Law should require government to properly maintain children’s care system

As we await the publication of the government’s strategy for children’s social care, and in response to the Department for Education’s media release, a short statement from Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director:

“It’s absolutely right that the care system must emulate, at every turn, what makes children thrive in loving families. Right now, we have a care system which pushes thousands of children aged 16 and 17 into properties without carers and devoid of consistent emotional backup and guidance, due to this being cheaper for cash-strapped councils and because, perversely, teenagers in care are seen as capable of coping with pressures and levels of loneliness that no policy maker, social work manager or politician would tolerate for their own children. We’ve got the Home Office operating as a bouncer to the care system, putting children who arrive in the country on small boats into hotels when the law states they should be looked after by local authorities. More than four in 10 of all children in care are living outside their local authority area, which means they are uprooted from family members, friends, their schools and all they know.    

“We will be looking for a strategy that starts with children’s universal needs for love, care and protection, and then puts in place specialist support to help children recover from often profound loss and trauma. The promise of increased leaving care financial support is welcome, of course, but the focus really must be on children and young people’s feelings and emotional needs, and the money should flow from that. No child or young adult must ever be forced from their home before they are ready, simply based on their age.

“We had called for specific legal duties on government around properly funding the children’s care system, including into adulthood, and were very disappointed that the review did not recommend this. The whole of government must get behind building a care system that is worthy of children. When children are genuinely unable to live with their parents and wider family, I cannot think of a more precious undertaking for a government than to make sure those children receive the best we have to give as a society.”

In 1991, the UK Government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and in doing so took on obligations under international law to promote and protect the rights of every child. The treaty contains additional protections for children in the care of the state, including article 20 which entitles children temporarily or permanently separated from their families to “special protection and assistance provided by the state”. Read the full treaty here.

In 2010, the coalition government said it would “give due consideration to the UNCRC articles when making new policy and legislation”. This pledge was repeated in 2018 by the then Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi.

The Children’s Commissioner for England is the national statutory body for promoting and protecting the rights of children, and is required by law to use the UNCRC as her framework for determining children’s rights and interests. Read her statutory framework here.

In October 2022, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse recommended the appointment of a Cabinet Minister for Children to “provide a sharper focus within government on critical issues which affect children and would provide the necessary leadership, profile and influence on matters of child protection”.