Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for the compassionate and thoughtful way in which she introduced her Bill. I congratulate her on a dual success: she has not only introduced her Bill, but has helped to provoke the Government into introducing theirs. As she pointed out, her Bill complements the Government?s. She has played an important role in moving forward legislation on adoption.

    I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for exemplifying in his contribution the bipartisan nature of this week?s debates on adoption. He made important remarks about the international dimension of adoption and the diversity of sources from which children are adopted into this country–an issue to which I shall return in a moment.

    Let me explain my interest in this subject. One of the most common mistakes that was made about me when I was Secretary of State for Social Security was the assumption that I was a Secretary of State for social services and that I was therefore responsible for all social services matters. Of course, that was not the case; I was responsible only for social security. When I was investigating and trying to understand the problems that created a need for social security, as well as the characteristics of those who are dependent on the help of the state, I found the same problem time and again. It arose in respect of many people who had been in the state care system, with many different needs and various problems that brought them into contact with the social security system and that could require much more intimate involvement with social services at a local or national level. I became convinced that a major problem arose from the public role in loco parentis. The more I examined the problem, the more severe the failings of our system appeared. The figures are appalling and dramatic.

    Between half and three quarters of young people who leave care are unemployed–four times the rate for 16 to 24-year-olds in the population as a whole. Almost three quarters of those who leave care have no qualifications–12 times the average for the population as a whole. Between a quarter and a third of homeless people on the streets of London come from residential care or fostering–60 times the average for the population as a whole. A quarter of all adult prisoners have been in care in their lifetime, and almost 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 come from the care system. Forty per cent. of young girls who have been in state care become mothers while teenagers, many, alas, while still in care–eight times the average for the population as whole. Their children are 66 times more likely than other children to find themselves in state care. The process is therefore self perpetuating; it is what Keith Joseph called “a cycle of deprivation.”

    The state has failed as a parent, and we are ultimately responsible for the performance of the state when it has to step in and take over as the parent of children in need who suffer deprivation because of the inability and sometimes unwillingness of their parents to look after them. By contrast, adoption is a success.

    It is easier to measure failure than success, and difficult to think of measures of success that are not demeaning. However, by all the standard measures such as success at school, getting jobs, forming settled relationships, getting married and bringing up children, adopted children do far better than those who remain in care, those who are brought up in divided families and even those who are brought up in normal birth families. The dedication and commitment of adopted parents mean that they are often able to bring greater success in life to their adopted children than ordinary parents bring to theirs.

    There are 58,000 children in care at any one moment. Many are in care for brief periods before returning to their natural parents. In most cases, that outcome is desirable. However, some 28,000 children have been in care for two years of more. Despite the failure of the state care system and the success of adoption, barely 2,000 children a year are adopted. We must ask why and ascertain what is going wrong.

    The care system has been blighted by several scandals, which have been investigated. Ultimately, blame lies with the individuals who have abused the children in their care physically, sexually and psychologically, but blame also lies with us for not being sufficiently rigorous in ensuring that homes were better run.

    There is an institutional hostility to adoption in our system, and we need to investigate and overcome it. Until recently, there was a preference for returning children in care to their parents. That is desirable when the parents are able to take them back, but fostering or retention in institutional care has also been preferred to adoption. The processes of adoption, the attitudes prevalent in the system and the incentives built into it are hurdles that discourage or delay adoption.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden pointed out, delays are endemic in the system. She related some telling cases and gave other evidence for that. The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering study of some 1,600 children who had been adopted from care showed that, contrary to expectations, more than half entered care before their first birthday; more than half of those entered care within a month of being born. Many adopted children have therefore been in the care system since they were very young, yet the average age of placement is three-and-a-half years, and that of adoption is five-and-a-half years. There are long delays in the system for even the minority of children who are adopted.

    The reason for the delay is not periods in care punctuated by periods with the birth parents. Eighty per cent. of adopted children never return to their birth parents. The excuse that children may return to their birth parents is often used for retaining children in care and not placing them for adoption, but 80 per cent. never do. They are in care precisely because their parents have proved unable or reluctant to look after them. The desire to return them to the birth parents is therefore often an excuse for retaining them in the system.

