Extending Placement Orders to Special Guardianship Orders

Part of Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 12 Ionawr 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 12:30, 12 Ionawr 2017

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would extend the provisions for placement orders under section 21 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to special guardianship orders. I have argued in discussion with the Minister at various times that there is a need for special guardianship to have the same status as adoption. Children who are placed with members of their wider family under SGOs have had the same difficulties as those placed for adoption. Often, they may never before have met the members of the wider or extended family with whom they are placed, and they may move to another part of the country, as is the case with adoption.

Unlike what happens with adoption, however, because there is no severance of parental rights many children under special guardianship maintain contact with their parents. The parents could have harmed them in some way—hence their removal from their care in the first place—so special guardians, in many instances, have even more difficulties than adopters. They must manage complex family relationships while attempting to build a relationship with the child in their care. I assure the Committee that that is far from easy.

That is why it is vital that when SGOs are made it is on the same robust terms as adoption, and there should be a requirement, as with adoption, for thorough and robust assessment, including placing the child with the new carers to assess the suitability of the placement. Only when those requirements are satisfied should the matter return to court, so that the applicants can be supported in the making of the SGO.

At present there is no comprehensive legal requirement for anyone to conduct a full, thorough assessment of a potential special guardian. The court can make the orders of its own volition. Statistics published by the Department for Education show that 3,830 special guardianship orders were made in the year ending 31 March 2016. The total number of SGOs granted has come close to doubling since 2010 when 1,780 were made. I have stated before in the House that because the process of applying for an SGO is less stringent and because an order can be made without any testing of the placement, meaning that that the process is less arduous and time-consuming than adoption, SGOs are being misused.

I know that the Department has already done some work to look at that, but I am not aware of any figures on SGO breakdown. However, I know anecdotally and from practice that it can be common, yet such an outcome can cause immeasurable harm to all those involved. A clear lesson learned from fostering and adoption is that the assessment process allows families the opportunity to conclude that it is not the right course of action for them. Under the current SGO arrangements family members are far too often hurried through an assessment process that allows insufficient time for proper assessment, and allows them no time to reflect on their commitment to a life-changing and lifelong decision.

In recent years the Government issued a statutory instrument requiring greater attention to be paid when reports on special guardians are prepared for the court to the needs of the child and to the potential of the special guardian to meet them in the short term and throughout the child’s life. However, that is clearly not enough. Courts are not allowed to make adoption orders easily, and they should not be allowed to make SGOs easily. That approach has widespread support from the family judiciary, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and many directors of children’s services. Knowing the Minister’s professional background prior to coming to this place, I would be very surprised if he was against this new clause.