Date laid: 9 April 2019
Parliamentary procedure: negative
These Regulations include the revocation of the duty on adoption agencies to provide relevant information to the Secretary of State about children approved for adoption and approved prospective adopters who have not been matched, in order to be placed on the Adoption Register. The Department for Education (DfE) states that “These revocations are necessary as the Secretary of State will not be operating or maintaining an Adoption Register from 01 April 2019.” The Committee is concerned that, in relation to this element of the Regulations, DfE does not provide a more detailed explanation in the Explanatory Memorandum of its policy intentions and additional background information to assist scrutiny.
The Committee held an evidence session with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families on 14 May 2019 to ascertain additional context to these Regulations. Although grateful to the Minister for explanations given during the evidence session, the Committee has concerns about the potential implications of the Department having ceased provision of the Adoption Register for England before a replacement system is ready, and without a clear timetable for when it will be ready. The Committee has serious concerns about any potential impact on service provision in relation to those children who are harder to match with prospective adopters.
The Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation.
1.The Department for Education (DfE) has laid these Regulations with an Explanatory Memorandum (EM). The Regulations are subject to the negative resolution procedure. As such, they do not require the approval of the Houses and will be the subject of a debate in the House only if a motion is tabled in relation to them.
2.DfE summarises in the EM (at paragraph 6.1) that the purpose of the Regulations is threefold. The instrument includes amendments to:
3.This Report focuses on the first of these purposes, namely the element of the Regulations involving changes to the Adoption Register.
4.The Committee was concerned that the EM provided insufficient context and background information to assist scrutiny on the changes these Regulations make in relation to the Adoption Register. The Committee was not satisfied with the additional information that had been received from the DfE (Appendix 1) and held an evidence session on 14 May 2019 with Nadhim Zahawi MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, to seek further information about why the Adoption Register for England had been allowed to lapse and the potential implications.
5.The EM (at paragraph 7.10) states that the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 place a duty on adoption agencies to refer unmatched children and approved prospective adopters to the Adoption Register. The Adoption Register is a database that includes details of: (a) children who are approved for adoption but who are waiting to be matched; (b) approved prospective adopters; and (c) prescribed information about children for whom the adoption agency is considering adoption.
6.DfE told us that:
“The Register operates on a statutory basis under section 125 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which permits the Secretary of State to establish and maintain a register. The Secretary of State is also permitted to make arrangements with an organisation to operate the Register. The Adoption and Children Act Register Regulations 2014 set out the content of the Register and the disclosure of information requirements. The Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 currently require an adoption agency to provide information to the Register where it has not identified particular prospective adopters with whom a child suitable for adoption should be placed. This should happen as soon as possible, but no later than three months from the date on which the agency determines that the child should be placed for adoption.”
7.We asked DfE how the Adoption Register operates. In response, DfE stated that:
“When a local authority is considering placing a child for adoption, they look for a match with a suitable family, which is often found locally. For some children, they need to look further afield to families ‘recruited’ by another adoption agency. The Register was an online database of unmatched children and approved prospective adopters. It was used by social workers and approved prospective adopters to seek matches…”.
8.The Committee raised further questions about the operation of the Adoption Register during the evidence session. Given that local authorities are under a statutory duty to register children for adoption on the Adoption Register, a question was asked about why all children should be registered on the Adoption Register whilst some are also registered on the commercial registers. We were told: “In reality, as we understand it, some local authorities did not comply. Often, despite it being a statutory requirement, they were not taking it up…”.
9.We are concerned by this apparent non-compliance with the statutory requirement and query why it had not been followed up at an earlier stage. Should this instrument be the subject of a motion for debate, the House may wish to press the Minister further about this matter.
10.In the EM (at paragraph 7.11), DfE states that “The present contract for running the Adoption Register comes to an end on 31 March 2019 and the Department is exploring what may take its place”. We asked the Department whether this will leave a gap in provision. In response, the Department stated that it would not and that whilst there is currently no statutory provision, there will continue to be commercial systems available that are well established and more popular than the statutory Adoption Register.
