Report from Together For Children: MPs ignore severe child protection warnings from large body of experts

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MPs ignore severe child protection warnings from large body of experts

9 February 2017

A new report shows a large body of experts warned MPs of the grave danger of undoing decades of legal protection for vulnerable children and young people.

This advice was ignored by the Committee of MPs debating the Children and Social Work Bill, which contains radical opt-out clauses allowing individual councils to be excused from child protection and welfare duties.

The Committee invited expert submissions before it voted on the clauses last month.

Today, the campaign group Together for Children releases a synopsis of the expert advice. This brings together all of the evidence for the first time, and shows:

  • 46 individual experts and organisations warned the Committee that allowing councils to opt-out of duties could cause great harm and reverse decades of progress in protecting very vulnerable children and young people
  • Individual experts who provided evidence to the Committee have more than 650 years’ collective experience of working with vulnerable children and young people
  • The Committee was given numerous case studies of individual children and young people whose welfare and safety depends on council duties
  • Only one of the 47 submissions on the opt-out clauses supported the Government’s plan to break up children’s law
  • This was the first public consultation on the Bill. There were no Green or White Papers, and no consultation has taken place with those who will be directly affected – including children living in foster care, children’s homes, disabled children, young carers and young people who have left care.

The radical opt-out plans were rejected by the House of Lords in November. The following month, Children’s Minister Edward Timpson MP tabled amendments to reinstate the controversial clauses, and these were pushed through on 10 January, on a 10-5 vote split along party political lines.

None of the 10 Conservative MPs who voted to reinstate legal opt-outs referred to any of the expert warnings submitted to the Committee.

Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, said:

“It is scandalous that the Government continues to ignore vital evidence at every juncture – wilfully placing cost-cutting ahead of the rights and safety of our children.

“Its blind commitment to effectively dismantle almost a century of crucial child protection laws, against the wishes of professionals on the frontline, experts, Peers and the public, serves shames on our great democracy.

“These proposals are fundamentally dangerous and will expose vulnerable young people to the risk of abuse and neglect – principled MPs have no option but to shut them down.”

Judith Timms OBE speaking on behalf of Nagalro, the professional association of children’s guardians appointed by the courts to advise on children’s welfare, said:

“Children’s rights shouldn’t depend on their postcode. It is both unworkable and unethical. If these exemption clauses continue to be pushed through, our country’s most vulnerable children and young people will no longer have any certainty that the law will protect them. It is unacceptable that our members should be required to represent the interests of children in different ways depending on where they live, or have to keep children and the courts updated on which local authorities have opted- out of which legal duties and obligations.”

Emeritus Professor of Social Work, June Thoburn CBE, said:

“None of the substantial body of research on the workings of the Children Act 1989 points to the need for any specific sections of the legislation to be suspended on the grounds that they are impeding flexible and good quality practice. These clauses are a severe threat to children’s rights and it’s bitterly disappointing the Government appears so fixed on ignoring the social work profession.”

Jacki Rothwell, Chair of Trustees of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, said:

“It is disquieting that, despite so many opportunities over the past few months, the proponents of the exemption clauses have not provided any evidence that current legislation is a barrier to innovation, different ways of working or improving outcomes for vulnerable children. Taken together with the apparent lack of interest shown by the Public Bill Committee in the first public consultation on the Bill’s provisions, we have to ask what is the real driver for these exemption clauses. Who stands to benefit from these clauses because it certainly isn’t vulnerable children?”

Professor Mike Stein has been researching and supporting improvements in leaving care since the 1970s. He said:

“From the Children Act 1948 onward the legal and policy framework for young people leaving care has been strengthened by new duties derived from independent research, consultations with care leavers, policy makers and practitioners; inspections; and, leadership from government departments. This has resulted in a comprehensive and universal legal framework. It is crucial that young people leaving care, wherever they happen to live, continue to be legally entitled to the full range of statutory support. There are great risks in fragmenting an established and comprehensive universal service, not least a return to the failures of a discretionary system which resulted in both territorial and service injustices.”

John Simmonds OBE, Director of Policy, Research and Development at CoramBAAF, said:

“As individual citizens, all children have a right to be protected by the law wherever they live and whatever their circumstances. This could not be more important than for those children at risk and in need where the State becomes directly involved in safeguarding them or planning for their immediate and long-term welfare. The clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill, misleadingly termed ‘power to test different ways of working’ fundamentally challenge those rights and seeks to remove them. The House of Lords recognised this in deleting these clauses.

“If the law needs to be changed to protect and safeguard children, then this must be subject to full Parliamentary scrutiny as it is and required for every other citizen. It is not a matter to be tested by a small group of individuals in a closed discussion in a government department.

“Children deserve and need their fundamental rights to be protected and enhanced. And the Commons has a unique opportunity to ensure that this continues now and into the future.”

Carolyne Willow, Article 39 Director, said:

“Lively and heated debates are happening within Parliament, and all over the country, about the future of our democracy and the rule of law. Yet here we have a Bill slipped into Parliament, without any public consultation, which threatens to destroy the legal scaffolding holding up the vital help and protection we offer to our most vulnerable children and young people. It is the single biggest threat to our child welfare system I have seen. MPs in that Committee had the great privilege and responsibility of making law for abused, disadvantaged and vulnerable children. They chose not to listen and learn from the huge body of expertise, and now we have a Bill that once again is unworthy of children.”

1         The report is released by Together for Children, the campaign group formed to fight the opt-out clauses. 49 organisations and more than 150 individual experts are members of the campaign group. Its online 38 Degrees petition has been signed by more than 107,000 members of the public.
2         The Public Bill Committee scrutinising the Children and Social Work Bill issued its invitation for expert evidence on 6 December. Submissions on the exemption clauses had to be made by 6 January 2017, to have any chance of influencing MPs.
3         The Shadow Children’s Minister, Emma Lewell-Buck MP, has tabled amendments to once again remove the clauses from the Bill. A date for the Bill’s next Commons stage has not yet been fixed. MPs begin recess tomorrow and will return on 20 February.

Exemption clauses raised at Education Questions

6 February 2017

Education Questions in the House of Commons this afternoon (6 February) included a question about local authority legal opt-outs. You can watch the exchange between Shadow Minister for Children and Families, Emma Lewell-Buck MP, and the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, Edward Timpson MP, by clicking on the link below.

Education Questions – exemption clauses (clip from Parliament TV)

Evidence to Commons Committee published

13 January 2017

The House of Commons Public Bill Committee scrutinising the Children and Social Work Bill has now published all of the evidence it received about the exemption clauses, before it voted to reinstate them on Tuesday (10 January). This reveals that just one of 48 submissions* supported the exemption clauses.

*Two submissions were made by the same individual, which means the Committee received submissions from 47 separate organisations and individuals. Of these, 44 opposed the exemption clauses and a further two expressed concerns.