Support for New Adoptive Parents

Elliot Colburn Excerpts
Monday 21st March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 601323, relating to support for new adoptive parents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. The prayer of the petition states:

“Ensuring statutory adoption pay is available to a self-employed parent in the same way that maternity allowance is available for self-employed new mums would promote an equal and fair society inclusive of all routes to parenthood. A parent taking statutory leave regardless of it being adoption or maternity should be both recognised and supported fairly. Expecting self-employed parents to take unpaid adoption leave whilst supporting their child during a critical transitional period is unfair. This current policy is not inclusive of adoptive families and to many, reads as an act of discrimination. I wish the Government to introduce an Adoption Allowance comparable with the Maternity Allowance for the Self-Employed.”

I thank the petition creator, as well as the multiple campaigners, parents, charities and organisations—including many who are in the Public Gallery—who have come forward to share their experiences of the adoption process, for reaching out to me and all hon. Members present to help us prepare for today’s debate. I also put on the record my gratitude to the Petitions Committee Clerks and the team behind the scenes for conducting an online survey to ask the petitioners about their experiences of adopting a child. As expected with a topic of this importance, there was a lot of passionate feedback from petitioners, which has helped us to better understand the policy on adoption. I am grateful for their assistance.

The petition has amassed almost 15,000 signatures, including 37 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I should explain that although the petition has not reached the 100,000-signature threshold that would normally trigger a debate in this place, the Petitions Committee has discretion to schedule debates of this nature. This topic is a perfect example of where we might want to use that discretion, because it is an issue that not many people come across directly. It might be a bit niche for some, but it is something that is very important. We therefore felt that it was important to bring it here today.

The issue of financial support for self-employed adoptive parents was raised by the Petitions Committee in our October 2021 report, entitled “Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on”. The report expressed disappointment that the Government had not acted to close the disparity in access to support between employed and self-employed adoptive parents when it was first raised during the pandemic by the Committee’s report on new parents in July 2020. Our report also highlighted an apparent lack of departmental ownership of the issue within Government, with confusion over whether it sits with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Department for Work and Pensions. Ultimately, we concluded that the

“benefits available to self-employed birth parents should be extended to self-employed adoptive parents”.

Before we delve into the detail, I want to set out the context in which we come here to hold today’s debate. There are around 1,870 children waiting to be adopted in England alone, and 52% of them—over half—have been waiting longer than 18 months. Our country currently faces a shortage of adoptive parents who have the right skills and background to meet the needs of the children waiting.

I welcome last year’s new national adoption strategy. As part of it, the Government’s vision was to ensure that:

“All adoptive children are found permanent loving families as quickly as possible where they will be safe and secure.”

The strategy stated:

“Prospective adopters from every walk of life are warmly welcomed and supported in a system that is never threatening or judgemental. Unnecessary barriers and bureaucracy placed in the way of those seeking to adopt are removed, systematically, across the country…Children and families get the support they need when they need it.”

In summary, our country faces an adoption problem, and the Government are taking steps to ensure that appropriate prospective adopters are supported to adopt a child in need, as per their strategy.

Women in employment having a baby are, of course, usually entitled to statutory maternity pay. For those not entitled—because they are self-employed, for example—there is the fall-back benefit of the maternity allowance. Employees who are adopting a child are also eligible for statutory adoption pay, which is modelled on statutory maternity pay. However, there is no equivalent for people who are adopting a child and do not meet the qualifying conditions—that is, those who are self-employed.

Dan Poulter Portrait Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making some very good points, pointing out the importance of the Government addressing this issue. Will he reflect on the fact that the Government have proactively encouraged people to be self-employed over the past 10 to 12 years, and ever-increasing numbers of people are self-employed or on flexible contracts that mean they would be considered self-employed? Does he agree that the encouragement the Government have given to self-employment makes it all the more important that this issue is looked at as a priority?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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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.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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If people wish to contribute with a speech, they must stand at the appropriate times so we can see that they wish to speak. Thank you so much.

--- Later in debate ---
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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Thank you for calling me to sum up, Ms Ghani—I promise that I will not take the remaining half-hour to wind up the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this important debate. I reiterate my thanks to the petitioners—not only those from Carshalton and Wallington but those from around the country—and to those who have made the journey here today to watch this debate from the Public Gallery. Most importantly, however, I thank those who do one of the most selfless things anyone can do, which is to adopt a child in need—I forgive the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for mispronouncing my constituency, given that he is one of those people.

I hope that the Government will commit to go away and look again at this issue. I was pleased to hear that there will be further opportunities throughout this Parliament to revisit it, and I seriously hope that it will be given the attention it deserves. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), who articulated the point so well, I was surprised when I learned about the current situation. I thought, “Surely this can’t be right. This seems like a weird anomaly to me.” I do not believe that the policy has got to that place intentionally. It sounds like an anomaly that was created when legislation went through, and no one saw the glaring gap until we reached this point. I hope that there will be a chance to look at this issue again and hopefully to close this loophole. I really do not believe that the cost to the Exchequer would be very much, but the return on that investment in our children will be huge and well worth it.

I hope we can all bear in mind that this is ultimately about those often vulnerable children who need long-term loving families. I hope we can get the bureaucracy out of the way to give them just that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 601323, relating to support for new adoptive parents.