What works is adoption

Finding children a permanent home could be an achievement of Cameron's second term

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the measures expected to be listed in the Queen’s Speech this week is a Bill intended to increase the rate of adoption. This ought to attract cross-party support.

Last year, there were 69,000 children in what used to be called “care”. Now they are called “looked after” children – most in foster care – and their number has increased over the past five years. The number of adoptions has also risen – 3,500 were placed last year – but we need to go further and faster.

By definition, at least in theory, children who are looked after are better off than they would be with their birth family, but a permanent home in a loving family is far better still. It ought to be the object of any humane government to speed up adoptions and to minimise the time spent with foster parents or in residential care.

The previous government cannot be faulted for its good intentions. David Cameron made adoption a personal priority. Edward Timpson, the Tory children’s minister, showed impressive knowledge and commitment. And the Frontline scheme for recruiting top graduates into children’s social work has been a model of the bipartisan approach to such questions. It was started under the Labour government by Josh McAllister and promoted by Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer, before being taken up by Michael Gove when Education Secretary.

Things are thus getting better, but progress has been slow and there have been setbacks. Recently, there has been a fall in the number of adoptions, which was blamed on court rulings appearing to criticise social services departments for “sloppy practice” in preparing adoption papers. Fortunately, the family courts have already drawn up guidelines making it clear that speed is of the essence, and the courts have no wish to make adoption cases take longer.

This is a subject on which the Blairite slogan applies: What matters is what works. If this is a watchword adopted by Liz Kendall, one of the Labour leadership contenders, that is a point in her favour. Adoption used to be made too hard by well-meaning but mistaken ideology about race and class: now that those constraints have largely been cast aside, the important thing is to improve decision-making and make it faster.

Most of what needs to be done concern practical questions of good administration. Local councils ought to exchange information more efficiently about adoptions, to dispense finally with the notion that children should not be moved too far from their dysfunctional families.

There is one point, however, on which cross-party consensus on the principle of “what matters is what works” might break down, and that is on the question of public spending. One of the least important arguments for promoting adoption is that it is cheaper for the taxpayer than fostering or residential care. But it is also true that it is harder for councils to run efficient adoption services while local government spending is being squeezed.

Increasing the rate of adoption so that it starts to make significant reductions in the numbers of looked after children could be one of the achievements of Mr Cameron’s compassionate Conservative second term in government. The Prime Minister has made a similar personal commitment to improving dementia care, for which he also deserves cross-party support. Senior civil servants admit that they were sceptical when Mr Cameron first outlined his plan two and a half years ago to encourage people to volunteer as “dementia friends”. Yet there are now more than a million significantly improving the lives of people with dementia.

This is another example of “what works”. But the Government must recognise that, sometimes, this means well-targeted, higher public spending.