Article 39 children’s rights charity wrote to the Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford, last month seeking reassurance that the usual democratic processes will be followed should the children’s social care review recommend changes to legislation.
The letter was sent after the review’s chair, Josh MacAlister, was asked in a podcast interview why all aspects of children’s social care – including support to families, child protection, the care system and support to care leavers, as well as the courts and juvenile justice – are being examined in a process lasting less than a year. The chair acknowledged the fast pace of the review and said this is necessary in order to capitalise on the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons.
Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:
“Josh MacAlister’s reference to the Conservative Party’s majority sounded loud alarm bells since it suggested Ministers may fast-track his recommendations straight to a Bill in Parliament, rather than following the accepted process of public consultation on options for legislative change. These are ordinarily set out by government in Green and White Papers. His statement also further undermined any semblance that this process is seeking cross-party consensus.
“In her response, the Minister has not confirmed there will be appropriate and adequate government consultation on any proposed changes to legislation, referring only to the government following the ‘appropriate parliamentary process’ after Josh MacAlister makes his recommendations. The review has not published any concrete legislative proposals which those potentially affected and those representing their rights and interests could respond to.
“Ministers and the review chair have consistently described this as a once-in-a-generation process which will lead to radical and bold change to our country’s arrangements for supporting families and protecting and looking after children, as well as supporting adults who were in care as children. This makes it even more vital that any proposed changes to the Children Act 1989 and any other legislation are subject to robust scrutiny and a wide range of expert analysis and advice.
“We are making our correspondence with government public as it’s important that those of us contributing to this review do so on the understanding that our participation may be misconstrued as consenting to whatever plans the government has for radically changing the law.”
Shortly after Gavin Williamson announced the appointment of the review chair, Article 39 co-ordinated a joint letter to the Minister from 35 organisations and more than 250 social care experts. The February 2021 letter expressed serious concern over the lack of independence of the chair, the wide-ranging scope of the review and the speed at which it was to be undertaken. It asked the government to commit to referring any proposals relating to the Children Act 1989 arising from this review to the Law Commission, the statutory independent body for law reform. The response from the Children’s Minister failed to answer this request.
In March, it transpired that the review chair had signed a contract committing him to making recommendations which would require no overall increase in public funds for children and families. Any proposals which carry additional costs must set out where savings can be made elsewhere in public services to children and families.
The review takes place against a backdrop of the government introducing legislation without adequate consultation.
Last November, in a legal challenge brought by Article 39, the Court of Appeal found the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had acted unlawfully in failing to consult the Children’s Commissioner for England and other children’s rights organisations ahead of removing and diluting 65 safeguards for children in care.
The government’s recent consultation on its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, which threatens to have a devastating impact on children, was not only widely criticised for being too short and poorly designed, but was also seemingly ignored as the government introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill into Parliament on 6 July, before the consultation response had even been published. Five individuals are now legally challenging the flawed consultation process.
Further, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, introduced into Parliament on 21 July, contains measures relating to judicial review, criminal trials for children and adults, employment tribunals and coroner’s courts. Only the judicial review clauses appear to have been subject to recent government consultation.
- The children’s social care review started on 1st March 2021.
- The Conservative Party 2019 general election manifesto promised a review of the care system (see page 14), not a wide-ranging review of children’s social care.
- On the announcement of the chair’s appointment, on 15th January 2021, a call for advice was launched – asking for recommendations for what the chair should read; whom he should meet; what questions the review should ask; and how children and young people and parents and families with direct experience of children’s social care could be directly involved in the process.
- A call for evidence aimed especially at researchers was launched on 1st March 2021 and closed on 30th March 2021. On its launch, the review chair said this would be “the first of a number of Calls for Evidence” but the process was never repeated for any other constituency group.
- On 17th June 2021, the review’s interim report ‘The Case for Change’ was published. A companion document stated that the review had heard from 700 people with lived experience of children’s social care; it had heard from 300 people working with children and families; and it had received 207 responses to its call for evidence.
- The Case for Change makes no explicit legislative or policy proposals. It has 15 questions which appear at the end of different sections. There are a further 3 questions within the text. The questions are set out below.
CASE FOR CHANGE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS (deadline 13 August 2021)
Chapter one: The context
– What do you think the purpose of children’s social care should be?
Chapter two: We’re not doing enough to help families
– What is the role of the Children’s Social Care system in strengthening communities rather than just providing services?
– How do we address the tension between protection and support in Children’s Social Care that families describe? Is a system which undertakes both support for families and child protection impeded in its ability to do both well?
– What do you think about our proposed definition of family help? What would you include or exclude?
Chapter three: We need a child protection system that keeps children safe through more effective support and decisive action
– How do we raise the quality of decision making in child protection?
– How do we fill the accountability gap in order to take effective action to keep teenagers safe?
– What can we do to support and grow kinship care?
– Given the clear evidence of positive outcomes and value for money of programmes that support parents at the edge of care and post removal why aren’t they more widely available and what will it take to make this the case?
Chapter four: Care must build rather than break relationships
– If we were creating care today that was good enough for all our children what would it look like?
– How can care help to build loving lifelong relationships as the norm?
– What changes do we need to make to ensure we have the right homes in the right places with the right support? What role should residential and secure homes have in the future?
Chapter five: System factors
– How can we strengthen multi-agency join up both locally and nationally, without losing accountability?
– How do we free up social workers to spend more time in direct practice with children and families and reduce risk aversion?
– How can monitoring and inspection make the most difference to children’s and families’ experiences and engender greater freedom and responsibility in the workforce?
– What will need to be different about this review’s recommendations compared to previous reviews so that they create a tipping point for improvement?
Additional questions in the document itself
These all appear in chapter four.
– There is a broader question about whether children’s homes are the right long term option for children in care and the extent to which they should play a role in our long term vision for care. We would welcome views, particularly from children and care experienced adults, on this question.
– There are also too many concerning examples where unregulated accommodation leaves 16 and 17 year- olds isolated or even exploited. However, the review heard from some 16 and 17 year- olds who are happy, safe and supported in good quality semi-independent homes. It is welcome therefore that the Government are consulting on regulation for these settings so that there will no longer be unregulated accommodation and so that the quality can improve. As the DfE are now mid consultation on national standards and an Ofsted regime of regulation, this is an area that the review is giving a view sooner, although we continue to welcome views on this, particularly from young people in care.
– Some have raised with the review whether care experience should be more formally recognised, for instance as a protected characteristic (Who Cares Scotland & The Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The review would like to hear from care experienced people about their views on this and what else can be done to end the stigma attached to experiences of care.