    There is bureaucratic delay in the processes that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden described, and a lack of urgency. As she pointed out, that is partly caused by the perhaps understandable desire to place the children who are more difficult to place–those who have been in care for a long time and suffer the most disadvantages–in adoptive homes. Emphasis is therefore placed not on the youngest children but on older children who have been in residential or foster care for some time. I believe that that approach is mistaken.

    The evidence that the hon. Member for Tooting gave of people?s willingness to adopt from abroad, often so that they can adopt a young child, suggests that plenty of people would adopt young children from care, but cannot do so because of the delays and processes that are inherent in our system. They therefore resort to going abroad to look for children, and even try to enter into commercial arrangements. I condemn that as wholeheartedly as the hon. Gentleman did.

    Another institutional process that is so damaging to the young children who are ultimately in our care is the shuffling from pillar to post, whereby they are moved from foster family to foster family. Almost one in five children have more than three placements in a year; one in seven have more than six. Fewer than half of those who have been in care for four years or more have spent two years continuously with the same foster parent. We are putting children in care at an added disadvantage, on top of all the problems that they experienced in their early life before they came into care. There has not been enough urgency in trying to overcome that.

    For many, if not most, children in care, adoption–permanent placement in a loving household whose members are committed to them–is the most desirable outcome. We must speed up and simplify the process of achieving that happy outcome for many children, and remove the processes that delay it.

    Another reason for my interest in this issue is that, by coincidence, I know a number of people who have been involved in adopting children. I spoke to a small number of them before this debate, to draw on their experience. They emphasised that adoption is not for parents; it is for children. Adoption takes advantage of the fact that there are parents with an unfulfilled desire to love children, and we are happy to have that supply of parents to meet the children?s needs. That unfulfilled capacity to love exists in society through, for some, the misfortune of being unable to have children, and, for others, a willingness to take on children in addition to their own birth children.

    Among the experiences that I heard from other people–I am just reporting what I heard; I am not suggesting that they are a random, representative sample–was what was referred to as, at best, mistrust and, at worst, hostility among some social workers towards potential adoptive parents. There was almost a presumption of guilt on the part of adoptive parents, who seemed to have to prove that they were innocent.

    One parent described a sense that the social workers with whom he had dealt were too risk averse. Prolonged checks were carried out into the parent?s background, attitudes and approach. That process is never gone through with birth parents, or with those receiving fertility treatment. Nor, apparently, is that thoroughness applied to those working in the care system–or certainly not as thoroughly as we now realise is necessary and desirable–or to the social workers who make these judgments.

    One parent referred to the patronising approach that had been taken, citing a three-day parental tutoring course that he had been required to attend. He was already bringing up a child–his wife?s child–but, none the less, he had to go on that course and indulge in role playing, some of it offensive, much of it demeaning. The participants were asked to undertake odd scenarios led by social workers who, in large part, were not married, had no experience of bringing up children and had little training but a lot of ideology. Such procedures have, unfortunately, been prevalent in local authority departments.

    Another parent had adopted two children. The adoption processes had overlapped for the two children, and a social worker or guardian ad litem had been appointed for each child, in addition to a social worker being appointed in respect of each child to work with the parents. Four social workers were involved. I happened to know those parents while they were going through that process, and they said that three of the social workers had severe social problems. The adoptive parents had the added burden of coping with the social problems of the social workers who were meant to be helping them to adopt the children. That was a serious matter.

    We are creating additional problems for adoptive parents. One or two of them said that other potential adoptive parents had been put off by the processes. One practical point noted by an adoptive parent was that, although social workers had been appointed to help with the process and to follow it through and ensure that the children were well placed and settling in, there was no out-of-hours contact with social workers. There was no helpline to call out of hours or at weekends. If there were crises–which seemed to happen at weekends–there was no way of getting in touch with social workers, not even an emergency helpline.

    It would be a monstrous imposition to expect all social workers to be available 24 hours a day, but a helpline in the local authority social services department might be a desirable supplement to the help that we give adoptive parents to deal with the crises that can erupt at inconvenient times.

