Children’s legal protection under threat

This Tuesday (10 January), Members of Parliament on the Public Bill Committee considering the Children and Social Work Bill will be asked by the Government to reinstate its power to break up children’s law.

The House of Lords deleted this part of the Bill on 8 November 2016.

The Government’s plan was to hand the Education Secretary, Justine Greening MP, the power to remove individual council’s legal duties towards vulnerable children and care leavers. The original clauses would have allowed the removal of virtually every duty made to protect, care and support vulnerable children and care leavers since 1933 – at the request of local authorities. The Education Secretary would have also had the power to force legal opt-outs on struggling councils.

After the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords, the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson MP, tabled amendments to reinstate the power to break up children’s law, in order to test different ways of working.

The Government says these trials, which could last for up to six years, will test whether legal duties towards children and young people can be removed across the whole country.

The Minister’s amendments keep four sections of the Children Act 1989 and two sections the Children Act 2004 safe from exemption. The Department for Education describes these as “core legal duties”. We agree with this description. However, children’s law which appears to be outside the DfE’s definition of core legal duties, and therefore could be exempted for up to six years as a test for national deregulation, includes (this is not an exhaustive list) local authorities’ duties to:

  • Prepare a care plan for every child who is the subject of care proceedings
  • Provide accommodation to children they are looking after
  • Provide welfare reports to the family courts
  • Maintain children whom they are looking after (besides providing them with accommodation)
  • Fulfil requirements pertaining to the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption
  • Fulfil requirements as an adoption agency
  • Follow minimum weekly allowances set by the Government for foster carers
  • Attend youth courts in respect of children they are looking after who have been charged with an offence
  • Make direct payments to the parents of disabled children, and to 16 and 17-year-old disabled young people
  • Provide support to disabled children
  • Assess the support needs of disabled children as they approach adulthood
  • Assess the needs of young carers, and the needs of parents of disabled children (in order to provide services to which these families are entitled under s17 of the Children Act 1989, which has been saved from exemption)
  • Co-operate with housing authorities and bodies to support homeless families and homeless teenagers
  • Allow children in their care to have reasonable contact with their parents
  • Consider placing looked after children with their parents or family and friends carers who are approved foster carers (the assessment of such carers could also be relaxed)
  • Place looked after siblings together, so far as is reasonably practicable
  • Make placements for looked after children which do not disrupt their education or training, so far as is reasonably practicable
  • Ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that the accommodation a disabled child is placed in meets his or her needs
  • Provide accommodation for children in police protection
  • Arrange for the children they care for to have a medical assessment, and to ensure looked after children receive medical and dental care and treatment
  • Visit children they look after
  • Check the welfare of children accommodated in boarding schools, residential schools and colleges, private and state-run hospitals and care homes in their area
  • Appoint independent visitors to looked after children
  • Offer advice, assistance and support to care leavers
  • Have a ‘Staying Put’ arrangement, whereby young people in foster care can remain with their carers until the age of 21
  • Appoint an independent reviewing officer (IRO) to each child they look after to: monitor the performance by the local authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case; participate in any review of the child’s case; and ensure that any ascertained wishes and feelings of the child are given due consideration by the local authority
  • Review the care and progress of looked after children, seeking the views of the child and their parents (among others) and considering a number of matters including the child’s contact with their family, their education, health and identity needs
  • Review a looked after child’s case before they move them to a different placement (unless the move is urgently required to safeguard the child’s welfare)
  • Have a complaints procedure with an independent element
  • Appoint independent advocates so children can be heard and their rights protected
  • Appoint at least one independent person to review the case of a looked after child held in secure accommodation
  • Follow a wide range of requirements, including arrangements for the protection of children, when they are running fostering services
  • Appoint a Director of Children’s Services and a lead elected member for children’s services.
Article 39 is one of nearly 50 organisations urging MPs to reject the Government’s amendments.

More than 107,500 members of the public have signed an online petition calling for councils not to be excused from their legal duties.