Thank you, Secretary of State. It’s a pleasure to join you for today’s event and can I offer a very warm welcome to everyone here.
Before I start, I just wanted to pass on my thanks to all of the local authorities, charities and media organisations who’ve spared their time to come along this morning. And can I give a special thank you to Coram, not only for hosting this event, but also for their advice and support over the last nine months, and while we were in opposition.
I know that both myself, and the Secretary of State, have hugely valued your input as we’ve been working through our reforms for the adoption system; and, of course, we owe the wider sector an equally big debt of gratitude for its contribution to today’s guidance, and its help to the Government as we’ve been working to speed up adoption placement times. As always, it’s great to see this kind of progress being made, and it leaves us that step closer, I think, towards achieving the ultimate ambition of creating a much fairer, and far more effective adoption system.
However, it’s fair to say we’re not here today because everything is working perfectly, we’re here because we’ve got work to do in this country to get an adoption system that’s truly fit for purpose.
There are still, for example, big variations in adoption services across the country, with the percentage of children in care adopted last year ranging from just 2 per cent to 16 per cent depending on your postcode. Waiting times have been suffering, with only 72 per cent of children being placed within 12 months of their adoption decision, a figure that is even worse for black children, who have to wait 50 per cent longer on average than children from other ethnic groups.
And, just as worryingly, overall adoption figures have fallen over the year, despite the fact that there are prospective parents out there who are desperate to build families for themselves and offer a loving and stable family home.
Now, the question we’ve had to answer over the last nine months is why this slide was allowed to happen - despite all the good will and impetus behind the 2002 Adoption Act. Part of the problem is, undoubtedly, a systemic one – but part of it was simply, we think, one of a lack of focus in the past or sense of urgency.
Over the years, adoption has been allowed to creep down the public sector agenda - and the consequences have rippled out right across the country.
As far back as 1998 for example, we were talking about relaxing the rules around mixed race adoption, but when the Adoption Bill eventually came to Parliament, despite all those good intentions, little happened.
And even now, more than a decade down the line, we’re having to grapple with the absurdity of some adoption agencies treating a child’s ethnicity as the only deciding factor in their placement, when we know that we should be looking at all of a child’s needs, rather than one that might only serve to end their chances of finding a permanent family.
So, what we really wanted to achieve today, with the launch of this guidance, was a ‘call to arms’ right across the sector. We all know that adoption is a hugely complicated, and nuanced area – I’m not claiming this is match.com stuff… But equally, we also know that quality, long-lasting placements are not impossible to find. And that when they are found, they’re potentially life changing for those involved, helping to unlock children’s full potential and giving those who adopt them the chance to take on the ultimate privilege, and responsibility, of becoming a parent.
Our challenge, and it is a real challenge, is to try and unlock these extraordinary opportunities far more consistently and effectively in the future. To do that though, we have to move through the gears quickly, and I’m delighted that today’s revised guidance is supporting that acceleration, and that call to arms.
We really believe in this guidance – and we also believe a corner has been turned with its launch. Finally, we’re saying loud and clear
Over the last year, all of these reforms have been extensively road tested, and we know they can be potentially game changing – helping us to stop adoption rates from fizzling out any further.
However, they are still only a part of a wider reform package for adoption, which has been taking shape not just over the last nine months but, as the Secretary of State has already hinted at, over many years in opposition as well.
In fact, the first Act of Parliament I ever worked on as a frontbencher, was the Adoption Bill back in 2002, and since that time, a huge amount of work has been done, and a huge amount of reform is now being instituted right across Government to back up the new guidance.
We are, for example, working with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering on a pilot with local authorities to reduce delays in adoption, which will, we hope, eventually help all local areas to take full advantage of the Adoption Register, which has matched some 1,300 children since it was taken over by the BAAF six years ago.
In addition, as many of you will know, we’ve also asked David Norgrove to review the family justice system, which is currently facing some big challenges around delays to decision making. And I’ve also had discussion with Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, on how adoption panels and the judiciary can be encouraged to work together more effectively.
Perhaps the single most important part of all this reform, though, is the work we’re doing to support adoption agencies and help them improve their services.
For example, we’re now actively encouraging and challenging both DCSs and lead members to examine their adoption performance compared to other local authorities, so that we can begin to address that variation I’ve mentioned, and we’re also asking local areas to see whether they can work in closer partnership with the voluntary sector, so that adoption services work more effectively, and so that we can ensure families our found for the most difficult to place children.
Get all of this work right, and we know the results can be hugely impressive.
In Harrow, for example, the council has increased its adoption rates for black and ethnic minority children from just three per cent, to nearly 10 since it started working with Coram – an incredible jump and one that is, if you want to talk numbers, now saving the council nearly half a million pounds a year and huge amounts of time in placing children.
All of this reform and all of these individual examples are profoundly important steps, we think, towards building that more effective, and fairer adoption system. Not only do they prove that it’s possible to have access to great services no matter where you are in the country; they also show that with a little bit of common sense, quality placements for children can be found.
Why, for example, are people who are interested in adoption being turned away simply because the agency they approach says it doesn’t need them? Surely they should be directed instead to someone who does. I want prospective adopters welcomed in with neon lights above every local authority, or at least on their website.
We want agencies to look hard at how this can be done more effectively, and at the criteria they use to reject people. If you throw out someone’s application solely on the basis that they’re single, that they’re too old, or that they’re the wrong ethnicity, you might well be turning away an incredible placement.
Furthermore, why are we inundating social workers and other professionals with incredible amounts of bureaucratic form filling, when we could be freeing up their time to spend with families, and to make critical decisions that affect children who might be either on the edge of care, or already in care?
Professor Munro’s review of child protection will, we hope, help us to address that bureaucratic straitjacket, and move us towards a far more commonsensical approach to social work.
And I’m also confident that by looking at the role of independent reviewing officer, and considering whether it might be strengthened in relation to placement decisions, as well as by looking at the role of Ofsted and its inspection regime for adoption agencies, we can – in future – help make the system itself work even more effectively. All of which will, we hope, further underline the fact that while in a tiny minority of cases, social workers have got in wrong, in the vast majority of cases, adoption remains a fantastic, life-changing opportunity for the children involved.
So, to end, my sincere thanks again to everyone for coming along, and to the Secretary of State. As I’ve said, today is a real clarion call from this Government around adoption reform.
With today’s guidance, and with the wider reforms we’re introducing, we want to get people talking and thinking about adoption again, and we want all that to translate into action, with better quality placements right across the country.
Over the coming months I’ll be hosting a series of roundtable meetings to get different perspectives on the best ways of driving forward that reform, and I’m pleased to see here today some of the prospective adopters who came to the first of those meetings.
Already, I think, huge strides have been made, and there’s no doubt in our mind that this is an area of public services that can be turned round as long as we maintain that focus, determination and self-belief.