and experience to act decisively when a family is unable to meet the expectations of basic care and nurture. This is inevitably a tough call and should not be made alone. Equally, we should not allow bureaucratic form-filling to get in the way of social workers acting in the child’s best interests, and should not allow parents to play the system and drag out any chance of their child being removed and having a better life. These issues go to the heart of how we value, judge and reward good performance among social workers. I agree very much with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, with her considerable experience.

Thirdly, there has been considerable debate about the status of ethnicity in matching children to potential adopters. We believe that the wording on this in the previous legislation was clear. It made it clear that the interests of the child were paramount, and that in this context due consideration should be given to their religion, race, culture and linguistic background. Since then, there have been a number of allegations that the requirement is being overprescribed, leaving children trapped in care and awaiting a perfect racial match. The extent to which this has happened is difficult to quantify, but if the fundamental principles of placements need to be restated, let us use this opportunity to do so.

We are concerned that the Government have moved too far in the opposite direction by attempting to remove altogether the reference to ethnicity. Again, I echo the point that it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify the Government’s position, because it appears that by denying that we risk causing real hardship and unhappiness to children by placing them in families that do not understand their heritage. That is why we will push in the Bill for ethnicity to be listed as a welfare factor in the checklist to be taken into account in the matching process. This point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

Fourthly, we absolutely understand the argument that there are too many adoption providers in England, which reduces the scope for making successful matches for adoption. Clearly, it is not acceptable that agencies guard information about suitable adopters or children awaiting adoption and are not prepared to share it for the common good. We are pleased to see that consortia and joint local authority working, combined with improvements to the national register, are beginning to address these problems. Further funding and inspection mechanisms could be used to make this the norm.

However, we share the concern of the committee that it is premature for the Secretary of State to take on extra centralising powers, in addition to the swathe of powers that he has already taken across the education sphere, to force outsourcing of adoption services. If anything, this might result in a greater fragmentation of the service at a time when streamlining is required. In addition, we want to be assured that proper measures

16 May 2013 : Column 618

are in place to scrutinise the decision-making process of the Secretary of State and hold him to account when the outsourcing of services is imposed. This is something that has been missing in other aspects of education provision, and we will return to the issue during the course of the Bill.

Finally, the key to judging how successful any measures are is to look at the outcomes. We know from statistics that looked-after children have worse health, education and employment outcomes than their peers, and this should continue to be a real worry for us. We have also heard that the older the child being adopted, the more likely it is that the adoption breaks down. However, as the report suggests, we need more hard facts on this. We believe that it is our responsibility to compensate looked-after children for the effects of early trauma, including removal from their birth mother, by providing extra investment in their care and support so that they can catch up and have parity with their peers. One way of doing this is to provide all looked-after children with a virtual school head, who will take responsibility for their educational attainment. We are also keen to explore other means by which outcomes can be measured and improved. Again, we will raise these issues during the course of the Bill.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues today as a rehearsal for the issues arising in consideration of the Bill. Again, I thank the committee for providing such a comprehensive prism through which to judge the Government’s proposals, and look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash): My Lords, I would first like to congratulate the noble and learned Baroness on securing this debate. I would also like to thank her and other noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to hear the many thoughtful contributions to it. Finally, I would like to thank the noble Baronesses and noble Lords who served on the Adoption Legislation Committee for the authoritative and considered report that we are debating today.

Every child has the right to belong to a family. When they cannot live with their birth parents, we must ensure they are provided with a safe and loving alternative family that can meet their needs. There is overwhelming evidence of harm being done to vulnerable children and inexcusable levels of drift and delay in care and adoption services. That is why, alongside our work to improve outcomes for children in care, the reform of the adoption system is a major priority. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his words about that matter. This reform really matters, for deep, personal reasons, to our education Ministers—to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education, who was himself adopted, and to my honourable friend Edward Timpson, whose parents fostered 87 children and who has two younger adopted siblings. I assure noble Lords that that experience drives Ministers to care equally about all children in care.

I appreciate that the committee is as disturbed as the Government are by the unacceptable delay in matching an adoption for those children for whom

16 May 2013 : Column 619

adoption is the right decision, as well as about the delays in processes and the shortage of adopters. We are already addressing many of those issues, but the report is extremely valuable and a considerable contribution to the debate on adoption reform, and we will continue to reflect on its recommendations in our work going forward. We will submit a full response to the report before the Children and Families Bill is considered in detail by a Committee of this House.

