HC Deb 16 June 1999 vol 333 cc349-55 12.30 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate. I am especially grateful to have support in the Chamber today from the chairman of the all-party children group, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), who has so much knowledge on this issue and is greatly respected in the House; from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis); and from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is a former family lawyer.

Children are in care because they have been abused or neglected by their family or, in some cases, have no family. They are the most deprived children in Britain, and we, the state, are responsible for them. We owe them a special interest. We are failing them miserably.

The many foster parents and care workers in children's homes work very hard to care for the children for whom they are responsible, but the results of our so-called care system are extremely bleak. On average—and typically—children are moved from place to place once a year. They are far more likely than their contemporaries to become involved in child prostitution or drug dealing. Incredibly, boys leaving care are 50 times as likely as their contemporaries to end up in an adult prison and—perhaps saddest of all—a quarter of the girls who go through care become pregnant under age during the process.

Yet there is a tried and tested solution, supported by evidence of studies undertaken in the United Kingdom and many other countries. There is a really effective way to deal with these damaged children—adoption by a loving family. Adoption is not only much more successful than leaving children in care but far more successful—especially in the case of children who have been in care for a year or more—than sending them back to their original home. Some are sent back prematurely and unsuccessfully to their home, to be neglected and to be abused again. There are extreme cases, such as that of little Ricki Neave, who was returned to be tortured to death by his mother.

For a decade now, successive Ministers responsible for social services have spoken out strongly in favour of adoption. My right hon. Friend the Member for South—West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) made it a personal crusade. John Bowis, a former Member of the House, felt especially strongly about it and issued an excellent guidance circular. The hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) made it a personal crusade, and issued another excellent guidance circular, backed by some very strong words. I especially welcome the Under—Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who has kindly come into the Chamber to reply to the debate. He has shown how strongly he feels about the issue.

All these years on, there has been no progress. On a five-year figures basis, things are have actually got fractionally worse. A fortnight ago, figures were published showing that the number of children in care has just increased again, from 51,000 in April 1997 to 53,000 in April 1998. Nearly half those children have been in care for more than two years and, incredibly, almost a quarter have been in care for five years or more. Five years, moving from place to place; what sort of childhood is that? Yet the number of children adopted from care during that year was a miserable 2,000, barely covering the increase, and 4 per cent. of the total.

I have no doubt that those who want to defend the social services establishment will produce excuses. Some will say that there is a desperate shortage of adoptive parents—especially for older children—in some areas. Others will argue, as they did last year and the year before, that the figures are slightly out of date and that the trend has turned up just recently.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I apologise to my hon. Friend; I must leave the Chamber shortly. I have asked the Audit Commission whether it will investigate the issue that he has raised. It has told me that the social services inspectorate will examine the implementation of the circulars that he mentioned, and I shall meet representatives of the inspectorate shortly to ensure that the points that my hon. Friend has raised are treated properly in a new inspection this winter.

Mr. Brazier

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that firm pledge of support. I am very grateful that so many Members of the House, from all parties, have expressed support on this issue.

Among the many dire conclusions of a study completed as recently as last month at Cardiff university by Murch and Lowe is the following: some agencies rigidly opposed adoptions by foster carers even where the child was well-settled and had a good relationship with the carers. Of course there are legal and administrative problems with adoption. I thank the director of social services in Durham for giving details of a case of which the Minister is aware, showing how, in certain cases, the Children Act 1989 can work against potential adoptive parents. None the less, the evidence points to the overriding need to break the anti-adoption culture among social workers in many local authorities, and the failure of elected members to supervise them.

The most striking evidence of negative attitudes emerges from studying variations between local authorities. Why do Hackney and Islington, both of which have a terrible record in some of their children's homes, score among the worst for adoptions of children in care? In a whole year, in each of those authorities, only 2 per cent. of children in care were adopted. That is barely a dozen children between them, of the hundreds that each of them have in care, yet nearby Camden and Greenwich are near the top of the league. Similarly, why does Bournemouth have quite a good rate—9 per cent.—when next-door Dorset has a miserable 3 per cent.? I receive many letters from adoptive parents, telling me that they were rejected for the flimsiest of reasons by one local authority, only to be accepted by a neighbouring one and carry out a successful adoption. We have a special duty to children in care, and we are failing to discharge it.

In spite of the excellent intention of Minister after Minister in the slot currently so well occupied by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, it is time for an end to exhortation and voluntary programmes. If the "Quality Protects" programme is to mean anything for these children, it must be given teeth. I should like to end with three short suggestions.

First, the current figures are voluntarily compiled, inconsistent and global. Instead, we need a central database of the name and outline details of every child in care. That would enable us to compile genuine league tables showing which local authorities—

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brazier

I am afraid that I will not, because other hon. Members have arranged to speak.

