I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 445), dated 21 April 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23 April 2020, be annulled.
I thank the Minister for making time for this debate this afternoon in response to the prayer motion we have laid against these regulations. The Labour party has been clear that we do not support these regulations, and we will be voting accordingly.
These regulations make significant changes to the statutory protections for children in the care system, who are some of the most vulnerable and at-risk children in the country. Coming into force on 24 April and due to expire on 25 September, the regulations relax to a significant degree the safeguarding responsibilities of local authorities in relation to children going into and in the care system. The changes are wide-ranging, and I will not go into all of them today, but I will outline some of the provisions contained in the regulations that have caused the most concern.
First, social workers had been required to visit privately fostered children or those in care within one week when they go into care and every six weeks for the year after that. This requirement has been changed to
“as soon as is reasonably practical”,
even for a phone or video call. The requirements to review plans for children in care to set timescales have also been relaxed, denying children the opportunity to raise concerns and the problems they are having.
Secondly, independent panels, which approve foster carers and adoption placements, have become optional, and local authorities can now approve anyone who meets the requirements as a temporary foster carer, rather than only those who were connected to a child, with consequences for the future outcomes of that child. In addition, approval is no longer needed by a nominated officer to place children into care outside their local areas. Together with the change to allow placement with temporary carers who may not be connected to the child, this could mean that children are moved away from their home or anyone they know.
Thirdly, there now only have to be “reasonable endeavours” made to visit children’s homes, instead of monthly visits, and Ofsted inspections no longer need to take place twice a year.
Fourthly, controls on the periods of time children can be placed in emergency or short placements has been extended beyond any reasonable definition of short. Children can be placed with emergency foster carers for 24 weeks, rather than the usual six days, and children can be placed in short break placements for up to 75 days, rather than 17 days.
Finally, as the Children’s Commissioner has highlighted, children’s homes can now enforce the deprivation of liberty of children if they are showing symptoms of coronavirus, in accordance with the Coronavirus Act 2020.
I am sure the whole House agrees that these are not small changes. It is easy to see how a whole generation of looked-after children could be adversely affected during the six months the relaxed duties are in place—if, indeed, the Government do reverse them later this year. It is important to recognise the group of children we are talking about in this debate. As of 31 March 2019, just over 78,000 children were in the care of local authorities, up 4% on the previous year. On top of this, many more are classified as in need or at risk, and may flow in and out of the care system; about 100,000 children flow through the care system each year. Looked-after children have, almost by definition, faced great trauma in their lives. They may have started life in child poverty, in abusive households, in households that suffer from substance abuse or domestic violence, or with parents who suffer from mental illness. They could have been at risk of female genital mutilation, gang violence, child sexual exploitation, or radicalisation; or they could have been an unaccompanied child seeking asylum.
The outcomes for these children are much worse than for their peers. A report by the Social Market Foundation highlighted the fact that of children in or leaving care only 14% achieved five A*-C GCSEs in 2015, compared with 55% nationally, and they are five times more likely to face exclusion than their peers. In 2015-16, an estimated 39% of children in secure training centres had been in care, despite children in care accounting for about 1% of all children; and almost 25% of the adult prison population have previously been in care. Similarly, looked-after children are four times more likely to have a mental health condition, and 40% of care leavers aged between 19 and 21 are not in employment or education.
I am setting out these issues for the House because any disruption to the care of these children could have a significant impact on the rest of their lives. It is clear that these children are incredibly vulnerable, and in the context of the pandemic they need more support, not less. Our opposition to the regulations is echoed by the Children’s Commissioner, a chorus of children’s charities and MPs from across the House; and Article 39 has applied to the High Court for judicial review of the changes. A specific campaign group, Scrap SI 445, has been established, such is the strength of feeling against the regulations.
The following are just a few examples of the opposition that has been voiced. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said of the regulations:
“I think they should be revoked now—I don’t think they are necessary or justified… There is a potential for children in care not to be given the protection they need and for them to be put at greater risk… For some, that means they are at greater risk of grooming or exploitation, especially older children in semi-independent accommodation.”
She went on to say:
“The focus was not on the best interests of children, it was on the system and the providers of it… all of this should be based on the best interests of children, especially those that the state has such a high level of responsibility over.”
The National Youth Advocacy Service has said that reduced contact by professionals increases safeguarding risks, with the Department for Education reporting that only one in 20 students identified as vulnerable continued to attend school during the lockdown. Many children and young people at risk of harm have been living without the safety net that school would usually provide, as well as having less contact with social workers and other safeguarding professionals.
The British Association for Social Workers said:
“Looked after children and young people are among the most vulnerable in society. Hard won rights in law are not simply bureaucratic processes but exist to protect children and young people and promote their well-being.”
