My son Elia with his amazing foster mother Treena

This is a photo of my son Elia with his amazing foster mother Treena.  And this is my Lords debate where I argue for a change in the law.  It is CRAZY that the Government is making it harder (in some cases) for incredible foster parents like Treena to help Britain's most vulnerable children.  Treena picked up Elia from hospital at 10 days old, and with her mum Pam, helped him recover from a terribly difficult start in life.  By the time I got Elia at 13 months old, his health and prospects we're transformed.  We should make things easier for foster families like Treena's, not harder.   So here's what I argued:

My Lords this amendment seeks to prevent the introduction of financial disincentives for adoptive parents. I strongly commend the Government’s stated desire to increase adoption rates where adoption is an appropriate outcome for the child concerned. However, recently passed legislation will have the opposite effect, which is why I have tabled this amendment. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, first brought this to my attention, and the Committee reminded itself this afternoon that if she thinks something is a problem, it is a problem.

At present, if you have one child and you adopt a sibling group of two or more children, you will receive child benefit for all three children, despite the Government’s new legislation that restricts child benefit to two children in all other cases. However, if you adopt your two children separately—that is, they are not in a sibling group, like my three adopted children who are not siblings—the exemption does not apply, so lower-income families which would get child benefit and who already have a child will get child benefit for the first adopted child but not for any subsequent adopted children who take them over the two-child limit, unless the adopted child is adopted with a sibling. This simply makes no sense. The exemption the Government have introduced is linked to genetics, not adoption, yet the whole point of adoption is to circumvent genetics. As my children are mine through both adoption and genetics, I feel very strongly that there should not be a difference, and certainly not one that is put into law.

I will raise one other very important issue relevant to this debate. It is also based on my experience of adopting three children in three separate adoption processes. I now have three amazing foster families who gave my kids a home before they came to me. I am linked into all their foster carer networks, through which I have met dozens of foster families. Added to those foster families, I have many others through the work I do with adoption agencies, so in total I have met upwards of 100 foster families. In the vast majority of cases, these amazing families are moved entirely by their desire to help the children they love and foster, so much so that when, inevitably, children with complex needs are not adopted, foster families often step in to adopt. In the case of my daughter’s foster family, the next child placed with them was attacked by her parents while a baby and left deaf, blind and severely brain-damaged. She requires 24-hour care. No family came forward to adopt her. She was going to spend her life being shunted around the care system. Her amazing foster carers therefore said that they would adopt her, even though they had no intention of doing that when they first fostered her. By adopting her, they dramatically restricted their quality of life. They did it because they are truly amazing.

What is amazing is that they had so little to start with. That is when I realised a strange thing: despite meeting so many foster families, I have never met, not even once, a middle-class foster family because on the whole, more well-off families do not foster children, they adopt children. Do professional women like me give up their careers to bring society’s most needy children under their own roof? The harsh but honest truth, which I wish was not true, but it is, is that on the whole, we do not. I would love to see more data on the economic background of foster families which adopt, but from my experience, and I have quite a bit of it, Britain relies on low-income families to bring up our most vulnerable kids, those with complex needs who too often are unfortunately—we do not do it on purpose—left to rot in the care system. It is quite shocking when you think about it, but what is even more shocking is that we are going to make it harder for low-income families to adopt. Taking away child benefit from low-income families who adopt children is literally shameful.

I grant that the Government have not done this on purpose—well, they have done it on purpose but I do not think they set out to do it. I hope the Minister will tell me I am right when I say that I am sure they did not set out to do something so diametrically opposed to their objective of increasing adoption. It is all about that law which we always seem to pass around here without meaning to: the law of unintended consequences.

A failure to exempt all adopted children from the child benefit two-child limit will be particularly perverse for this reason: it will not stop babies without complex needs being adopted by better-off families like mine. If I was going to lose £60 a month for my adopted daughter, it would not actually stop me adopting her. But for kids with complex needs who cannot easily be adopted and who often fall back on low-income foster families, that £60 absolutely will make the difference between whether they are adopted or not, particularly when set against the experience on the ground of the failure of post-adoption support, notwithstanding the Minister’s earlier comments.

It is always the exception that proves the rule. I know of one foster family that is not on a low income. Happily, that family belongs to the Minister of State for Children and Families at the Department for Education, Edward Timpson, whose family has fostered more than 80 children. I therefore have one question for the Minister. I think very highly of him, which is unfortunate because I will be devastated if he cannot help me out with this fairly simple request. I know that he must have enough power to do what I am asking—no pressure—which is this. Please will he meet with his colleague, the Minister for Children and Families, and work out a plan to bring into force this simple exemption in child benefit for all adopted children? I cannot believe that the Government want to increase disincentives for adoptive parents, and I beg to move.

 
  • My Lords, I support the amendment because I argued for it during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. When the Minister turned it down then, he did agree to a whole range of other benefits such as kinship carers’ allowance and so on. Frankly, I think he reached the point where he could give no more. The illogicality of saying that benefits could be paid for two sibling children but not for two children who have been adopted separately must have been for the noble Lord, Lord Freud, who is an intelligent man, something to do with the politics of it all. I say that because it was clear at the time that this exception would make sense.

