Earlier this month, the government appointed a ministerial adviser on adoption whose opinion of current practices has led him to be accused of insulting social workers (by suggesting they are anti-adoption), wading under-qualified into a highly complex area and producing a reactionary, simplistic take on it.
Martin Narey, the former head of the children's charity Barnardo's, has long argued that more children should be taken into care. But the announcement of his appointment in the same week that the Times published a 22,000-word report, in which he said social workers spent too much time trying to keep dysfunctional families together and called for the rate and speed of adoptions to increase, has given his detractors more cause for concern.
Nushra Mansuri, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, says Narey's report left many of its members affronted at the suggestion that they did not support adoption, and offended by his views on the limited usefulness of extended family members. "There's so much anger felt by social workers towards him as an individual ... he's got his work cut out in terms of his government role," she says.
The Association of Directors of Children's Services is friendlier, welcoming the extra focus on adoption afforded by Narey's report and his new role. But it too has reservations. Matt Dunkley, president of the association, believes that Narey has over-simplified the tricky legal balance between children's and families' rights.
"We agree with his frustration about the length of time it takes to get decisions made. But he implies that it's generally more straightforward than in our experience," he explains. "For a judge to weigh a number of competing rights and demands and come up with some certainty about the right package of care or permanence for a child is a highly complex process."
Dunkley also has concerns about Narey's controversial recommendation that adoption should be promoted as an option for pregnant women who are not sure they want a child – often likely to be teenage girls – alongside abortion and keeping the baby. (Narey emphasises that he is emphatically pro-choice). "That proposal needs much more careful explanation and scrutiny," says Dunkley. "History tells us that is fraught with risk."
Narey knows that he faces a tough ride from those who, he claims, will resent someone who is not a social worker coming round and telling them what to do. But he denies that he is anti social workers, who have traditionally focused on supporting families to help them care better for their children.
He fervently believes, however, that there is nothing to touch adoption for transforming a child's life, particularly if it happens when the child is young. "I'm not suggesting that families can't be fixed," he says. "Our first effort should be to fix families – of course we should do that – and it can often work. But sometimes, we just try too long and too often ... The system is gripped by an unfounded optimism of the capacity of parents to change.
"When we're looking at children in neglect we just have to put their interests first. There isn't a balance to be made between what's best for the child and parental rights."
Promoting placing children in care is an about-turn for Narey who, as the head of the prison service, was horrified by the number of inmates who had been in the care system and used to call for its use to be reduced. Then, at Barnardo's, he says, he realised the damage had been done by the length of time it had taken before children were removed from their families. "I was wrong," he says now. "Care is not a catastrophe."
His new role as the adoption "tsar" will see him work five or six days a month, at a "very modest" rate of £540 a day ("I've shelved some much more lucrative work to do this," he says), mainly observing local authorities' adoption services in action and spreading what he considers to be best practice. One example he will be promoting is the stance of the London borough of Harrow, which considers adoption from the moment a child comes into care and practises concurrent planning – placing babies with foster carers who will adopt them if family reunification fails.
He will also advise Tim Loughton, the children's minister, on policy reform if it is needed. He discussed the possibility of some kind of advisory role with Loughton – for whom he is full of admiration despite never voting Conservative – when he left Barnardo's in January. Loughton does not agree with all Narey's views and insists they are not government policy. In particular, he has reservations about the recommendation that social workers should spend less time assessing friends and family carers before considering adoption.
Still, the two men are firmly on the same page when it comes to boosting adoption rates. While Narey avoids any hint of a target, he concedes that he will be disappointed if the average time for an adoption does not fall significantly over the course of his two-year role from its current rate of two years and seven months. He favours league tables to drive improvement in a system where the rate of adoptions varies by a factor of 10, and is particularly keen to see them used to show how racial background affects the time children wait to be adopted.
He feels real anger, he says, about what he sees as professionals still willfully failing to follow the law which, he says, states that while finding black adoptive parents for black children is best, the process must not be delayed if it cannot be done. "A white child is three and a half times more likely to be adopted from care than a black child. That's a scandal," says Narey.
Despite his detractors, Narey says he has had so many emails and letters of support, many of them from social workers, that he is having difficulty keeping pace with them all. One of which he is particularly proud is from Becky Hope, the pseudonym of a social worker whose memoir All in a Day's Work chronicles her years in child protection.
While Narey does not mind criticism, what he really does not like is his dedication to the task being questioned. "I don't think people should doubt my commitment to try to improve the lives of children who will otherwise have lives of failure," he says.