A database would show, much better than the current figures, which local authorities are obviously dragging their feet, and it would prevent children from falling through the cracks.

Secondly, post-adoption support for parents should become the norm in all parts of the country and, in the case of the most damaged children, they should also have post-adoption allowances. Those parents are taking an enormous financial and administrative burden off our shoulders—off the state's shoulders—and into their homes.

Finally, these arrangements require some stick. The Secretary of State should give himself the power, or Parliament should give the Secretary of State the power, to remove adoption decisions from the worst local authorities and give them to a neighbouring authority or, if one is not available, to a voluntary organisation. We owe that to our most deprived children. If we continue to fail them, they will fail us and themselves, and the consequences for the future of our country will be dreadful.

12.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on his success in the ballot. His interest in adoption and the welfare of children generally is well known and respected in the House.

The Government believe in adoption. It is an important way of ensuring a better future for vulnerable children. It gives them stable, caring, loving families. We are determined to transform services for children and outcomes for children. We are determined that there will be a radical improvement in adoption services. The House should be in no doubt about that.

We want to make sure that rigid or fixed ideologies, which often relegate adoption to the bottom of the list of options, are effectively challenged at every opportunity. I shall spell out how the Government will take forward this transformation in adoption services, but first we should be clear about the statistics.

The basic facts are these: at any given time, about 53,000 children are being looked after by local authorities in England; a total of about 78,000 children are looked after by those authorities in the course of a year; approximately 2,000 looked-after children are adopted each year. The hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned that figure.

In the great majority of cases, children being looked after by local authorities do not need new families. Most will return home after a short period in care. Those children, therefore, do not represent a potential harvest for prospective adopters. We need to be very clear about that point.

Work carried out recently within the Department revealed some interesting data concerning the statistical returns on adoption from local authorities. Again, the hon. Member for Canterbury referred to those. The study shows that although the number of children in care has fallen substantially over the past 20 years, the number adopted out of care has risen from about 2 per cent. to about 4 per cent.

Twenty years ago, there were about 90,000 children in care, and about 1,500 were adopted each year. Now there are just over 50,000 children in care at any time. About 2,000 children a year are adopted out of the care system. Last year saw the first rise for many years in the number of children in care being adopted. Although the rise was modest—about 100—it should be seen as a positive sign.

However, I am not complacent. I believe that some local authorities could and should be more proactive in their adoption work, and that can be achieved without its quality being compromised. Services should be better managed, and children should be adopted more quickly.

In this context the Department issued guidance to local authorities last August. The objective was to focus the attention of directors of social services and their senior managers on getting a better grip on planning for and monitoring the progress of children in their care. Since then, the Government's "Quality Protects" programme has been introduced.

The programme brings a new and challenging dimension to the overall improvement of children's services. To that end, the Government have made £375 million available to local authorities over three years in the form of a children's services special grant to assist them in implementing specific "Quality Protects" projects. The general aim of "Quality Protects" is the systematic transformation of the management of social services for children and the outcomes that they achieve.

Adoption is a key element of "Quality Protects". Its objectives include reducing the number of changes of main carers for children being looked after—the hon. Member for Canterbury referred to that chronic problem, which we are determined to address. Further objectives are to maximise the contribution that adoption can make to providing a permanent family for children in appropriate cases, and to reduce the period during which children are looked after before being placed for adoption or other suitable long-term care.

The "Quality Protects" programme was a key element in the Government's response to the children's safeguards review and will be the main focus for guiding and monitoring the improvements. It aims to maximise the use of adoption and to reduce delays while making the right decisions for individual children by bringing adoption back into the mainstream of options available for children.

Mr. Dawson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the prime factor that must always be considered is the best interests of the child? For children who remain in long-term care, we need a continuum—a range of good-quality provision, including foster care, residential care and adoption.

Mr. Hutton

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend, as everyone in the House probably would. Our concern is that there has been evidence in the past that adoption has not been given the priority that it should have been.

The aim of "Quality Protects" is to maximise adoption and to reduce delays. The performance of local authorities will be measured against performance indicators and targets, which include addressing the delay in placing children with new families. We will in future measure the performance of each local authority through indicators that will show the percentage of looked-after children being adopted each year, the average time that children are looked after before placed for adoption and the breakdown of adoption placements.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

Can the Minister confirm that the indicators will be made public? Will they be independently monitored—for example, by the Audit Commission as part of its systems charter work?

Mr. Hutton

The indicators certainly will be public information, and the Audit Commission will have an important role to play in the initiative.

I can announce today that targets will be set for the maximum time between entry into care and adoption. Those will be monitored by the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission as part of the new performance assessment framework. Poor performance will not be tolerated.