    Other parents said that there was a presumption in the system that state care was the default option, and that it was not open to criticism. It was assumed to be positive and desirable. The adoptive parents had to prove simultaneously that they were exceptionally able–that it would, therefore, be worth taking a child out of care or foster care to give to them for adoption–and that they were not exceptional. If they were exceptional, they might be thought odd. If they were too clever, too bright or too motivated, that could often be taken as a negative factor. Parents had to prove that they were simultaneously exceptional and unexceptional to get through the process.

    Class and anti-racist ideology were also mentioned. I have friends who are a mixed-race couple. Their attempts to adopt a child were refused. They were not fussed about the colour of the child whom they adopted, for obvious reasons, but when asked about their attitude to racism and racial intolerance in our society, they said that, yes, they had suffered direct personal experience of it and that it was a bad thing, but that ultimately it did not really disrupt their lives. That was not a satisfactory answer; it showed that they were insensitive to the problems of racism in society, and they were refused acceptance as adoptive parents by the local authority. Happily, they subsequently moved elsewhere and successfully adopted a child from a more enlightened local authority.

    Attitudes hostile to the smooth and sensible operation of adoption have been built into the system. We must ensure that they are eradicated. I am sure that they are not universal, and that there are many dedicated, sensible social workers who are experienced in bringing up children in their personal lives, and who bring that experience and help to adoptive parents, but there are all too many exceptions, and those attitudes can become institutionalised. It is important that we eradicate that institutional hostility to adoption.

    One very difficult point was mentioned by a parent to whom I spoke–the feeling that there is over-emphasis in the system on encouraging birth parents to demand and exercise a right of on-going contact with their child. That is a difficult issue for adoptive parents. No one wants to break the link between the child and his or her birth parents unnecessarily.

    I am merely reporting the case that was put to me, which was that if the birth parent has been thoroughly unable to look after the child and has agreed that it should be adopted, it is in many cases–perhaps not always–easier for the adoptive parents to have unique parental responsibility, rather than suffering the sporadic interventions of a birth parent who is encouraged by the system to pay occasional and sometimes disruptive visits.

    I do not have an easy sense of how one strikes the balance between the possibility of retaining a link with the birth parents, and not doing so. On certain occasions, however, we should allow–as I believe the courts have–a clear run for the adoptive parents when there is a danger that contact with the birth parents might be disruptive, at least until the child nears adulthood.

    All those problems can discourage prospective adoptive parents from coming forward. That is sad, when there are children in care who would be better off in adoptive households, and for whom no adoptive parents are available.

    What are the remedies? My hon. Friend?s Bill provides some important improvements on the present system, particularly the fast-tracking procedure that she emphasised for younger children. If those younger children are clearly not to return to their birth parents, they must be speedily placed in adoptive homes so that they do not have a disrupted early childhood and can rapidly bond with their new parents at an early stage. All the evidence is that they will be much more likely to have happy and settled futures ahead of them if that happens. We must cut out unnecessary delays.

    The passporting of finance is also important. One or two parents whom I spoke to said that there appears to be a financial incentive to keep children in the system: the greater the number who are satisfactorily moved to adoption, the more the institution handling such children will shrink. That causes a subconscious feeling that the financial incentives built into the system discourage adoption. We do not want that to be exacerbated when a child is moved between local authorities. Therefore, if finance can be passported to remove any disincentive and to ensure that there is adequate provision for aftercare, help and support for an adoptive family, that will be a good thing.

    The appeals mechanism is important and my hon. Friend?s proposed ombudsman system for all the parties involved would help to smooth over some of the problems. It would also probably help to change attitudes, and I emphasise that point. Change is happening spontaneously and I hope that the Government, through their Bill, take forward that change of attitude in the service to achieve a much more positive approach to encouraging adoption and encouraging parents to come forward and adopt.

    That is a matter not only for Members of the House and the Government, but for Churches and community groups, which should encourage people with an unfulfilled capacity to love children to take them into their homes, not least in the case of some of the most difficult and damaged, who would otherwise remain in the care of institutions.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing her Bill and welcome the Government?s. I believe that the measures are complementary and I hope that they represent the point in our generation at which we can improve the provision for children whom otherwise we have lamentably failed.

    30 Mar 2001 : Column 1226

    30 March 2001 (ref: 365 c1220-5)