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UK policymaking outsourced: the curious case of adoption reform

Breathtaking collusion between ministers, special advisers and Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenants is being dragged into the light by the Leveson inquiry. Where else is policy being created by cabal?

Breathtaking collusion between ministers, special advisers and Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenants (some of them inside the Government) is being dragged into the light by the Leveson inquiry. This prompted me to reflect on the curious way in which last summer a Blueprint for adoption reform emerged from Murdoch’s Wapping news factory.

I've revisited that story. 

Times subscribers may recall front-page pictures of celebrity adoptees promoting a 22,000-word supplement entitled “The Narey Report on Adoption: Our Blueprint for Britain’s Lost Children”, published on 5 July last year.

One prominent adoptee and passionate advocate of early adoption who featured in the Blueprint was Michael Gove, the education minister. A former Times executive given a £65,000-a-year freelance contract on becoming an MP, Gove has remained close and loyal to Murdoch. His wife Sarah Vine is a writer on The Times.

The Blueprint urged that more children should be taken into care and at an earlier age, the adoption process should be speeded up, and social workers should take a more flexible approach to “ethnic matching”. It paved the way for increased private sector involvement in adoption, and said women requesting an abortion should be presented with the “valid option” of continuing with a pregnancy, giving birth and handing over the baby for adoption.

The author, Martin Narey, had lately retired as chief executive of Barnardo’s, Britain’s biggest children’s charity. (Before Barnardo’s he had been a career public servant, rising to the top of the Prison Service.)

What Narey wrote was not surprising. It chimed with the campaign for adoption reform that The Times had been running for three months, and amplified the case Narey had argued in a 2009 paper for the Institute for Public Policy Research: more neglected children should be taken from their parents. He had pushed that line consistently at Barnardo’s and he marked his departure in January 2011 by declaring:

“Too many social workers and senior people in local authorities are at best antipathetic towards adoption and at worst believe it to be an entirely unreasonable intervention.”

What was surprising and extraordinary was the nature of the Blueprint’s gestation. According to the Times Editorial that appeared within the Blueprint, the Government approached Narey while the Blueprint was being written,“to see if he would consider taking on the role of official advisor on adoption.”

This enabled The Times on 5 July to claim ownership of government policy in advance of any formal policymaking process:

“This report, published here in full, now becomes a blueprint for reform and a radical overhaul of adoption services will take place this year.”

Two days later, Narey’s two-year appointment as the government’s ministerial adviser, or “Adoption Tsar”, was announced through official channels. According to Narey’s formal letter of appointment, the task concerns policy execution, or, as Tim Loughton puts it:

“helping me to achieve my ultimate ambition of creating a much more user-friendly and effective adoption system.”

A couple of weeks ago I asked Martin Narey about these matters. How long has he known Michael Gove and Tim Loughton and how would he characterise those relationships? What was their contribution to the Blueprint? When and how was he offered the Adoption Tsar job? Was it advertised?

Narey replied that he first met Loughton and Gove in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Both relationships are “professional”, he has met neither man socially. (Narey added that he has never been a supporter or member of the Conservative party.)

He reckons that in the year before the Blueprint’s publication he met Gove two or three times, and Loughton eight or ten times. He says the Times commission landed in March and he informed both ministers about it in April.

“Mr Gove made no input,” says Narey. “Tim Loughton saw me a couple of times to discuss his priorities for adoption.” In May or June, says Narey, Loughton called to offer him the adoption role. The part-time position, which was not advertised, pays £40,000 a year through Narey’s limited company.

The Blueprint is a curious hybrid, a vision of how policymaking might look if it were outsourced to vested interests. Framed as advice to the Minister, it was published as an “exclusive” behind the Murdoch paywall — the polar opposite of open democracy.

Within the Blueprint Narey praised the minister who had just offered him a job (“I have rarely come across a minister with such a grasp of his brief as the current Children’s Minister Tim Loughton”), and warmly quoted Michael Gove, the education minister, loyal Murdoch man and passionate advocate of adoption’s transformative power.

Not a social worker, never having placed a child for adoption, Narey produced the Blueprint after two months' work. Rich in anecdote, it contains not a single footnote.

The author’s personal experience weighs heavily. He writes:

“I knew a little of adoption when I arrived at Barnardo’s in 2005. Five of my nieces and nephews were adopted and I was of course aware of how successful adoption had been there, as the five grew up into adults who made their fathers — my brothers — and their mothers extremely proud. But in 2005 I had little idea that this success could be replicated over and again, particularly if adoptions took place when the child was very young.”

The creation of government policy is not supposed to be arbitrary or personal or accountable only to subscribers of one particular newspaper. It is supposed to be rigorous, testing the evidence, minuted and accountable to Parliament. Policy relating to children, who have no voice, requires particular skill and care to protect its integrity from the vagaries of political expedience and populism.

Adoption is full of complexity, yet the Blueprint and the Government urge strong, unequivocal, speedy ways forward.

“In the US, assessments are completed in weeks, not months, and provide shorter but still rigorous analysis,”  Adoption Tsar Narey told The Times last November. (The article is behind the Times paywall but available here on the Department of Education website).

He said American social workers’ “much more positive” attitude towards adopters was “one reason why there were more than 100,000 adoptions last year in the US and only 3,000 in England.”

America’s population is six times bigger than England’s, adoption practice and regulation varies by state, there's a mix of for-profit and non-profit agencies; perhaps one tenth of US adoptions are from overseas and there’s a rapidly rising evangelical adoption movement. According to the New York Times, when President Bill Clinton called on states fifteen years ago to double the number of adoptions, critics warned that placements were being made in haste and children would come flooding back into the system. As the adoption boom generation hits 18 and benefits expire, homelessness is a growing problem.

It’s not simple.

Responding last July to criticism about the extraordinary way in which the Blueprint came about, Narey told Community Care:

“The report I did for The Times is entirely separate from my role for government. It is a good foundation for my role but it is not government policy and was never going to be. There was no collusion.”

In light of Leveson that is hard to swallow.

 


“The Narey Report on Adoption: Our Blueprint for Britain’s Lost Children,” The Times, 5 July 2011, is downloadable at MNarey.co.uk.

Family law barrister Lucy Reed attempts to trace Narey’s source material here.

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist, founded and co-edits Shine a Light, an investigative project that publishes first at openDemocracy. Clare is a co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism 2010. Orwell Prize nominee 2013 & 2015.


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