Adoption Support Fund Debate

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Department: Department for Education
Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Agnew of Oulton) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, for securing this important debate to discuss the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence’s Investing in Families report on the adoption support fund beyond 2020. I am also grateful to him for his constructive and helpful approach.

The ASF was introduced in 2015 to improve access to much-needed therapeutic support for adopters and their children. It is reassuring to hear that those who participated in the inquiry think that it is largely achieving that aim. Tens of thousands of families have been able to access support that they would not have been able to without the fund.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, queried the longer-term funding outlook for this success story. The Government have increased funding year on year; it has twice the original budget now and that will rise further next year to £45 million. Already, £140 million has been released to support families.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is worried about some of the bureaucracy. It is absolutely part of our approach to continually challenge the structure of these sorts of arrangements, and if any noble Lord participating in this debate has any specific concerns about excessive bureaucracy, asking a question several times or generally being inhospitable to people, I would be pleased to hear of it. It is a personal mission of mine to try to simplify all the government bureaucracy I deal with and make it accessible to as many people as possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also asked about the annual application requirements. It is something we are going to look into beyond 2021. We originally introduced a maximum of 12 months’ funding to ensure the appropriateness of the therapy received and that we are linked to the health service. Another point for the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who is always a hawk on funding, is that today we announced a substantial local authority settlement. It has gone up from £46.2 billion to £49.2 billion for 2021. That is a 4.4% increase and the biggest year-on-year increase in a decade.

The APPG report asked about future funding, which we have just discussed. We committed in our manifesto that adoption would remain a key area and the adoption support fund would continue. As noble Lords are aware, all departmental spending after 2021 is subject to a future spending funding settlement. My right honourable friend the new Chancellor of the Exchequer will be very busy on that from today, but we recognise that this fund is making a difference.

None the less, in line with the approach taken last year, I confirm that, from July 2020, families will be able to start nine months of therapeutic support, even if it does not end until after March 2021. This transitional arrangement will continue until the outcome of the spending review is confirmed. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, rightly says that the feedback on the fund has been good. The evaluation of the fund found that the majority—84% of parents surveyed—felt that the ASF had helped their child and made the adoption placement more stable and less likely to break down. It showed that there has been a statistically significant improvement in adopted children’s behaviour and mental health. This includes parents’ understanding of their children’s needs and meaningful improvements in parents’ well-being.

I am particularly pleased that the report draws heavily on the lived experience of children, young people and their families, social workers and therapists. It is always important to hear how the policies we make affect those on the ground. Ninety per cent of children and young people said that the fund had helped them significantly. It is encouraging to hear that the fund has literally been life-changing for many young people and their families.

The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked what the Government are doing about the problems of children with potential multiple diagnoses. It is important that children who have experienced trauma and loss have access to high-quality specialist assessments that result in an agreed support plan. In recognition of this, we have made an additional £2,500 per child available this year, through the ASF, for specialist assessments. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, also asks about overseas adoption. We have included new duties for virtual school heads, specifically to look after that cohort of vulnerable children. In 2016, we extended the eligibility of the adoption support fund to families who had adopted from overseas.

The report shows how the fund has been working and what more we can do to improve it. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked about take-up of the fund. So far this year, 88% of applications have related to adopted children and 12% to special guardianship children who were previously in care. We have seen an almost fourfold increase in applications involving special guardianship children since the fund was opened to them in 2016. The fund does not collect data on income. However, I will write to the noble Baroness with any more detail we have in the department.

The APPG has identified a number of areas that are being considered carefully, as we think about the fund’s future in the context of the spending review process. The noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Watson, raised a few of these issues today, and I will attempt to give the House some initial views. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, stressed the need to improve prevention in families, and I wholly agree. This links to comments from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on general improvements and is one of the purposes of our £84 million innovation programme. We certainly do not intend to stand still in any of these areas.

I will not be able to cover all the recommendations, but I can assure the House that they are all being considered. We are taking immediate action on some of them. For example, we are increasing awareness of the fund among eligible special guardianship families and an information leaflet that has been developed in partnership with the Family Rights Group, Adoption UK and Home for Good will be launched shortly. This will be made available for all local authorities to share with the families they are working with.

On the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about extending access to the fund to new groups of children, we will look at the report’s recommendations. However, we do not want to duplicate support that should already be provided elsewhere—for example, when a child is in the care system. We will have to consider the consequences for the fund’s budget of any extension to new groups, and that is why we will consider those issues as part of the forthcoming spending review. The noble Lord also raised the issue of establishing a board of clinicians in the Department for Education to provide clinical oversight of the support provided by the fund. We have always consulted clinicians on what therapies can be provided and we will carefully consider whether setting up a new board would be helpful in that process.

Ensuring that the application process is as streamlined as possible has been a priority for us. The number of applications has quadrupled in the five years since the launch of the fund. Recently we put in place a new, improved application system designed in conjunction with feedback from users, but I also refer to my earlier points on continually challenging that process.

Our annual survey of local authorities about the system showed that 78% are satisfied or very satisfied with it as compared with just 26% last year, which is an impressive 300% improvement. Another issue raised in the report is that of the delays in getting initial assessments completed or services in place. These issues are being addressed through the regional adoption agencies. The report rightly identifies that the fund alone cannot meet the needs of all families. It should form part of the support offer for children and families. We agree that more work is needed to ensure that a genuine multi-agency approach is taken when providing support.

The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, mentioned siloing. This is a problem across the whole of government, but I am delighted to report that we are seeing growing success through the regional adoption agencies. We now have 22 up and running, and between them they cover 109 local authorities. We are actively working with the remaining 45 or so to encourage them to join in and participate.

This debate has highlighted the success of the fund since its launch five years ago. It also highlights the need for practice around the fund to continue to evolve and improve. Nationally, we will endeavour to increase awareness among special guardians, and as I said earlier, we are already taking action to address this.

Lastly, I want to take this opportunity to look at unregulated settings, which is a key issue for some children who remain in care. These can be an important step towards independence for older children, but we are concerned that they are not always good enough. That is why yesterday the Secretary of State published a consultation to invite views on a set of new measures. The proposals include introducing new checks and balances into the system, including national standards for providers and measures to drive up the quality of provision. We are keen to hear views on these proposals and the consultation will be open until 8 April.

I was certainly very moved to hear the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester about his personal experience of the fund. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, was right to end his comments by reminding us that these children did not choose their circumstances, so we must do everything possible to improve their lives.