Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, not just for securing this debate three times but for his tireless efforts on behalf of children and families engaged in adoption and other forms of permanence. We are also indebted to all those who contributed to the APPG’s inquiry and to those who prepared the report that followed. It stands as an example of the very best work of which our all-party groups are capable.
We are now approaching the conclusion of the adoption support fund’s first five years. I use that terminology advisedly, because I believe it is simply inconceivable that the Government would, in 14 months’ time, when the current funding runs out, choose to bring it to an end. Such has been its impact on around 40,000 families with adopted children that denying them the vital therapeutic services that the fund enables would be an act of vandalism and an abdication of responsibility that I simply cannot imagine any Government contemplating, not even one as unpredictable as this.
Adoption plays a crucial role in providing support for some of our most vulnerable children, alongside special guardianship, foster care and residential care. It is much to be welcomed that special guardianship families were added to those able to access the fund. Those of us who have never had any direct experience of what it means either to be adopted or to adopt a child cannot readily appreciate the day-to-day existence of families who have taken on that onerous but important responsibility, so it is extremely valuable to have access to the adoption barometer, a comprehensive stocktake of the experiences of adoptive families in the UK during a single year undertaken by Adoption UK.
The most recent barometer reflected experiences in 2018 and was published in July last year. It was based on detailed feedback from 3,500 adoptive parents representing all stages of the process, from approvals and matching to families with adopted young adults. Their views, concerns and experiences are placed firmly in the context of adoption policy and practice in each of the four nations of the UK, with the aim of learning what is working well and what needs to be improved. The data revealed that the majority of families are facing significant challenges and, for too many, the support that would enhance their ability to provide for their adopted children is often difficult to access, with potentially damaging consequences.
The barometer’s conclusions are divided into five categories and one in particular is germane to this debate. It concerns established adoptive families, who were asked to give their assessment both of national policy for established families and of adopter experiences. As regards England, in the first category the assessment was “fair” and in the second it was “poor”. That lays bare the extent of the stress, the strain and, indeed, the frustration that adoptive families feel as a result of the patchy overall support that they receive. My noble friend Lord Triesman—I refuse to address him in any other way despite the fact that he now sits on the Cross Benches—spoke with great authority born of personal family experience of such difficulties. I also pay tribute to his campaign for children adopted from abroad, on whose behalf he has achieved equality of treatment, which is much to be welcomed.
One of the few things that make adoptive families want to carry on—indeed, make it possible for them to carry on—is the adoption support fund, which provides the therapeutic services that have now become a major part of the support available to families. At the same time as the adoption barometer was published, so too was the report of the APPG for Adoption and Permanence. It is a substantial body of work and it is fitting that it should be the subject of debate in your Lordships’ House. The inquiry explored how the fund might be improved so that it better meets the needs of families who benefit from it. I was privileged to attend both the hearings that formed the major part of the inquiry and heard some powerful evidence from both practitioners and parents. The view was very clearly articulated that the fund simply must receive sufficient resources to ensure its long-term future. Those giving evidence to the all-party group warned of catastrophic effects if that were not the case.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, the Department for Education gave evidence in the form of a senior member of staff, who said that in the department’s view, the fund has been “a real success”. I quote that with confidence because it appears in my contemporaneous notes of the hearing. That was most encouraging to hear at that time and I am sure the Minister has been made aware of it.
The inquiry report outlined six recommendations, all well-reasoned and eminently reasonable. I will not repeat them because other noble Lords have already done so, but I encourage the Minister to ensure that they are acted upon by the Government. The first called for the fund to be continued until 2030 at least, and that should be the minimum to which the Minister commits the Government today. As others have said, we know that we are going to hear that the spending review —whenever that may be—will reveal all and no promises can be made until then. That argument might have been plausible under the previous Government, but the current regime frankly has such a robust majority that it could legislate for an eighth day of the week should it so desire and there would be nothing that Parliament could do to stop it. Therefore, the Minister should at the very least tell the House—as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—what he will personally be arguing for with Treasury Ministers in relation to the fund in the meetings that will take place in preparation for spending review decisions. Is he sufficiently convinced of the vital need for the services provided by the fund to argue for its permanence? If not, why not?
Of course, we do not know whether the Minister will retain his position in the reshuffle. I personally hope that he does, and we understand that the Secretary of State has held on to his place. In the four and a half years that I have been in my post, there have been four Secretaries of State for Education. For the sake of the sector as a whole, some stability is certainly welcome. There have also been four Ministers of State with responsibility for adoption in that period—five if you include the one currently providing maternity cover for Kemi Badenoch. Today the Universities Minister changed for the fifth time within that period, even though the incumbent was an academic, so stability is not a word that echoes in the corridors of the Department for Education.
As the APPG report demonstrates, the adoption support fund has provided life-changing therapeutic support for thousands of families. Indeed, as others have said, nearly 80% of parents said that the fund met needs which, crucially, could not be met elsewhere. Perhaps even more importantly, as parents told the inquiry, the support accessed via the fund has helped them avoid a potential family breakdown or disruption. That view was echoed in many of the 1,600 responses to the inquiry—a remarkable number—and it is perhaps the fund’s greatest strength that it has proved to be a lifeline for so many families, delivering specialist therapeutic support that is not otherwise accessible.
But the report makes it clear that, as my noble friend Lady Massey highlighted, the bureaucracy involved in applying can be daunting for some parents. Despite positivity about the benefits of the fund, and modest, sustained improvements in outcomes, the level of difficulties faced within the families of survey respondents remains very high, reflecting the ongoing need for support in most cases. Suggested improvements included broadening the scope of the fund to include additional types of support, improving co-ordination with education services—a vital aspect—and loosening financial restrictions to permit greater quantities of support to be accessed. I hope the Minister will feel able to comment on these, given the authority which the report carries.
The Government should acknowledge the fact that the fund has prevented or reduced the risk of adoption breakdown, because that underlines how it saves the taxpayer much greater costs further down the line. Last year, a report by the University of Kent—which I think the noble Lord, Lord Russell, mentioned—found that the cost to the state of having a child in care is approximately £34,000 per year. If just 10% of the 40,000 children with families who accessed the adoption support fund had been unable to sustain the adoption without that support, the consequent cost to the taxpayer of those children returning to care would have been in excess of £125 million—each year.
The fund’s budget for the year 2020-21 will be £45 million, which is the highest it will have been in its by then six-year existence. So I say to the Minister: please do not let us hear of financial considerations regarding the future of the fund, because it provides astoundingly good value for money. Indeed, the Government would be guilty of gross profligacy with public resources were they to decide to end the fund—or even underfund it—and revert to the status quo as it was in 2015. Of course, not all families would return their adopted children to care, but I have already quoted the cost of just one in 10 doing so, and the figure could be much higher on an annual basis than has been paid out by the fund since 2015. Quite simply, then, guaranteeing the fund’s long-term future is a no-brainer. What possible argument can there be for failing to do so, short of an equivalent alternative scheme? Answers to that should be sent on a postcard to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid J—oh, wait a minute, Mr Javid stood up to the Prime Minister, so he is now history. Clearly, his successor, Rishi Sunak, is much more pliable.
As I said, the case for making the adoption support fund permanent is unanswerable. I will conclude by quoting one of the adoptive children who benefit so much from the support that the fund provides. The APPG inquiry asked children and young people what they would like to say to the Minister for Children and Families about the adoption support fund. I found the most telling response to be this one:
“Good support is when someone understands and listens to you—all the different bits of you, not just the bits showing on the outside.”
That voice speaks eloquently but with great power, and must be listened to.