11.We asked whether there was a reason that the Department had not completed its consideration of future provision before the present contract ended. DfE stated that:
“The Department has been considering possible future provision over a long period, exploring a variety of options. Given the potential synergy between fostering and adoption, as highlighted by Fostering Better Outcomes,[ it was important that the two could be considered together. This consideration commenced in Autumn 2018. Contractually, the Department had already extended the Adoption Register contract for the maximum permitted period, to allow time to explore options for the fostering and adoption sectors. As the other commercial systems in the market are operating effectively, there will not be a gap in provision for adoption agencies.” ]
12.During the evidence session, the Minister stated that:
“It was a close call whether we re-procured or not … but ultimately I thought the right thing to do was to focus our resource and energy on the next iteration of what we think we should be doing rather than re-procure and embed more siloed thinking, with the message going out from the centre that that is our modus operandi.”
13.In terms of how long the consideration of future provision is anticipated to take, DfE stated that the initial phases of this work have concluded, demonstrating similar findings in both fostering and adoption with promising options identified; that the Department was now planning the next phases of work, including further engagement with the sector; and, that they found it difficult to put a timescale on this work due to the many different considerations, but will ensure that both the fostering and adoption sectors are kept updated and engaged in the work as it progresses.
14.During the evidence session the timetable was questioned further. We were told that the new system “could require investment” so until there was clarity about “the Department’s position in the spending review and the timing of that, it is quite difficult to set a timetable ...”. The Department offered to write after the spending review to give an indication of the timing.
15.The Committee remains concerned that the Department cannot offer a timetable for when the future provision in relation to an adoption register may be implemented, particularly as the statutory Adoption Register has already ceased operating. The House may wish to press the Minister for further explanation.
16.We asked DfE for clarification about any differences between the Adoption Register and the commercial provision in relation to security of data. DfE stated that:
“Commercial providers would be required to comply with relevant data protection legislation in the same way as the Secretary of State or any organisation operating and maintaining the Adoption Register would have been.”
17.During the evidence session, assurance was given that the safeguards and governance provisions that operated with the statutory register are no less robust for the commercial provider.
18.We also asked DfE for clarification about any differences between the Adoption Register and the commercial provision in terms of geographical coverage. The Department stated that:
“Commercial providers cover the whole of the UK. The duty that is being revoked is applicable to adoption agencies in England only. The Adoption Register may contain details of children and prospective adopters provided by adoption agencies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although in practice, it contained limited information from them.”
“… this is the Adoption Register for England and it primarily has details of children from England; there is a very small number from Scotland and Wales. Separate registers continue to cover Scotland and Wales, and there is a non-statutory register operating in Northern Ireland…”.
20.We sought clarification about the costs of using a commercial alternative and who would be expected to meet these costs. We also asked how the commercial alternatives differ from using the Adoption Register. DfE told us that the adoption agency meets the cost of subscription to alternative commercial systems and, despite the Adoption Register being a free service, nearly all adoption agencies already paid for alternative services, so there is no additional cost being borne. The Department added that commercial systems serve the same purpose as the Adoption Register, but feedback suggests there is a preference from users for the functionality the commercial systems offer.
21.The Committee questioned the costs further during the evidence session. The Minister confirmed:
“… the statutory register was a free service to adoption agencies and local authorities. Our contract to operate the service cost the department £645,000 in 2017-18 … the commercial alternative, depending on the size of the local authority, and the size of the looked-after children population in that local authority, is typically around £10,000 or less per local authority. The costs of subscription will continue to fall to adoption agencies, as they did while the statutory register was in operation. The department does not provide funding to commercial matching systems…”.
