I have demanded that the government revoke new legislation that has weakened protections for children in care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The new regulations, which came into force last month, allow local authorities to deviate from statutory duties on children’s social care. Some of the key changes include scrapping the requirement for 6-weekly visits to children in care, making fostering and adoption panels optional, relaxing duties to independently scrutinise care plans and children’s homes and extending temporary care placements.
The children’s social care guidance was updated on 6th May to reflect the legal changes, clarifying that councils should only use these flexibilities if they are unable to meet their statutory duties as a result of the impact of Covid-19.
However, the guidance contains far less stringent safeguards than there are for adult social care. There is very little internal or external scrutiny of decisions, and no requirement to report use of the flexibilities to government.
The Welsh Government has not taken this approach, choosing instead to issue guidance which explains how local authorities can “work in an innovative way to continue to meet their statutory duties” in the spirit of the law.
The children’s rights charity Article 39 has accused the government of using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to “destroy children’s safeguards” by making the same changes they’ve previously attempted. They have threatened the government with legal action unless some of the changes are withdrawn.
The Children’s Commissioner for England also released a statement on Thursday 30th April which called for the new regulations to be revoked and the ‘most concerning changes … reversed’ as an “absolute minimum” and “urgent priority”.
The statement argued that “this crisis must not remove protections from extremely vulnerable children, particularly as they are even more vulnerable at this time”.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, children’s services were already stretched to breaking point. This week, the major children’s charities in the UK: Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau, released a report demonstrating the funding pressures local authorities face against a background of rising demand for children’s services.
The report estimates that in Sheffield between 2010/11 and 2018/19, funding for children’s services fell by £34,421,438, representing a 31% reduction in funding for services. Across Yorkshire and the Humber the estimated reduction in funding is 26%.
The Early Intervention Grant – a nominal allocation from central government for authorities to spend on early intervention – has reduced in England by 60%. Sheffield has seen its allocation reduce by 63% to £11.6 million in 2018/19.
The report found that an investment of at least £2.2 billion is needed at this year’s Spending Review to make up for the estimated funding lost across England since 2010 – before taking into account any additional pressures created by the impact of Covid-19.
The government’s new regulations seriously risk putting children in harm’s way and must be revoked immediately. It is not acceptable to make sweeping reductions in children’s rights with very few safeguards, minimal consultation, and absolutely no parliamentary scrutiny.
Labour has tabled a motion to annul the new regulations and has urged the government to make time to debate the issue in Parliament. We need proper safeguards to protect children and any regulatory changes must be debated.