     

    We trying to increase the rate of adoption. We know that the children who are now being placed for adoption are not easy. There are very few if any white middle-class babies being placed for adoption. Most of these children have special needs or they are older and therefore it is much more difficult to find a placement.

     

    I recognise that the Minister here may not have the power to agree to the amendment, but he can go back and talk to his colleagues. We have discussed silos in government at length and how people need to talk across government departments. This is an area in which we could make a real difference to a group of people who wish to look after children and, more importantly, it would offer a better standard of living to the children being adopted. It would be easy and I am sure that it would not be vastly expensive, although I have not yet done the maths.

     
     
  • My Lords, there are moments in Committee when we can listen to people with a lifetime of experience in law and the military, but we ignore at our peril someone with experience of adoption who speaks from the heart and makes such an emotional plea. Certainly our side thinks that this is an important issue.

     

    It is not just an emotional issue, of course; it is also fulfils that awful phrase we use constantly—it would be value for money. This obviously makes sense. I had not appreciated how many low-income families adopt children. We should support them and thereby, we hope, increase the number of children who are adopted.

     

    The last time I heard such an emotional plea was when my noble friend Lady Benjamin made a similar presentation and, I believe, stalked the Minister on a few occasions outside his office. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady King, could do the same, but I hope the Minister will take note of this issue.

     
     
  • My Lords, I support this amendment. I will not offer flattery, as the Minister probably knows, but I take him back to the post-legislative scrutiny report of the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation. It is a shame that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is not in her place, but some of us met a lot of adoptive parents, some of whom were on quite low incomes. They made two points to us very strongly. One was the issue we have already discussed, about the levels of support for adoptive parents, but the second came from people who had been foster parents. They pointed out brutally—but in an amiable sort of way—that the financial disincentive in moving from being a foster parent to an adoptive parent was very high. This seemed to me and other members of that Select Committee pretty bizarre, given that the Government were at that point going hell for leather to promote adoption as the gold standard for permanence.

     

    There is something not quite right here about what we might call the intragovernmental strategy—this applies not just in the Minister’s department—on how we align the financial incentives with the policy objectives. Therefore, the Minister should start to raise some of those issues not just within his own department but across Whitehall.

     
     
  • My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. The noble Baroness speaks so eloquently from her experience and makes a strong case. She takes me back to research that was discussed at the Thomas Coram Research Unit about eight years ago. That unit has carried out comparative research into residential care and foster care in France, Denmark and Germany. It is a long time ago but what stood out for me was that in those continental countries, many more teachers and social workers were recruited into foster care.

     

    Professor Jackson, one of the leading academics on the educational attainment of looked-after children, has raised concerns that many foster carers have themselves had difficult experiences at school. That is another reason why we need to support them very well. The issue of professionalisation comes into this debate. Do we want professional foster carers? My recollection suggests that they are better paid on the continent. That may be why one can recruit from the middle classes there. There is an argument on the other side that we should not pay foster carers a lot of money, as they should be doing this out of love. I have sympathy with that argument as well. However, the very least we can do is to pay them child benefit. I hope that helps the noble Baroness’s argument. I look forward to the Minister’s response, which I am sure will be sympathetic. I hope that we will see some action.

     
     
  • My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady King. Noble Lords recognise when they hear an outstanding contribution. My experience is that such a contribution tends to have three elements. First, it must have a strong and convincing narrative. Secondly, it must be delivered with emotion—but controlled emotion—often based on personal experience. Thirdly, it must be powerfully delivered in a way that carries other noble Lords with it. All those elements were contained in my noble friend’s notable contribution. We are happy to support the amendment. This is indeed an issue to which we will come back on Report if the Minister, as I suspect, is unable to give the answers that are sought today. This is an important issue and it has to be put right.

     
     

  • My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for raising the issue of adopters being exempt from the policy that child tax credit and the child element of universal credit will be limited to two children from April next year, and for her moving speech. I assure her that, in relation to her expectation of me, the feeling is entirely mutual. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Warner, for their comments.

     

    I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady King, mentioned the experience of my colleague, Minister Timpson. I put on record the achievements of his mother, who sadly died relatively recently, in fostering over 80 children. I am very happy to be stalked by her; I think that I would probably prefer that than to be stalked by the noble Lord, Lord Warner—no offence. I am very interested in the point that she makes about the income background of people who foster and adopt. I would be delighted to meet, discuss and understand the issues further. I know that Minister Timpson has been having discussions with the DWP—it is that department’s responsibility. But, of course, I would be happy to discuss this further and take it up with the DWP. I hope that against that background the noble Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendment.

     
     
  • I am sincerely moved by all my colleagues who came in behind me. It means so much to me, and I thank them. I am very grateful to the Minister for his sympathetic response. I feel a duty to explain to some of my colleagues that in October I shall be taking leave of absence from this House. I would not for a second want anyone to say, “Where the hell did she disappear to?” after this discussion. Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be brought back again; I shall table it again at Report. I hope that my friends—all of you are my friends at this moment—will be able to maintain the argument, as I feel so passionately that it is important. The argument is about the illogicality of it, which I am sure that the Government do not intend. The important point made by so many is about the cost; it is so much more expensive for us to have the state taking the role that those low-income foster families are willing to take when they adopt. On the basis that the Minister has been very responsive, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.