“Some of the changes in the Regulations seem suspiciously close to the ‘freedoms’ that were in the original draft of the Children and Social Work Bill”—
“clauses that were subsequently thrown out by a coalition of Parliamentarians, after a vigorous campaign by civil society groups and service users.”
Finally, Become, the charity for children in care and care leavers, listed its objections thus:
“There was no justification or evidence for removing these particular safeguards…The emergency amendments were introduced just one day before they came into force without appropriate consultation or parliamentary scrutiny…The emergency amendments lack clear guidance or parameters about how and when they should be used…Current guidance does not provide sufficient detail on how the use and impact of the new powers will be centrally collated and monitored by government or Ofsted.”
There is clearly consensus across the board that these regulations are not necessary. They are disproportionate to the need expressed by local authorities; will significantly increase the risk that these children and young people are already exposed to; are likely to be detrimental to children’s outcomes; were introduced with no scrutiny and minimal consultation; and have no guarantee that they will be revoked in September. As such, the Labour party opposes these regulations and urges the Government to revoke them with immediate effect.
With this statutory instrument, the Government are trying to do what they failed to do in 2017, during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, and what they failed to do with their myth-busting guide in 2019.
In 2017, the Government proposed allowing local authorities, under the guise of innovation, to opt out of protective legislation for children. The aim was to deregulate, on the back of the LaingBuisson report, making the sector ripe and ready for privatisation. After a groundswell of cross-party objection both in and outside this place, the changes, which comprised a whole chapter of the 2017 Act, were removed at the 11th hour. In 2019, the then Minister disseminated a dangerous myth-busting document advising local authorities to dispense with the statutory guidance in relation to the most vulnerable children. Again, this attempt to deregulate and wipe away hard-fought-for protective legislation for children was eventually quashed and the document withdrawn.
Any child protection strategy—whether we are in a pandemic or not—that requires the dispensing of the law to achieve it is counterproductive and downright dangerous. I am not sure if the current Minister is aware, but the legislation that the Secretary of State so cavalierly dispensed with under this SI took decades to achieve and was hard-fought-for by the profession and in this place and the other place. It led to our having one of the safest child protection systems in the world.
However, the Secretary of State’s actions have removed the safety net, because since 24 April this year, vulnerable children in care of the state, which stands at a record of more than 78,000, have lost their right to visits from their social worker when they are in placement. They have lost their right to have reviews regarding their care. They have lost their right to have temporary carers who have an existing connection with them. They have lost their right to have their complaints thoroughly investigated. These changes either substantially dilute or remove 65 legal protections and, worryingly, the expiration date can be revoked. In other words, this may become a permanent change.
The fact that a child is in placement does not always mean that they are safe. That is why this legislation existed. Children have been harmed, even murdered, by their carers. The consequences of having no social worker oversight and no one visiting or speaking to them about their care could not be more serious.
This SI has also seen a relaxing of the requirements that govern children’s homes, a dispensing of fostering and adoption panels, emergency foster placements extended to 24 weeks and relaxations on placements away from a child’s home area, and for children who are privately fostered, there is no longer a timeframe on when the local authority needs to check up on them in that placement.
Despite the Government’s attempts to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny, they have also been disingenuous in stating that they have consulted key organisations about this SI when they have not. The facts are that a petition to withdraw the SI has, in a short timeframe, amassed over 7,300 signatures, and 51 organisations and over 452 individual social work professionals are calling for it to be withdrawn. Not a single local authority has publicly admitted asking for these changes. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), the Government are facing legal action from Article 39, because it, like many across this House who signed this prayer, has a grasp of the legislation and cares deeply about children. No social workers or local authorities regularly cite protective legislation for children as a block to them carrying out their role. What stops effective children and families social work is the constant barrage of cuts and resource stripping over the past 10 years.
To use this pandemic as an excuse to reignite experiments from 2017 and 2019 on the most vulnerable of our children is reprehensible. The Minister has so far been unable to explain to me the rationale and demand for these changes. I would like her to explain to the House today which local authorities, organisations and social workers asked for these changes, who was consulted on them, and when they were consulted. What involvement does the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families have in these changes? On which date did the Department begin assessing these changes? Additionally, the Minister should be able to share with us today how many local authorities have actually dispensed with these protections and what the outcome of such has been on the children concerned—because I cannot imagine, having been one myself, that a single social worker would allow any child they work with to be put at risk in this way.
I urge the Minister to revoke this SI immediately before she and her colleagues who follow their Whips on this vote are culpable for the significant harm that children may already be suffering and will certainly suffer in future.
