As ever, my hon. Friend is amazing in his psychic abilities, having seen ahead to where I will make that very point further on in my contributions. It is a very important point, and he makes it even more eloquently than I will.
In the Government’s response to our Committee’s report on this issue and to the petition, they restated that local authorities can already provide discretionary financial support to self-employed adoptive parents where affordability is a barrier to them taking time away from work. It is also noted that
“Prospective adopters…are also entitled to an assessment of their family’s needs”,
which could result in further offers of support including
“discretionary means-tested financial support, advice, information, counselling, and support services.”
In response to this petition, as well as a written parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—who is in her place—the Government also stated that support for employed parents have been prioritised, as they
“do not generally have the same level of flexibility and autonomy over how and when they work as self-employed parents do.”
However, there are a number of concerns about this approach that need to be better understood, and in my view, the approach should be rethought. First, while local authorities should consider making payments equivalent to the maternity allowance to self-employed adopters, there is no legal requirement for them to do so—it is merely guidance. This creates inconsistencies across the country, because a particular problem for prospective adopters is that many search for an adopted child through national agencies rather than local ones, and indeed many local authorities are combining their adoption pathways. I have also heard from multiple adoptive parents that the guidance is unclear and confusing, including unhelpful signposting on the gov.uk website. That is not a surprise, considering the issue of departmental responsibility that I touched on earlier.
Secondly, linked to the first concern, inconsistencies in funding create uncertainty for families hoping to adopt. Conversations with social workers and agency staff are limited to ifs, buts and maybes, and financial planning therefore becomes difficult, if not impossible. There was agreement among the majority of respondents to the Petitions Committee’s survey that access to adoption support needs to be simplified, with multiple complaints about the role of local authorities. Of course, the very nature of the process of adoption is uncertain, but adding further stress and uncertainty to that process may not be the best policy to ensure stability for the newly adopted child and their new family.
Thirdly, the Government’s understanding of self-employment when it comes to adoption seems outdated and unrealistic in many cases. As part of my research for this debate, I heard from a prospective adopter who is self-employed. Unfortunately, like so many others, that individual is unable to hit the pause button on their work whenever they feel like it and press play again when they are free. The individual in question works full time, teaching in a school, and has the same amount of flexibility as an employed teacher. One of the key takeaways from the Petitions Committee’s survey on this issue was that adoptive parents feel they need more time to bond with and care for their child than the average birth parent. That is, of course, understandable, because adopted children have often suffered trauma from years of neglect and loss.
The survey found that just 61% of self-employed adopters were able to take time off work following adoption, compared with 78% of employed workers. Furthermore, 95% of self-employed adoptive parents agreed that more financial support would allow them to take the time off they needed to support their new child’s adjustment to their new family and new life. Contracts and work patterns have changed a lot in recent years, but adoption support has not reflected that. Self-employed adopters need support to take leave from work, so they can put time into ensuring their new child is safe and settled.
Fourthly, coming at this from a Conservative point of view, I feel the Government should be supporting and encouraging entrepreneurialism rather than repelling people from it. There are currently 4.8 million self-employed people in the UK, making up to 15% of the workforce. That is a 12% increase since 2001 and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, we are doing much to encourage people to become self-employed.
The self-employed are our country’s business owners, job creators and wealth creators. They are the backbone of our economy, and we need them. We have debated support for the self-employed many times, and I led debates in this place on support for the self-employed and business owners during the covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the peak of the pandemic, like many Members of this House, I was contacted by dozens of constituents who were unable to receive substantial financial support, many of whom were self-employed.
Finally, the Government’s position on support for the self-employed is not consistent with the aims of the national adoption strategy. One responder to a Petitions Committee survey on this issue explained how they had changed jobs shortly before adopting and, as a result, could not adopt a child for the first six months that they were in their new post. Self-employed adopters are penalised and children are waiting longer in care.
I absolutely support the aims of the Government’s national adoption strategy, which states that prospective adopters from every walk of life should be supported, including the self-employed. The vision is to ensure that all adoptive children are found permanent, loving families as quickly as possible—unless, of course, their prospective parent is self-employed, or so it seems.
It is difficult to gauge the full extent of how many individuals, children and families are impacted by this disparity. Nevertheless, I hope this debate will highlight the need to address it and pave a path that will ultimately unlock future adopters and support the creation of safe, loving and happy families.
In my research for this debate, it sounded very much like this is a loophole that no one had noticed. I seriously hope the Government see things in the same way and will look to close this loophole as soon as possible. I draw my remarks to a close, as I know other Members are eager to contribute. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and hope he is able to address the five concerns I have raised, as well as the many other concerns that will doubtless be raised by other Members.