The "Quality Protects" grant follows the production and evaluation of plans whose objectives include reducing delay and avoiding children drifting in the care system. Management action plans produced as part of the "Quality Protects" programme to deal with those issues are encouraging. Many authorities are making improvements to their management information systems, which will enable them to tackle more effectively the key indicators of delay and monitoring of children in care.

The development of placement choice is the largest single component attracting "Quality Protects" funding. With that money, local authorities intend to appoint specialist social work staff to recruit more adopters and foster carers, including families from ethnic minority communities, which will make available a wider choice of suitable placements. Other specialist staff will be appointed to progress children through the administrative and legal procedures to secure placements without undue delay.

I can tell the House today that under the "Quality Protects" initiative, £30 million will be spent this year on developing better placement choice, which will include adoption. We expect significant further additional expenditure in this area in the next two years.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Government's White Paper entitled "Modernising Social Services," which was published last November, included a proposal to establish commissions for care standards, which will have responsibility, for example, for regulating and inspecting foster care services and residential homes.

I am pleased to have this opportunity of announcing to the House that we intend that the new commissions should have responsibility for the inspection and regulation of all adoption services, including those operated by local authorities. In this way, adoption will be aligned with foster care services. It will also provide the basis for improving standards generally within the adoption service. We hope to introduce legislation to establish these new care commissions at the earliest possible opportunity.

In addition, through "Quality Protects", we will work with local authorities and the voluntary sector to improve the adoption service. We will monitor performance, improve statistics, promote new consortiums that can help to deal with the problem of inter-agency fees, improve planning, commission research and develop training. Through the social services inspectorate we shall examine closely the progress being made.

This summer, the social services inspectorate will launch a survey of every local authority, beginning in July, to establish progress in implementing the action recommended in the circular to which the hon. Member for Canterbury referred. That inspection will be followed by a supplementary data collection exercise and an inspection of some local authorities. The exercise will provide us with a general picture of the progress that local authorities are making in taking action on the circular and turning their "Quality Protects" action plans into reality.

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful to the Minister. All the announcements that he has made are extremely welcome. As he will need legislation to introduce such a broad range of clear performance criteria, will he consider incorporating in that legislation a reserve power to enforce it in the case of recalcitrant local authorities that do not respond voluntarily?

Mr. Hutton

The performance indicators that I described do not require primary legislation. We are already developing a performance assessment framework for social services. We are also developing the objectives of the "Quality Protects" programme as we go along. The hon. Gentleman's point about adoption services and a reserve power on the part of the Secretary of State will be addressed at some time in the future in legislation on the best value agenda. The best value programme will apply to local social services, and through that process there will be opportunities to explore issues such as those that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

I am sure that the House will welcome the tremendous improvements that will become apparent in the quality of adoption services. However, can we look forward to greater openness about the criteria that are used to find the right adoptive parents for children and about how decisions are reached? Decisions must be made in the best interests of children, using the pool of would-be adoptive parents to the best advantage.

Mr. Hutton

Yes, there should be openness at all stages of the process. None of the criteria that are currently used are hidden or obscured from vision. We want people who are willing to adopt children to come forward. We do not want the system to deter or inhibit good prospective adopters from offering their services to help better the interests of looked-after children.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

This is a very important debate. Will my hon. Friend also look at the initial cost of applying and registering for adoption? It seems to vary from circumstance to circumstance, and I know that it deters people from putting themselves forward as adoptive parents even when there is a big cry for people to adopt.

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to her role in all these matters. I am happy to look at the issue that she has raised, and if she or any other hon. Members have any specific proposals, I shall be happy to discuss them at any point in the future, either individually or with the all-party group on adoption.

The hon. Member for Canterbury also raised one important specific point: he called for work to be done to establish a national adoption register of children who might be available for adoption. I am not sure how the details would look, but I am happy to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman in more detail. We shall look forward to having that discussion with him.

I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate today because it is clear that we all share a desire to see adoption brought back into the mainstream of children's services. That is certainly the Government's view. In that way, we can help to make sure that more children in the public care system than at present benefit from the security and protection that family life can bring.

I want to make it clear to the House that we shall continue the drive to improve access to adoption. I am sure that a lot remains to be done, but we have made a positive start in the right direction. We shall keep both the practice and the law under constant review, and shall not hesitate to take the necessary action in the future to ensure that looked-after children do not become the innocent victims of misplaced theory or ideology.

Adoption will often provide the best solution for a child being looked after by a local authority. We shall work with everyone of good will who shares our ambition to achieve better outcomes for those vulnerable children. Adoption can play a hugely beneficial role in that process, which is why we are absolutely determined to ensure that adoption practices are improved quickly throughout the country.