22.Following the evidence session, we received a submission from the Chief Executive of Link Maker (Appendix 2) and a letter from the Minister (Appendix 3) which provide additional information relating to costs. We have subsequently written to the Minister to ask whether the commercial providers are established as not-for-profit organisations; and to seek clarity on how many commercial providers there are and the relative proportion of local authorities subscribed to each of these providers. We have also asked about the proportion of local authorities that are paying approximately £5,000 subscription costs and the proportion that are paying approximately £10,000 subscription costs, to seek further clarity on this cost range (see Appendix 4).
23.The Minister’s response to these further inquiries will be made available to the House. The House may however also wish to raise the issue of the status of the commercial providers and the range of subscription costs paid by local authorities to them in debate.
24.The Minister was asked about any formal evaluation of the success of the Adoption Register. We were told that:
“We carried out some evaluation of it, in reconsidering. We spoke to social workers and adopters, and they uniformly told us that they preferred the other processes.”
“… They found it clunky and difficult to use, and the adopters all told us that they preferred the depth of information about the children on the commercial products rather than the statutory one.”
25.In response to a question about discussions with the sector (see paragraph 7.13 of the EM), DfE told us that it had communications with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board and its members, the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, the Regional Adoption Agencies Leaders Group, Local Government Association, Ofsted, and Adoption UK.
26.We further asked whether there had been any public consultation carried out on the changes in this instrument relating to the Adoption Register. DfE stated that: “There has been no public consultation carried out. The changes were though discussed with the sector and endorsed by all parts of the sector.”
27.DfE provided additional information stating that 751 approved prospective adopters and 1817 children approved for adoption were referred to the Adoption Register in 2018. DfE also stated that in 2018-19, the Adoption Register for England made 257 matches between approved adopters and children and in 2017-18 it made 277. DfE added that, in 2018-19, commercial systems matched 967 children to approved adopters.
28.After seeking additional clarity during the evidence session, the Committee remain unclear about the data. The House may wish to invite the Minister to explain how the Department is planning to ensure that there will not be a corresponding drop in the number of matches and adoptions now the Adoption Register has ceased operating.
29.Lord Russell of Liverpool participated in the evidence session, for which we are grateful. He declared his interest as a Governor of Coram. He raised the issue of difficult-to-place children:
“As I understand it, the way the national adoption register was being used primarily was to deal predominantly with the children that the commercial adoption agencies found almost impossible to place. It was focused on a sub-group of children being put up for adoption who were the most difficult to find matches for, particularly at local level. The primary purpose that it achieved was to take that sub-group of particularly challenging potential adoptees and, by providing the extraordinarily successful matching events, enable children and potential adopting parents to be introduced in a way that completely removed the normal boundaries between local areas. That enabled matches to take place that otherwise probably would not have done. That, as I understand it, was the greatest achievement of the national adoption register.”
30.The Minister was asked what is happening to the children who are the hardest to adopt, and stated in response:
“You are right to ask about the children who are the hardest to adopt. The voluntary adoption agencies and the voluntary sector play a significant role in that area, and I am encouraging them more and more to work with the regional adoption agency infrastructure we have put together. Most matches for difficult-to-place children need much greater expertise, effort and capacity building, and that is delivered by the voluntary sector and the voluntary adoption agencies, which I meet regularly. The element of the work that is about those events is carrying on.”
31.We were also told about exchange and activity days:
“… a feature of the contract with the statutory register was something called exchange and activity days. Indeed, around 50% of the matches that came through the statutory process came through those exchange and activity days, which is when you give prospective adopters a chance to meet children. That part of the work will carry on. The institution we contracted to provide the statutory register will carry on that part of the work. Around 50% of the matches that came through before were achieved through those activities, and those activities will not stop. That was something that was considered valuable and useful, and it will not end.”
32.We are concerned by any potential risk of a diminution of provision relating to children who may be harder to place and the House may wish to seek further assurance from the Minister about this matter, including how the Government will seek to mitigate this risk. The Committee has written to the Minister to raise a concern in relation to this (Appendix 4).