I declare two interests: first, that in the register; and secondly, given that these regulations go back to 2002, I think that, for the entire time, I was either the shadow Children’s Minister or the Children’s Minister and responsible for making some of these regulations. I am doubly interested in them today.
I am not going to vote against these regulations, but this is the opportunity for some serious questions to be answered. It is unfortunate that, these regulations having been laid before Parliament on 23 April, they came into effect on 24 April. Normal conventions about the 21-day rule simply did not happen, and this is the first time that this House has had the opportunity to scrutinise what are very important regulations.
There are serious question marks, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) mentioned, about the consultation that went into this. The Children’s Commissioner was not consulted, and she has made further comments today to say that she has serious concerns about this. The British Association of Social Workers was not consulted. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services was not consulted. The Local Government Association was not consulted. Apparently not even Ofsted was consulted before these regulations became a fait accompli.
There is also the question mark about why the regulations were—
I will not give way because we are short of time. I am sure the hon. Lady will get in later.
There are also question marks about why we had to do this in England but apparently similar moves have not been planned in Scotland or Wales. The Minister might want to comment on that. It would be useful to know what input went into these regulations and why they were chosen to be relaxed or extended in the way they were.
I am not against emergency legislation in these unprecedented circumstances. We are absolutely going to have to adapt across the board; we have become used to that. But this is a particularly sensitive area of policy dealing with some of our most vulnerable children, who are not in a position to provide the challenge and scrutiny that would be readily available in other areas. We have heard, through the commencement of the Domestic Abuse Bill, that there has been a spike in domestic abuse. We have heard from the NSPCC and others about an increase in reporting of suspected child abuse. It is when children are more vulnerable that we need to make sure that the checks and balances are absolutely there and working. There are also the fears about the impact of county lines gangs using the pandemic as a recruitment tool.
So across a whole range of areas, we should be concerned that the service is there to do what it desperately needs to do, particularly at this time. If we look through these regulations, we see that too often the phrases “as soon as is reasonably practicable” and “best endeavours” come up, covering a multitude of sins.
I just want to know the thinking behind the introduction of these regulations. Was it because we were expecting a high incidence of social worker absences? We have had seven weeks of these regulations in practice, so the Minister might be able to give us some examples of what has happened over that time. We need to know how the Government are monitoring this. Was it a capacity issue that led to the regulations? What are the current vacancy rates? Was it a reprioritisation issue, and if so, on the basis of what risk assessment? What has the reprioritisation of those social worker resources, and so on, actually gone to? As a result of what has happened, how many new child vulnerability hotspots are springing up, particularly for the 85% of vulnerable children who have not been in school, as the Chairman of the Education Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), has pointed out? That was a really useful way of putting them on the radar; teachers were often the early warning sign that something was going wrong at home on a safeguarding issue. They could then pass that information on to social workers and others.
I want to touch briefly on the 10 areas. First, on section 28 and the regulations about visits—which I think I overhauled back in 2010—these are now to take place “as soon as is reasonably practicable”. I am not going to delude myself that it all was working perfectly before. The purpose of the Munro review reforms, which were brought in from 2010, was to get away from some of the arbitrary timescales and from being ruled just by a rulebook, rather than by the expertise of experienced and well trained social workers as well. With only a small number of children in school, those social worker visits are even more important, so if they are not happening practically, why not? Is this a resource issue? Are they happening virtually, and are those virtual visits effective? How are social workers teaming up with teachers trying to teach remotely, with the police and with others to ensure that they are monitoring those children in households with a safeguarding question mark particularly closely?
Secondly, the six-monthly independent review of childcare is important, but that is usually down to the independent reviewing officers. What are the IROs actually doing at the moment? Why can they not carry on as before? Thirdly, I am particularly concerned about adoption panels. Adoption was one of the big campaigns of the coalition Government, and I am proud of my part in getting adoptions up to a peak of 5,360 in 2015. However, adoptions went back down again last year and we are now back down almost to the levels before we started the overhaul of adoption regulations, at around 3,500, so we need more adopters to come forward. We need more children to be adopted. Who is doing that important work in the absence of adoption panels? If social workers are too busy doing things elsewhere, or if there are not enough of them because of the pandemic, who is approving those adopters to come forward? Does the Minister fear that we are going to see a further big decrease in the amount of adoptions happening? How many prospective adopters are coming forward but are unable to be processed and trained? Who is doing the training to ensure that they can take on those really important roles as adoptive parents?
The same goes for fostering panels. It is likely that we will see a big surge in people coming forward to offer foster placements, given the likely job losses that will come out of the pandemic. That is a fact of life in recessions. We need to ensure that local authorities are up and running and able to take on those foster placements and to train people and assess them properly to ensure that they are suitable to take on those children who desperately need a home.
