Writing in today's Guardian, Martha Spurrier reminds us that, "when huge stories are breaking like tidal waves elsewhere, it’s always worth keeping one eye on what’s happening on home shores." Today, the press is filled with stories about the US election and the changed shape of Toblerones. But we must not forget that today the Children and Social Work Bill returns to the House of Lords, for report stage. The Bill includes controversial 'exemption' clauses which would allow local authority children's services departments to opt out of their duties under almost every law covering children's social care for the past 80 years, since 1933.
We have previously analysed the Bill's exemption provisions: see Kate Beattie's detailed post last month which explained the core concerns, and outlined proposed amendments, from the Government and others.
The proposals are, rightly, proving to be extremely controversial, and opposition is growing. Over 100,000 people have now signed the 38 Degrees petition started by Carolyne Willow, a former child protection social worker, long-standing children's rights campaigner, and now Director of charity Article 39. 43 organisations and many individuals (including me) have signed up to a statement explaining our opposition to the exemption clauses. The 43 organisations have wide-ranging expertise and experience, and reading the list should encourage Parliamentarians to think twice before voting: it includes many expert children's rights charities (such as CRAE, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the National Deaf Children's Society), but it also includes the Association of Professors of Social Work, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and the British Association of Social Workers. The individuals who have signed the statement include both of the former Children's Commissioners for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley Green (2005-2009) and Dr Maggie Atkinson (2009-2015).
The statement explains why we want the exemption clauses withdrawn:
"Because they threaten to remove or change vital, universal duties which have evolved over many decades to meet the needs and protect the rights of vulnerable children and young people.
The exemption clauses implicitly acknowledge the necessity of existing obligations. Clause 29 states legal duties can be removed or changed “with a view to achieving better outcomes under children’s social care legislation or achieving the same outcomes more efficiently”.
How can a duty have better results, if it doesn’t exist? And who judges this?
... Without legal duties, vulnerable children and young people could be left stranded."
... Innovation and creativity in children’s social care are vital and necessary. However, allowing local authorities to pick-and-choose their legal duties towards children is dangerous and fundamentally undermines the rule of law."
Similar concerns have also been expressed by others: for example, the Magistrates' Association has queried what the Government's evidential basis is for the assertion that there are "‘blockages’ in primary legislation that local authorities would seek exemption from in order to innovate" and the Association has said that such broad powers "should only be implemented on the strongest evidence that such fundamental changes are necessary and will lead to better outcomes for children." Lord Warner, former commissioner for children’s services in Birmingham, has also questioned the evidential basis for the proposed changes, saying that the Government had provided “no evidence that primary or secondary legislation is impeding innovation in children’s services”.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is that there has been no consultation on these undoubtedly radical and far-reaching changes. There was no manifesto promise. This is no way to consider eight decades of policy and legal duties. That is why we should heed Martha Spurrier's call and pay close attention to what happens in the House of Lords on these vital issues today.
A little-noticed amendment to the children and social work bill will allow councils to opt out of their child protection obligations under almost every law covering children’s social care since 1933. If a local authority is struggling with a tight budget and feels expensive social care should be next for the chop it could – even if it is already failing the children under its care – ask the education minister to let it ignore 80 years of legislation. The reason for this destruction of children’s rights? “To test different ways of working with a view to achieving better outcomes … or achieving the same outcomes more efficiently.” If the Lords were debating this on any other day it would receive the media scrutiny and public debate that such a morally dubious and profoundly risky proposal deserves.