Government must accept its parental duties, and fast

In responding today (2 February 2023) to the MacAlister review of children’s social care, whose final report was published in May 2022, the Department for Education has issued two consultation documents – one setting out the government’s strategy for reforming children’s social care, the other seeking feedback on the government’s draft National Framework for Children’s Social Care.

Article 39’s focus is children in care and children who are living in institutional settings. On first reading of government plans, there are some very positive elements in today’s announcements, such as: improving children’s access to independent advocacy; strengthening the roles of those who oversee and scrutinise the care and protection of individual looked after children (independent reviewing officers) and those who visit each children’s home on a monthly basis (called the Regulation 44 independent person); and pioneering a new way for the law to recognise a loving and lifelong bond between a care experienced adult and a person of great importance to them, such as a former foster carer or a friend.

But the overall conduct of government in its parental role is seriously lacking and for older children in care its approach is neglectful and dangerous.

Local authorities have been calling for substantial additional funds to meet the needs of increased numbers of children in care, and this plea has been largely left unanswered in today’s statements. In its submission to the 2021 Treasury Spending Review, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said children’s services (which includes the care system and support to care experienced adults) require between £4.1 billion and £4.5 billion additional funds each year. Today, the government has announced total additional sums of £200 million over two years.

Latest official data shows that 37% of 16 and 17 year-olds in care are living in accommodation without any day-to-day care and routine adult attention, supervision and protection. At least 34 children living in this unregulated accommodation have died over the past six years. Today, the government has announced that it is reviewing care standards which already exist for fostering and children’s homes and, after this, it will “ensure that all children will receive the same level of care when they live away from home”. But, at the very same time, it is in the process of putting care-less standards into law for children aged 16 and 17, together with inferior inspection arrangements – a process that is costing more than £140 million, which is equivalent to 70% of what has been pledged today overall for all children’s social care reform over the next two years. The obvious fear is that standards of care for all children will be levelled down, instead of government ensuring that older children receive what is expected in law for those aged 15 and younger today.

There is nothing in today’s announcements dealing with the outrage of 200 missing children from Home Office-contracted hotels. These are children who arrived in the UK on small boats without parents or family members, and they should have been quickly found loving homes in the care system, as the Children Act 1989 requires. Central government has been actively diverting these children from the care system because local authorities are telling ministers that they do not have the capacity and resources to look after them now, as highly vulnerable children, and into their adulthoods.

The MacAlister review had recommended that government policy relating to vulnerable children in custody should move across to the Department for Education. The government has rejected this, stating structural reorganisation will be “time-consuming and complex”. At the same time, it states it supports the MacAlister review’s recommendation that local authority fostering and children’s homes services move from individual local authorities into regional structures. It will start this process with a pilot of two ‘Pathfinders’ ahead of future legislation which will mandate the changes throughout England. Article 39’s greatest fear with this proposal is that even more children in care will be moved outside their home areas. The government states the ‘Regional Care Co-operatives’ could combine the fostering and children’s homes services of up to 20 local authorities.

Ministers have announced today that they will ‘explore’ the professional registration of those who work in children’s homes, following the MacAlister review recommendation. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse first recommended that this be actioned in April 2018, nearly five years ago.

At the end of January this year, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, issued an exceptional judgment setting out in meticulous detail the desperate and longstanding plight of children in care with profound needs for whom there is no suitable or safe provision in England. Sir Andrew McFarlane even invoked articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life and the right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment respectively, as a means of galvanising government action. He ordered the Secretary of State for Education to appear before his court (counsel for the minister made written submissions and then, upon the President’s instruction, appeared in person). Yet no additional funds are promised for secure accommodation, or children’s residential care more widely, in today’s announcements.

The MacAlister review had recommended a windfall tax be imposed on the 15 companies making the largest profits from fostering and children’s homes. This would have left intact the prolific profiteering in the children’s social care ‘market’. But ministers have rejected even this modest proposal. (Article 39’s policy position on profit-making in children’s care is here).

Following the recommendation of the MacAlister review, the government plans to extend ‘corporate parenting’ duties to new bodies and organisations. Article 39 maintains that it is vital for government itself to be subject to a set of robust statutory duties to properly fund and prioritise the children’s care system. The care and protection of children in the care of the state must be elevated high above party politics, with every member of government knowing and fulfilling their obligations. We continue to have the sixth richest economy in the world. Children in care, and adults who spent their childhoods in care, should be feeling and living that.