Category: ‘Myth busting’

Article 39 threatens legal action to protect vulnerable children

Article 39 has written to the Secretary of State for Education and government lawyers threatening a judicial review if a misleading document about local authority duties towards vulnerable children is not withdrawn.

The document, produced by the Department for Education’s children’s social care innovation programme, claims to expose myths in common understandings of council legal obligations towards vulnerable children. But Article 39, together with other children’s law experts, has identified numerous errors and misrepresentations of the statutory framework for children’s social care.

For example, councils are advised that they can reduce visits to children in long-term foster care to twice a year, yet the law states this is only permissible if the child gives their consent. This ensures young children, and other children unable to understand the implications of relaxing council monitoring of their care, continue to be visited regularly by social workers.

Most of the so-called myth-busting topics concern the protection given to children in care such as the frequency of visits from social workers, who is responsible for planning and supervising children’s care and the support given to foster carers. A series of questions are posed with advice from the Department for Education about the minimum actions they are allowed to take.

Freedom of information requests made by Article 39 have revealed that Ofsted disagreed with the innovation programme’s advice on council duties in respect of providing children and foster carers with their own social workers in the case of long-term placements (where a child has lived with the same family for at least a year).

Ofsted told the innovation programme that “The interpretation of all local authorities to date of the statutory guidance is to have two social workers – one supporting the child and the other the foster carers”, and that to reduce this to one would be “removing a significant safeguard for children in foster care”.

Despite this warning from the children’s social care regulator, the document was published with advice to councils that statutory guidance does not require them to give fostered children and foster carers different social workers.

An earlier draft of the document said it was agreed by Ofsted but this text was diluted to “in consultation with Ofsted” following the clash.

Elsewhere the document states that children who have run away should be offered an interview with someone independent after they return, yet existing statutory guidance is stronger than this because it says this safeguard must be offered.

Statutory guidance states that foster carers must receive at least one unannounced visit at home each year in addition to other visits and support from social workers. Clearly in conflict with this, the ‘myth busting’ document refers to just one visit a year as the minimum.

A joint letter was sent to the Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi MP last year, setting out the legal inaccuracies in the document. Fifty charities and social work experts urged the Minister to withdraw parts of the document that conflict with existing legislation and government guidance, because of the serious risks to children.

Labour’s Shadow Children’s Minister Emma Lewell-Buck MP also challenged the Minister in the House of Commons, accusing him of “cutting vulnerable children adrift”.  A further request that the Minister withdraw the document or at least meet with concerned charities was rejected.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“It is not good enough for the Minister to say there have been no changes to the law and statutory guidance while at the same time leaving in circulation a document which indicates otherwise. Council duties towards vulnerable children cannot exist and not exist at the same time.

“We are a small charity and taking legal action is inevitably risky financially but we cannot stand by and leave it to vulnerable children to have to go to court to defend the rights that Parliament and successive governments have given them.”

Copies of emails released by Ofsted show that the myth busting document originated from a meeting of the innovation programme, Ofsted and a small number of local authorities in 2017. That year the Department for Education sought to press through legislation which would have allowed individual councils to opt out of their social care duties towards children and families.

Over 108,000 members of the public signed an online petition opposing what came to be known as the exemption clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill. Peers voted them out of the legislation but a revised set of clauses were inserted when it returned to the House of Commons. These were removed from the Bill in their entirety after the then Education Secretary Justine Greening MP added her name to opposition amendments to delete them, in the face of widespread criticism that the plans undermined the rule of law and child protection.

Article 39 is represented by Oliver Studdert, Partner in Public Law at Simpson Millar, and Steve Broach, barrister at Monckton Chambers.

Government document tells councils they can bypass legal obligations

A document recently published by the Department for Education tells councils what they are allowed to do in respect of the care and protection of children and young people. It is published on the Children’s Social Care Innovation site.

As we wait for responses to our freedom of information (FOI) requests – see below – we have produced a table showing what’s wrong with the document:

What’s wrong with the ‘myth busting’ document Nov 2018

As can be seen, the ‘myth busting’ document claims to be focused on statutory guidance, though it also concerns primary and secondary legislation.

Acts of Parliament are primary legislation. Secondary legislation is also approved by Parliament though with much less scrutiny and debate. Other terms for secondary legislation are regulations and statutory instruments.

Both primary and secondary legislation must be followed.

In addition to complying with the law, local authorities must follow statutory guidance (issued by government departments) unless there is very good reason not to.

Through a series of so-called ‘myth busting’ questions, the Department for Education document claims to summarise the obligations in statutory guidance and then proceeds to set out what the guidance allows. The document states “all of the responses [that is, the ‘what does the guidance allow’ content] have been agreed by the Department for Education and their lawyers in consultation with Ofsted”.

Action to date
Article 39 co-ordinated a letter (with 50 signatories) to the Children’s Minister setting out the legal inaccuracies in the ‘myth busting’ document. We asked him to withdraw the parts of the document which are inaccurate. Six days later we received a response from the Minister. Very regrettably, the Minister did not agree to withdraw the inaccurate content.

Minister's response to joint letter of concern 10 September 2018

After seeking further legal advice, and convening a meeting of concerned organisations, Article 39 submitted the following FOI questions to the Department for Education and Ofsted. Answers to these FOI questions are due tomorrow (16 November).

Our questions to the Department for Education
1) Please provide a copy of the equality impact assessment completed in respect of the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document published by the Department for Education (attached with this request).
2) Please provide copies of correspondence between local authorities and the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, and any other officials within the Department for Education, in connection with the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document published by the Department for Education.
3) Please state the date of publication of the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document.
4) Please state the date or dates agreement from Department for Education lawyers was sought on the content of the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document, and by whom.
5) Please state the date or dates agreement was provided by Department for Education lawyers on the content of the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document.

Our questions to Ofsted
1) Please provide copies of correspondence between Ofsted and the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, and any other officials within the Department for Education, in connection with the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document (attached with this request).
2) Please state the date or dates Ofsted was asked to agree the responses to the ‘myth buster’ questions contained within the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document.
3) Please state the date or dates Ofsted gave its agreement to the responses to the ‘myth buster’ questions contained within the Children’s Social Care statutory guidance myth busting document.