I should now like to respond to some of the points made by noble Lords. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, thinks that the Bill is in relatively good shape and I look forward to its speedy transition through your Lordships’ House. I believe that our hearts are all in the same place on this matter although we may differ on some of the methodology used to achieve these goals.

We believe that the Children and Families Bill carefully strikes the necessary balance between putting in place a maximum 26-week time limit to tackle delay in all cases while also allowing sufficient judicial discretion to extend time where necessary to resolve the case justly, having explicit regard to the child’s welfare. The Bill also ensures that when making any timetabling decision, including whether to grant an extension, the court must have specific regard to the impact on the welfare of the child. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, a family group conference helps to ensure that all relevant measures are considered.

I am pleased to address the points concerning reform of adopter recruitment. We have identified several problems with adopter recruitment such as the small scale of many adoption agencies and the fact that local authorities look first to their own adopters and then to adopters recruited by organisations with which they have an arrangement. Only if these are unsuccessful, and after an unnecessary delay, might they consider adopters recruited by voluntary adoption agencies. Not only does this create delay for children, but it also artificially narrows the choice of adopters that social workers have when looking for the best match for a child. This is simply wrong. Decisions should legally and morally be on the basis of what is best for the child, not on the basis of organisational convenience. It is for this reason that, while we welcome all improvements in recruitment of adopters, we want to be certain that bureaucratic arrangements do not lock out choice for children. Because of the nature of this problem, while we would like to see the reforms we need being put in place by the sector itself, and we would like, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, to see local authorities working together. We have had to accept, based on historic experience, that it may be necessary for the Government to direct local authorities to achieve changes, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said. We would, though, use this power only if the Secretary of State felt it was absolutely necessary to direct that services be pushed outwards, not to achieve efficiencies or because of ideology but to improve the lives of children now and in the future. This is about opening up services, not centralising power.

Many noble Lords spoke about post-adoption support. I appreciate that the committee considers that the package of reform does not go far enough without a

16 May 2013 : Column 620

duty to provide support. We are listening carefully to all the arguments on this issue. We published on 3 May an “adoption passport” setting out all the rights of adoptive families. This will improve awareness among adopters and local authorities, particularly of the right to an assessment, remove any stigma from seeking help and improve access to support when parents move to another local authority area and over the lifetime of the child.

The noble Baroness, Lady King, referred to freelance workers. I am pleased to say that, through the Children and Families Bill, we are bringing greater equality for adopters in terms of rights to pay and leave. I will write to the noble Baroness on self-employed adopters.

Racial matching was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee, Lady Walmsley and Lady Jones. Our view is that an overemphasis on this area has contributed to the delays, such that black children take on average a year longer to be adopted, and that that conceals a number who wait so long that they never get adopted. We believe that a nudge on this is not the way to change behaviour but that we should remove the wording altogether, as is proposed, so that we can change practice, which is what we are after. Of course, we will be looking for social workers to come to a balanced decision, weighing up all the relevant factors, one of which will, of course, be ethnicity. However, as I say, we are convinced that to change practice we should remove the wording as the fact is that for certain children there are just not enough adopters of the appropriate race. If, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, says, the use of the provision is not widespread, why does it take a year longer for a black baby to be adopted? As I understand it, we will not be putting the wording into the checklist. We do not believe that it is realistic that social workers will swing back to no emphasis on ethnicity. It is just not in their nature, particularly if they are better trained, as we intend them to be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, made points about changing the behaviour of parents in early intervention. The points were well made and we have a substantial programme under way across departments on the most challenged families with multiple problems, but I agree that there is more to do. We remain committed to early intervention, continue to be interested in local initiatives, and are pleased that the ADCS acknowledges that local areas are already working hard to address this issue. Ofsted inspections are looking at the effectiveness of early intervention and will share good practice when it is found.

There is no firm data yet on the number of adoption breakdowns, although some research has looked at subsets of adopted children. The Department for Education has commissioned research into the number and causes of adoption breakdowns, and it is expected to be completed early next year. We began collecting data on the number of adoption breakdowns from April 2013, and the data should be available from October next year.

