Campaigning organisations and social care experts unite to oppose Government plans to let councils “opt out” of 80 years of child protection laws

29 September 2016

Forty organisations and experts in children’s social care have joined forces to oppose dangerous plans to let councils exempt themselves from almost any duty imposed by children’s legislation passed in the last 80 years.

Proposals in the Children and Social Work Bill – to be debated in the House of Lords next month – will allow individual councils to be excused from legal duties towards vulnerable children, young people and families, in order to test whether deregulation should be given the green light nationally.

Every act of Parliament since 1933 concerned with children’s social care is affected, alongside numerous regulations. This will affect all of the social care services children receive from local authorities, including child protection, family support, the care system and support to care leavers, and services for disabled children.

This would expose children to a postcode lottery of protection. During the testing phase – which could last up to six years – a child in Newcastle could have very different entitlements to protection and support from a child in Northampton or Norwich.

Exposing children to risk of abuse and neglect

The group, calling itself Together for Children – which includes Article 39, the British Association of Social Workers, the Howard League for Penal Reform, Liberty, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood and Women’s Aid – has today launched a website by the same name.

Jenny Molloy, author and care leaver, said:

“Messing with laws that Parliament has passed to protect children could be taking away children’s first sight of freedom from abuse. We should be making rights and protection stronger so children in care have great childhoods and futures they can really look forward to.”

Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, said:

“In one fell swoop, these proposals would let councils opt out of 80 years of children’s care legislation. The essential protections those laws enshrine are the product of decades of learning, public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny and, sometimes, the tragic consequences of failure by the state to keep children safe from harm. With no consultation, this Government has decided those protections are dispensable.

“This regime would undermine fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law and expose the most vulnerable young people in our society to the risk of abuse and neglect. If this Government truly wants to ‘fight injustices’, as our new Prime Minister has said, it should begin by protecting children and removing this provision from the Bill.”

David Graham, National Director of The Care Leavers’ Association, said:


“Local authorities are required by law to ensure every care leaver has an adviser to give them advice and support and help with accessing services like health care. These young people are often entirely alone, and will have faced enormous challenges in their earlier lives. If this Bill passes, there would be nothing to stop the duty to appoint advisers being removed in the name of innovation. Any reduction in duties towards care leavers would put very vulnerable young people even more at risk than they presently are.”

All but one section of the Children Act 1989 is threatened by Clauses 29 to 33 of the Bill. Emeritus Professor Jane Tunstill, previously a social worker, said:

“The 1989 Children Act remains a highly respected piece of legislation, here and around the world. Throughout its passage through parliament, politicians maintained an open and respectful culture of engagement and consultation with service user groups, providers and the social work workforce across the statutory and voluntary child care sector, all of which contributed to the Act’s lasting credibility. It provides an excellent case study of how all governments can embrace an evidence-based and consultative approach to ensure legislative change will facilitate better outcomes for children.”  

John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research and Development at CoramBAAF, has been a qualified social worker for 45 years. He said:

“Innovation in practice must be a part of the services we provide to vulnerable children. But this must be based on evidence and a rigorous responsibility 'to do no harm’. The English law has focused over generations on a recognition of the vulnerability of children and the responsibility of the State to both protect them and enhance their welfare. It is a legacy that was hard fought to establish and challenging to implement.  

“Giving local authorities and the Secretary of State the power to create a postcode lottery of local provision without the scrutiny of Parliament exercising its sovereign power to legislate is highly risky and may be damaging.  Innovation in other areas of service provision is based on sound ethical principles, a prime responsibility to protect those being ‘tested’ and solid scrutiny and evidence. The clauses as currently drafted are not sufficient in any of these respects.”

Peter Saunders, the founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, has spent decades seeking justice for survivors of institutional abuse. He said:

“There has been no consultation with abuse survivors and no information about which laws are to be tampered with. We have a major inquiry taking place into catastrophic failures in the care of children and yet, incredibly, this Bill will enable the weakening of safeguards and protection.”

Martha Cover, Child Law barrister since 1988 and Debbie Singleton, Senior Lawyer, NYAS, are among children’s lawyers voicing deep concerns. They said:

“The Children Act has, for a quarter of a century, provided a vital system of safeguards for society’s most vulnerable individuals and accountability for professionals and agencies. These proposals risk the piecemeal dismantling of those safeguards. All systems are dynamic and the present system needs to be improved, but this cannot be achieved simply by allowing individual agencies to opt out of those parts that they find inconvenient but which are vital for public confidence in the system.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“In our experience the law is all too often viewed by children in the criminal justice system as an oppressive force and the reason that they are in prison in the first place.

“However, the law can also be an empowering tool to assert rights and ensure that proper services are delivered. This is something that our lawyers do daily.

“By calling the authorities to account and demanding they comply with their legal duties, we have been able to ensure that hundreds of children and young people in and leaving prison get the help they need to make a fresh start.”

 

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Notes:

  • The Children and Social Work Bill entered the Lords in May 2016. It is due to be debated next on 18 October.
  • Read Liberty's briefing here.
  • Clauses 29 to 33 of the Bill allow statutory duties in primary and secondary legislation relating to children’s social care to be exempted or modified for two periods of three years each.
  • Individual councils will be able to seek exemptions. The Bill also allows exemptions to be imposed on local authorities by individuals appointed by Government, and by the Secretary of State herself.
  • Regulations making exemptions to law in a particular area will be considered by MPs and Peers, prior to implementation. However, statutory instruments are very rarely voted down and Parliamentarians will be unable to amend orders.
  • The full list of organisations and individuals seeking removal is available here: togetherforchildren.wordpress.com.