For the full debate see here
Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley
May I wish you a merry Christmas, Mr Deputy Speaker?
I rise on an issue that continues to concern me greatly. I repeat my declaration of interest that I chair the justice for families campaign. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House wish to see the best possible outcomes for children who enter the care system. In trying to improve this, Tony Blair encouraged adoption, but made a big mistake along the way in miscalculating the percentage of children adopted from care.
Before I go any further, I should be precise about what I mean by “care”. When I say “in care”, I do not include those children voluntarily in care under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. In 2005, for example, 8,600 children left care and 3,400 of those left through adoption. That is 39.5%. If I could get the Department to analyse the figures by age, it would be clear that the majority of young children are leaving care through adoption. In Scotland, however, only 17% of the children who left care in 2009 aged under five left care through adoption. I accept that this includes a broader category, but if we take the numbers and uprate them for population size, we see that England has a rate of adoption from care in excess of 50% more. That is more than 1,000 children a year in England who are adopted rather than returning to their parents.
It appears that the substantial shift, which was a result of the previous Government’s pressure on authorities to increase the number of adoptions, was that children left care through adoption rather than returning to their parents. I see this in terms of individual cases where the judgments at times defy reason. It can also be seen very clearly when comparing practice in Scotland with that in England.
The Department has refused to provide many figures about the English system although some are now trickling out. When the adoption targets came in, there was a net flow into care. That would imply that the adoption pressure did not result in additional children leaving care, but instead caused the destination to change. Because the adoption target was miscalculated, there has been a general belief that adoptions from care were only a low percentage. An article written by Alan Rushton in 2007 about adoption from care states:
“Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that any wholesale moving of children from birth families into adoptive families is taking place. Adoption from care concerns just a small proportion (6%) of all looked after children in England.”
That is clearly a misunderstanding of the situation. The Department was reporting 6% for a figure that, properly calculated, was more like 40%.
The concentration on adoption also means a lack of child protection. Peter Connolly died in August 2007, but nothing much changed until the criminal prosecution in 2008. Some 7,400 children were taken into care to the end of March 2008, 8,200 in 2009 and 9,500 in 2010. However, often the wrong children were taken into care and more babies were suspected to have died from child abuse in calendar year 2009 than in calendar year 2008. In 2008, the figure for England alone was 47 babies and 97 other children. In 2009, that increased-notwithstanding the increase in numbers of children taken into care-to 75 babies and 111 other children. There are two sides to this problem and both are unacceptable. Although the adoption targets and financial incentives were scrapped from 1 April 2008, the practice is still skewed by the pressures that gave rise to the initial changes.
The children themselves are asking why their families have been split up. There was a meeting recently in the House, attended by the Minister of State with responsibility for children and families, at which a girl asked why her sister had been adopted and she had been banned from seeing her. Additionally, as children such as Winona Vamey and Tammy Coulter get older, they are acting to reverse the adoptions.
The aggressive way in which the courts have gone after families has created many refugees from the UK-mainly from England although there is one from Scotland. Susen McCabe, Kiel and Lucille O’Regan, Fran Lyon, Kerry and Mark McDougall, Sam Thomas, Emily Burgess, Sam and Vanessa Hallimond and Angela Wileman are only a few examples for whom emigration was necessary to fight the system. Sam Thomas made the mistake of coming back to England-Somerset-and her daughter has now been put up for adoption.
At the same time, the rights of mothers such as Rachel Pullen and Husan Pari to even contest their own cases are removed on the basis of expert reports saying they are too stupid but which are later found to be in error. However, the Court of Appeal passes these cases through on the nod. False allegations of satanism and Munchausen’s syndrome continue to be accepted by the courts without a legal right to a second opinion. Dr Fintan Sheerin, Professor Mary McCarron, Professor Cecily Begley and Dr Jo Murphy-Lawless from Trinity College, Dublin wrote to me recently asking why these cases still happen in countries that pride themselves on respect for human rights. My answer was that the courts do not always properly follow the law in hearings that are held in secret where people get imprisoned in secret for complaining about injustice.
All this is in fact inhumane. Given time, the European Court of Human Rights may point this out. However, I hope that the Government will respond to this more quickly. More work on analysing the SSDA903 return is needed. It is not acceptable to use the code “other” for something as important as this.
Journalists such as Christopher Booker, Camilla Cavendish, Sue Reid, Denise Robertson, Daniel Foggo and many more have raised concerns about how the system is a machine for miscarriages of justice, but it keeps steamrolling over families and children. Many of the families affected will be lighting Chinese lanterns as a protest on Christmas eve at 10 pm. They will include Phil Thompson, whose great-grandchildren were put up for adoption for no good reason by Walsall council.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and it might give him chance to catch his breath as he seems to be in a great rush. I do not wish to detract from the serious cases that he mentions, but does he recognise that in many cases in which children are adopted from care it is because of the serious problems in their families and the neglect and abuse that they have, sadly, suffered?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There is a need for a care system, but it has to get things right. One of the reasons children are often taken into care is that the mother has been a victim of domestic abuse. Women’s Aid argues that we should protect the mother and child and keep them together, rather than say, “Oh, you as a mother have been a victim of domestic abuse. We are taking your child.”
This morning or late yesterday, I received an e-mail about Kirsty Seddon’s case in Oldham. She was brought up in care and essentially that has been used as an excuse to remove her child. Luckily, the European Court of Human Rights is taking the matter seriously, and has now written to the UK Government asking them to comment on the admissibility of her case. There is a fair chance that, whereas this has gone through the UK courts on the nod, it will end up being picked up by the ECHR.
Even if the Government fail to do something, Parliament should be able to act to identify what is going on. Things happen that defy reason, which is why people have to emigrate to get away from the system. I will not rest until Parliament or the Government act to stop these miscarriages of justice. Sadly, the family justice review does not seem to recognise the true situation. The Munro inquiry seems to have a better focus, but both inquiries are hobbled by not having enough members who are not part of the system. We have the usual “quis custodiet” question when the people who are substantially part of causing the problem are being asked to correct a problem that they themselves do not recognise exists. That needs to change.