David Cameron, in his speech last week to the Conservative Party, said:
“Children in care are today almost guaranteed to live in poverty.
84 per cent leave school without five good GCSEs.
70 per cent of prostitutes were once in care.
And tragically, care leavers are four times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else.
These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents – and what are we setting them up for.…the dole, the streets, an early grave?
I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right.
Just as we said to failing schools, “do a better job with our children or we will send new leaders in”, so we will say to poorly performing social services, “improve or be taken over”.
Just as we got the best graduates teaching at our most difficult schools, let’s get our brightest and best to the frontline of social work.
But we must also stop children needing to be in care at all.
When we came to office, the adoption rate in our country was frankly a scandal.
It has gone up. Our Adoption Bill will help it increase still further.
But there’s so much more to do.
So let us in this hall say to all those children desperate for a family, and all those families yearning for a child:
We, the Conservatives, we are the ones who will bring you together.”
Some commentators felt this was “left wing” – simply to have concern for the prospects of children in care. In fact seeking to make adoption easier challenges left wing ideology. Much of it could be summarised with the convenient shorthand term “political correctness”. It is not an ideology held by all social workers or by everyone in the Labour Party. But it is an ideology that is so well entrenched it will be difficult – though by no means impossible – for the Prime Minister to make good his promise.
Of course one firm ally for the cause of adoption is Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, for whom it’s personal. Gove was on the Good Right panel at the Legatum Institute fringe meeting last week. He was asked which reform from Conservatives to fight poverty that he was most proud and he said:
“Changing the position on child protection and adoption. For a host of reasons there are biases against intervening in circumstances where you a child whose biological parents may be living lives of such squalor or whatever that that a child may be at risk or endangered. But I actually think that there are times when children do need to be rescued from such circumstances and placed with a family that can offer them love and stability and security. The Prime Minister has led a consistent campaign which has significantly increased the number of children who are taken out of homes where they are at risk, placed for a brief period in local authority care and more adopted.”
That is an admirable description of what should happen. It is not the reality however. In March 2010 in England there were 64,400 children in care. In March this year there were 69,540. In themselves those figures do not mean things have got worse. It is right for children to be taken into care where they are being rescued from abuse or neglect – if more children in those circumstances are being taken into care that is an achievement.
The problem is that once in care they tend to stay there until their 18th birthday. Either continuously or even worse, as noted on Friday, they are returned to their birth mother to endure further harm and then returned to care. In March 2010 there were 3,200 children who had been adopted in the preceding year. In March this year the figure was 5,330. So that is progress. But adoption was still far from being the norm. There were more – 7,350 – who left care as they had reached their 18th birthday. Many of those will go onto prison. Indeed there were another 550 aged under 18 who ceased to be in care because they were sentenced to custody. 10,620 children were returned to parents – all too frequently with disastrous consequences.
So the increase in adoption needs to be on a quite different scale. Not a 50 per cent increase but a 500 per cent increase. I don’t see any prospects of the current plans achieving any great breakthrough. The new Adoption Bill will have a very marginal impact. It seeks to speed up the placement for those children where adoption is approved. The problem is that for far too many children in care this is not recognised by social workers to be the right choice.
Much of the effort so far has been reliant on seeking to persuade social workers to change their approach. Imagine if Gove had made his school reforms dependent on winning over the leadership of the National Union of Teachers? For example, it should be illegal for any delay to take place in placement due trying to secure an ethnic match. For Sir Martin Narey, the Government’s advisor in these matters, asking social workers if they would mind awfully trying to limit such delays has proved ineffective. Sir Martin also feebly asserted that “adoption is only ever for a minority of children in care”.
For years the only way of becoming a social worker was completing a social work degree consisting of the most pernicious Marxist rubbish. This has changed with the Frontline scheme but the social work managers, the senior officials who make the decisions about a child’s fate, are the ones who have been in post for years.
The other problem is that social workers tell me that when they back adoption as the best option for a child it is often rejected in court. There should be a presumption in favour of adoption but at present there is a massive presumption against. That is not just a matter of the prejudices of the social work establishment but also how judges interpret the current law.
Just as we have forced takeovers for failing schools the Government proposes forced takeovers of Children’s Services Departments for local authorities that are letting down children in care. The difficulty is, if we are honest, that would be every Children’s Service’s Department in the country. All of them are keeping children in care who could and should be adopted. Just because the scandal is ubiquitous does not mean that it ceases to be a scandal.
The politics tend to serve as a drag rather than an impetus to making progress. Jeremy Corbyn’s record on this matters is pretty appalling. While in the past, some Labour politicians – such as Paul Boateng – have spoken out about the problems we certainly can’t rely on any pressure from Labour for the Government to press ahead with meaningful reform.
Tim Loughton as Children’s Minister was very much a servant of the social work establishment. The “sector” was sorry to see him leave with a consensus that he had been a “good Minister”. So he was from their point of view. But he was not a good Minister from the point of view of the children trapped in care and in need of an escape route to loving homes. Edward Timpson, his successor, shows every sign of having been absorbed by the social work blob.
Then we have Nicky Morgan the Education Secretary. She shows little sign of concern over the subject. While Gove tried and failed, Morgan is not even trying.
The anti adoption lobby is active among Tory backbenchers. For example the charity Who Cares? Trust opposed even the modest Gove reforms. They are the “secretariat” to the All Party Parliamentary Looked After Children and Care Leavers group. This is chaired by the Conservative MP Craig Whittaker. He has told me in the past that he considered the Trust’s opposition to the Government’s adoption reforms to be “well balanced”. I’m not aware of an counterbalancing lobby of Tory MPs pressing the Government to go further.
Thus all this leaves me pessimistic about whether the Prime Minister’s ambition will become reality. What has been achieved so far is pretty feeble, as is what is currently in prospect. Needless to say I would be delighted to be proved wrong.