33.The EM (at paragraph 7.11) notes that:
“In its response to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into fostering and Foster Care in England (an independent review commissioned by the Department), the Government said it would look at where and how technology could be used to enhance the national infrastructure that supports foster care. It also signalled a move away from considering the component parts of the care system in isolation which ‘creates an unhelpful divide in the way we approach a child’s experience in the system and his or her routes to permanence.’ Responding to the recommendations made by the two reports allowed the Department to explore potential solutions that could potentially bring the fostering and adoption sectors closer together.”
34.The EM also states (at paragraph 7.12) that a Digital Discovery Phase was carried out, and this found that information is not shared effectively, causing inefficiency. An Alpha phase is now underway to analyse whether there is viable means of collating, storing and sharing real-time, sensitive information across fostering, adoption and potentially other parts of children’s social care. DfE states that “Whilst this work continues, adoption agencies are still able to undertake matching by using commercial alternatives to the Adoption Register which are already widely used by adoption agencies.”
35.The EM notes (at paragraph 7.13) that:
“In discussions with the sector, adoption agencies questioned how they would fulfil their statutory duty to refer children and approved prospective adopters to the Adoption Register in the meantime. We agreed that it was best to revoke the duty on adoption agencies and communicated that we would do so at the earliest opportunity. This Instrument will do this. We will consider any longer term legislative requirements as part our continuing work to explore technological solutions that potentially bring the fostering and adoption sectors closer together”.
36.During the evidence session, we were told the reasons why the decision had been taken to cease the Adoption Register, including that: the preferences of the child and the voice of the child had been missing from the statutory Adoption Register; that the child should be at the heart of the future product; and that the Adoption Register in its previous form was not fit for purpose. It was stated that the Minister would not have taken the decision if he was not satisfied that there is provision in place from commercial providers that can deliver better than the statutory register.
37.The Minister told us:
“Let me try to take you through my thinking, which I hope will explain our reasons to the Committee. It is certainly not simply to end a service for the most vulnerable children in our society; it is to look at how we can do much better, and hopefully I will go through that with you today. The register came to an end at the end of March, and both the Education Select Committee and the work that Martin Narey and Mark Owers did for me in reviewing foster care in England suggested that the work we do for the most vulnerable children in our care is far too siloed; fostering sits in one place and adoption somewhere else. We need to bring together our thinking, and that is what the future will look like ...”.
38.The Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation. Despite extensive additional information and an evidence session, the Committee remains unclear about the Department’s plans, timetable and budget for the replacement service.
39.Whilst acknowledging the objective of trying to improve the service, the Committee remains concerned by some of the potential implications of having ceased the Adoption Register before a replacement has been identified, and in particular the potential diminution of provision during this interim phase for those children who may be more difficult to place.
1 The transcript of the oral evidence session of 14 May 2019 can be accessed at: [accessed 22 May 2019].
2 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q1.
3 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q1.
4 (Katy Willison).
5 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q2(i).
6 Department for Education, Fostering Better Outcomes, Cm9662, July 2018: [accessed 2 May 2019].
7 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q2(iii).
8 (Nadhim Zahawi MP).
9 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q2(iv).
10 (Katy Willison).
11 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q6(i).
12 Ibid. Response to Q6(ii).
13 (Sheila Shuttlewood).
14 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q4.
15 (Nadhim Zahawi MP).
16 (Katy Willison).
17 Appendix 1, additional information from DfE. Response to Q5.
18 Ibid. Response to Q5(i).
19 Ibid. Responses to Q1(i),(ii) and (iii).
20 Coram runs one of the largest independent adoption agencies in the UK: [accessed 22 May 2019].
21 (Lord Russell of Liverpool).
22 (Nadhim Zahawi MP).
23 (Katy Willison).
24 Education Committee, , (First Report of Session 2017-19, HC340)
25 Department for Education, ‘Foster Care in England’, February 2018: [accessed 22 May 2019].
27 (Nadhim Zahawi MP).