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Adoption
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.