On the points made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about children not being consulted, they are supposed to be, and we will look at

16 May 2013 : Column 621

sharpening up our guidance on this and what we can do to encourage child advocacy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, raised the question of the status of social workers. We are determined to do something about this. We continue to work to raise their quality and improve their recruitment and retention. We have asked Sir Martin Narey to undertake a review of initial social work training, and his findings will inform further work.

On the point about overseas children referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, we mentioned the matter in our response to the Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny. I have the wording here, which I will send to her and we can discuss it.

We are carrying out work on social impact bonds. I am very encouraged by the progress being made by the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies in the development of a social impact bond approach to finding and supporting families for children with complex needs. This kind of innovative approach has the potential to shift thinking about adoption support, whereby it can be seen as an investment rather than a cost. This could be of great benefit to the increasing number of children with complex needs who are waiting for families. Although not directly involved in the bond, my department is keeping in close contact with the CVAA as plans develop.

I understand why the descendants of adopted people may want to find out more about their relative’s history. We need to balance this, however, against the rights and wishes of adopted adults and, where the adopted adult has died, their birth family. It is open to anyone to apply to the Registrar-General for a copy of any person’s birth certificate, and this includes the birth certificate of an adopted person. However, there are cases in which the applicant does not have sufficient information to apply for a birth certificate. The issue was referred to the Law Commission in 2010, and although at present we have no plans to change the law, we intend to keep it under review.

On our adoption reforms, in March 2012 the Government published An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay, setting out the steps to be taken to streamline the adoption system so that more permanent loving families for more children can be found quickly and effectively. Through the action plan and subsequent policy announcements, we outlined our proposals for tackling delay and improving the involvement of adopters in different parts of the system. Collectively, our reforms are intended to reduce the delays faced by children awaiting adoption and create a system better able to focus on the needs of those children with more active involvement and support from adopters.

The new adoption website and helpline that we have just launched, First4Adoption, is an example. Noble Lords will also be aware that we have recently laid regulations before the House that will bring into force on 1 July this year the new two-stage adopter approval process, the fast-track procedure for adopters and foster carers, and other changes that have been welcomed by the sector.

Noble Lords may also be aware that we have been fulfilling our commitment to publish more and better

16 May 2013 : Column 622

data on the adoption system through adoption scorecards, so that the progress of those organisations that are doing the most to help the children who need adoption can be recognised, and those that are not can be identified.

Finally, as I have, I hope, made clear, we welcome the committee’s thoughtful and informed contribution to developing adoption policy and legislation. Again, I thank the noble Lords who served on the committee and contributed their thoughts today for the breadth of the issues that have been raised, many of which the Government will consider in more depth over the coming weeks and months. I look forward to debating the Bill in your Lordships’ House, and that is likely to be in July.

I know that noble Lords share our commitment to improving the lives of children and I hope they will agree that we are addressing many of the issues raised in the committee’s reports. We will, none the less, continue to reflect on the committee’s extremely helpful recommendations as we continue to reform and improve adoption. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s important debate.

5.10 pm

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I thank all those who have contributed to the debate for the absolutely fascinating speeches that we have heard this afternoon. They have ranged widely over all sorts of areas of child need and welfare.

I say to the Minister that I personally accept the very good work that is already being done by the Government on adoption and, indeed, fostering, as well as in dealing with children’s homes, as my noble friend Lord Listowel said. However, will the Minister, and particularly his officials, look at the very cogent evidence that we received on the danger of entirely excluding ethnicity from the legislation? We got that evidence from people whom we thought were worthy of listening to and whom we would have thought the Government would think were worthy of listening to. My recollection is that Coram and BAAF were among them. As I think the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, there is a danger that social workers who make ethnicity too important a consideration will say, “Well, now it’s gone, we have to ignore it”. That is what the people on the ground who know about it were telling us. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister’s officials would have a look at the evidence that we received. They have all that evidence and it is well worth looking at.

In this debate there have been some preliminary shots across the bow concerning what is likely to be coming in the Children and Families Bill. As we heard from the Minister, that is now likely to be in July—and, I assume, well beyond July. The Minister is likely to be challenged by me, among others, over several issues to which I have not yet referred. I look forward to those opportunities and hope that the Government will be a listening Government on matters which we will press and on which the Government might be well advised to listen carefully.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.13 pm.