Do No Harm – Emma Lewell-Buck MP

DO NO HARM Seminar 11 September 2018, House of Commons

EMMA LEWELL-BUCK MP, Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Thank you all for asking me to speak here tonight. We now have the largest number of children in care since the 1980s and at my last check care proceedings are up by a staggering 130%.  What these figures alone suggest is that we are missing opportunities to safely avert the need for some children to come into care and that for thousands of children it is very likely at the end of these proceedings they will be placed into long term foster care or adopted, signalling permanent severance between mothers, fathers and wider family members with a child.

Now I know from my time as a social worker that the pain caused to children, their wider birth family and their new family when they were removed from their parents’ care, even when it was the safest thing to do is utterly heartbreaking. When opportunities to keep a family together have been missed, that heartbreak and enduring pain never leaves those involved.

I cannot imagine the sheer pain and anguish of having your child adopted against your will, it is one of the most severe acts that the state can take. It always should be a last resort. Many of you here will know that my view is and always has been that absolutely everything should be done to support children to remain with their family or return to their family’s care where it is safe to do so. The focus should be working with families in local communities to prevent children becoming at risk of going into care, and if they do, to support all forms of care if a child can’t remain with their parents, not just adoption.

We need services to be enabled to move on from an expensive crisis-led model to one of prevention, where there are enough resources for families and their children to be supported, as suggested by the recent Care Crisis Review.  The barrier to making this a reality is the Government.

Everything they are doing is counter to this vision, they have cut local authorities’ early intervention grants—money that can keep children from entering care—by up to £600 million, with almost £100 million more of cuts still to come and have left a gaping £2 billion gap in local authority budgets for children’s care by 2020.  They have closed Sure Start Centres and with that removed many of the family support workers who would help to keep families together, they are closing the problem-solving model of the family, drug and alcohol courts, which help to keep children out of the care system and save the taxpayer an average of £27,000 per family.

As well as completely ignoring the groundswell of evidence, research and voices making it clear that poverty and care are interlinked, even when the Government’s own figures show that children are 10 times more likely to be on a child protection plan if they live in a deprived area. To echo Andy’s comments you simply cannot separate cuts and austerity from children’s social work, this work is inextricably linked to wider societal and economic issues.

The Government remain ideologically welded to Adoption above all other forms of care, with more than 20 policy changes since 2010. Back in 2012, the former Education Secretary said “I firmly believe more children should be taken into care more quickly,” which was then backed up by Lord Nash who said “the Government are strongly pro-adoption.”  There is something fundamentally wrong when we are seeing more children being adopted in the UK than in any other European country, and 90% of those adoptions are without parental consent.

One of the major arguments put forward for speeding up adoptions is that it would reduce the number of children in care, but the opposite has been the case. Research has found that adoption policies, rather than reducing the number of children in care, have led to a 65% increase in the number of children being separated from their parents. There are also worrying trends emerging where children are increasingly being removed from mothers who are victims of domestic violence, where women aren’t supported and instead accused of failing to protect their children and often end up losing them as a result. Something that has just been articulated by Lisa far better than I ever could.   In 2016, the Council of Europe criticised England for the very practice of removing children who have been subject to domestic abuse, particularly in the context of policies promoting forced adoption.

Now many of you may not know this but last year the Government changed legislation to make it so that prospective adopters can be prioritized over relatives or other carers in the Children and Social Work Act. This legislation can lead to children being prematurely placed with prospective adopters even before the conclusion of court proceedings in order to build a relationship with prospective adopters. That is then used to undermine the child’s prospect of going back to his or her birth family, extended family members or friends, who love the child and have been trying to do their best to keep them in their care. It diminishes a child’s right to a family life, risks the early separation of siblings, and inflicts trauma and grief on children and their primary carers as well as on other loving family members.

The Government need to take a serious look at the patterns and trends in child protection, adoption and fostering, but instead they have continued on this damaging path of pro-adoption. I want to remind you all, Labour do not believe that punitive welfare policies imposed by state resulting in the inevitability of poverty for so many is neglectful parenting.  Labour do not believe that those who have endured domestic abuse should be doubly punished by having their children removed from their care.

I will always fight to protect families and give children and their mothers the absolute best start in life regardless of their background, postcode, or circumstances because the cost of not doing so is something we are already seeing being borne out with tragic results in Tory Britain.