CAMPAIGNS: Lobbying - Adoption Bill a success for foster group

Client: The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF)

PR Team: Connect Public Affairs and in-house

Campaign: Lobbying for Adoption Bill

Timescale: March 2001 - November 2002

Budget: Undisclosed

Last week's political headlines were dominated by the difficulties of Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith, who faced rebellion on a vote in the Commons over the Adoption Bill.

But while the Westminster village gossips were distracted by the Tory leader's woes, the vote in question was the successful culmination of a long, hard lobbying campaign.

Changes to the adoption law, under which 4,000 children are placed annually, were the result.

Under the current law, children can only be adopted by married couples or single people.

The fact is, many single people who have adopted children are actually part of either unmarried heterosexual or gay couples.

Charities say the restriction on them being legally able to adopt is undesirable as it deters these groups from coming forward at a time when another 5,000 adoption families a year are desperately needed.

BAAF runs the annual National Adoption Week in October aimed specifically at raising awareness of this issue.

The current arrangement also means that when a child is adopted by a single person who is part of a couple, that child only has a legally-bound relationship with one of the adopting partners. Again this is seen by BAAF as not in the child's interest.

With new adoption legislation on its way, BAAF, which is an association of 382 bodies including all the main children's charities, appointed Connect Public Affairs to help advise on a lobbying strategy.

Objectives

To ensure that new legislation would mean unmarried couples are eligible to be jointly and equally considered for adoption.

To make the levels of support from Local Authorities - both financial and otherwise, including counselling and advice - more explicit, rather than subject to interpretation.

To ensure that private fostering arrangements, following the case of Victoria Climbie (who died after being brought to the UK to be looked after by relatives), would be subject to strengthened registration procedures.

Strategy and Plan

The initial draft of the Bill contained no change on the question of who should be eligible to adopt. For a change to be made, an amendment to the draft Bill would be required.

When the lobbying effort began, a key strategic decision was not to position the issue as anything to do with the civil rights of gay or unmarried heterosexual couples, but about the welfare of the child. This was, after all, the Bill's primary focus.

The charity pushed the argument that children adopted by single people who are part of a couple would be better off if they had a legal relationship with both partners.

The agency found that within the Government there was little philosophical objection to the idea, but that more important to many was a desire to avoid lurid headlines about New Labour making it easier for gay people to adopt.

With this point in mind (and with it known that some key Tories were behind the idea) the plan was to go for a cross-party amendment. Again, with concerns about the press in mind, the agency advised BAAF to seek a free vote on the subject rather than seeking Government support.

When meetings with ministers suggested that such a concession was unlikely, the agency had to introduce a new element to the campaign: press support.

Previously, press coverage had been avoided due to fears that the 'gay adoption' angle could get out of control.

A story was placed in the press stating that the Government was afraid to be seen to be promoting gay adoption, and that this fear risked having the affect of penalising unmarried straight couples.

In this way, the Government's concern about getting on the wrong side of the morality debate was successfully turned on its head.

The Government therefore realised it could be in a no-win situation and changed its position, allowing a free vote. The amendment was then passed, and (after being passed in the Lords as well), became part of the new Act.

Measurement and Evaluation

Clearly, the success of a lobbying campaign like this is measured largely by whether or not the desired legislative changes are achieved. By this measure, the success was not total, but was achieved to a significant degree.

Success came on the back of many things, but if there was a turning point it may have been the agency securing favourable comment in three newspaper leaders in three days, when it was most required.

Ultimately this success came with the final House of Lords vote. Here the charity had to be persistent, but eventually, at the second time of asking, the Lords approved it with lobbying efforts having upped the 'pro' vote by 60.

There are additional ways, however, in which Connect and BAAF can claim success. Not only was the key amendment achieved but it was achieved with the backing of the entire team of health ministers and - making a rare appearance at a vote - the Prime Minister. Hence, as a result of the campaign, the charity's position has almost become de facto Government policy.

Results

The charity only achieved one out of three of its aims but while that may sound disappointing, BAAF did run an exceptionally well-judged campaign.

To achieve a key objective while finding a way to cushion the Government's landing required a clear reading of the political environment and a strong strategy to exploit it.

But in terms of making counselling and financial support offered by local authorities more explicit, the campaign has been less successful.

The same could also be said on the issue of strengthening registration procedures for private fostering.

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