Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering Agency Press Release

Last week Affinity associate member Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering Agency issued a press release ahead of their legal challenge to an Ofsted inspection report last year. Here is the text of that statement:

Cornerstone has launched legal action against the regulator Ofsted over a controversial inspection report that compels the agency to abandon its religious ethos.

Despite previously being rated “Good” in all areas, an Ofsted report issued in June 2019 downgraded Cornerstone’s fostering work to “Requires Improvement”. It labelled the Christian ethos of the agency “discriminatory” because it only works with evangelical Christian carers, and holds to the mainstream belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. At the same time, Ofsted issued a separate report on Cornerstone’s post-adoption support work, grading it “Good”.

A judicial review of Ofsted’s actions will be heard in the High Court sitting at Leeds on 6 and 7 May. Lawyers from both sides will present their arguments by video link.

Commenting on the Ofsted report, Sheila Bamber, Chair of Trustees for the agency, said:

“This report, based on visits between 27 February and 4 March 2019, acknowledges the high levels of care and support we provide to both children and those fostering them. It compliments safeguarding, the range of activities for the children we encourage, and how our team have helped ‘many children’ through the adoption process, including those deemed difficult to place, such as large groups of siblings, or those with complex needs.

However, we are concerned that Ofsted has failed to have proper regard to the law in reaching its overall judgement, downgrading Cornerstone for its faith ethos that requires foster carers to be committed evangelical Christians who live out that faith in all areas of their life.”

We maintain that this judgement displays a seriously flawed and discriminatory approach to our
service. Indeed, it is contradicted by a subsequent inspection of our adoption support service which concluded the service is good in all areas. Importantly this report acknowledged and accepted our agency is underpinned by Christian values, and that the service is “child focused”.

Ofsted is not a judicial body and is not equipped to make definitive legal statements about Cornerstone’s compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998. In so doing, Ofsted has acted beyond its remit and has misapplied the law.”

Pam Birtle, CEO of Cornerstone, who was herself in care as a child, said:

“In 2019 when the inspector for fostering came, she clearly identified that although the law had not changed, and although Cornerstone’s practices had not changed – we still operate to our genuine operational requirements to support Christian families, couples and individuals – that what had changed was the culture. It was the inspector’s determination that Cornerstone was therefore no longer lawful.

Cornerstone represents less than one per cent of all of the agencies that are available in terms of the independent fostering sector. And within that sector we are small. What we do provide is an opportunity for families to take children who are hard to place and if Cornerstone’s service was lost, then that avenue would also be lost.

What we know right now is that there are over 4,000 children waiting for adoption placements and fewer than 3,000 adopters already approved. In the fostering area, lots of foster carers are in their 60s and their 70s nationwide and they are ageing out of fostering at a time when fewer and fewer families are coming forward to take on looked-after children.

Although our contribution is not massive, it’s significant to the children that we take and it’s our plan on the other side of this court case to grow Cornerstone to provide a greater sufficiency for the local authorities, so that more and more children can have the families that they so desperately need.”

Click here for a video of Cornerstone CEO Pam Birtle explaining why they are bringing this case.

Cornerstone strongly denies that its recruitment process is non-compliant with equality and human rights legislation, and lawyers acting for the agency say Ofsted has “erred in law in making its finding”. They contend that Ofsted’s requirements are a “disproportionate interference in [Cornerstone’s] Convention rights under the Human Rights Act 1998” and are “incompatible” with provisions in the Equality Act 2010.

The lawyers cite Section 193 and Schedule 23 of the Equality Act, which establish that religious charities may restrict “the provision of benefits” to fellow believers who subscribe to their statement of beliefs. Cornerstone’s right to rely on these provisions was endorsed by the Charity Commission. A previously unpublished letter from the Commission in 2011 states:

“...Cornerstone is permitted to restrict the provision of services in the course of activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices where the restriction is applied for the following reasons:

(a) because of the purpose of the organisation, or

(b) to avoid causing offence, on grounds of the religion or belief to which the organisation relates, to persons of that religion or belief.”

(Click here to read the Charity Commission’s letter.)

For all media enquiries contact:

Alistair Thompson:
alistair@teambritanniapr.com
07970 162 225

 


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