Another area I am really concerned about is the dropping of senior officer approval for out-of-care placement. This has been a scandal for too many years. Over half of children are placed out of their area, against all the regulations. It makes it so much more difficult to look at their progress when we have to monitor them from afar, and they are often placed in cheap property in coastal resorts, particularly on the Kent coast. That has been a case in point. It is really important that when a child is placed out of area, it is as a result of proper scrutiny and a decision made at director level. That is a reform that I brought in. I am really concerned about who is now going to be responsible for that.
Skipping through a few of the other points, senior officer approval for the really important fostering for adoption placements has also been dropped.
I am also concerned about the dropping of Ofsted inspection frequencies, and in any case it seems as though Ofsted will not be doing any inspections until next year. That is really worrying. We need Ofsted inspections for new listings—new care homes—where we desperately need that capacity. We need to prioritise them looking at homes that are deemed to require improvement or that are inadequate to make sure they are not continuing to offer a poor service or that they have improved and therefore can take on more children again. We need to do that because we have serious capacity problem.
I understand the suspicion of others that this is a back-door measure to complete the work from the 2016 Bill. I led a delegation of very experienced noble Lords to see the then Secretary of State, Justine Greening—it was a large part of the reason the regulations were dropped, I am glad to say—so I do not want them reintroduced through this route, and I would like to hear it from the Minister that the measures are only temporary and will not be extended beyond September other than in exceptional circumstances. I would like her to show how they are being monitored where that is actually not required at the moment.
I repeat my invitation to the Minister. The all-party group on children, which I chair, is meeting the children’s charities and others in July to assess how children are faring during the coronavirus pandemic, and it would be great if she could come and give an account of why the regulations are still required and how they are impacting on children. I understand why they were necessary; I do not understand why they were introduced in the way they were. We would all understand better if we had an account of the experience during the seven weeks they have been in operation and some guarantees that the welfare of some of our most vulnerable children is not being compromised and will not be compromised for a week longer than it needs to under the current conditions.
I can understand that there might be a need for some easements due to anticipated staff shortages during this crisis, but I do not understand why there are fewer safeguards on easements for children’s services than in the arrangements for adult services. What is the logic in that? Obviously visits might need to be suspended during the lockdown, but why is it necessary to suspend the six-week contact rule? Are reviews not a crucial safeguard for the interests of children and young people in the care system? Who does the Minister think benefits from removing six-monthly reviews and what does she think is the main benefit of not holding panels for prospective adopters?
One of the conclusions from the child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham and Rochdale was that children placed outside their own area were all too often out of sight and out of mind, and that is why it was so easy for them to fall prey. Like the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), I am concerned about the removal of senior-level approval for out-of-area placements. What alternative arrangements have been put in place to compensate for the loss of independent visits to children’s homes? Afterall, it is only nine years since the House was discussing the Pindown report. When you make these places less accessible, it is easier for things to happen that should not happen.
Like my hon. Friends, I am curious to know who the Government consulted before they implemented these arrangements. I would love to know who made representations to the Minister and who asked for these arrangements. Was it the same people who tried to impose these changes back in 2016 and 2018? Of course, the reason they were eventually scuppered back then was that there was a genuine fear across the parties that the measures were intended to relax local authority scrutiny and safeguards, save money and pave the way for further privatisation of children’s services. At the very point where this Government are rueing the fact that they made unnecessary changes to probation and are now planning to reverse them, it would be completely mad to create the same conditions for our children’s services, only to go through all this again.
I am a bit more sceptical than the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—I fear that the emergency may be a smokescreen and that this is just a third attempt at the same old game. I recognise that the Minister believes that the powers are being used sparingly. She says in her letter of 15 May that they should
“only be used if absolutely necessary”.
Is she receiving regular reports on their use? Does she have any plans to collect and publish data on the use of these emergency arrangements? Will she place in the Library an interim report on the use of these powers to date?
I am also curious to know why the Minister thinks that children’s services in Scotland have not been under similar pressure and do not face demands for a similar change. What does she think is different? Has she looked at that arrangement? As we have heard, the Children’s Commissioner was rather critical of these measures. Was it an oversight not to consult her? That requires a straightforward answer from the Minister. Was a children’s rights impact assessment conducted before the regulations were approved? If so, will the Minister publish it, and if not, why not?
It is quite clear that, at a time of great crisis, the Government’s first duty is to protect the most vulnerable. My hon. Friends and the former Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), have spoken eloquently about the need for proper administration of this sector for vulnerable people. We must consider the broader implications of this mistaken statutory instrument. It appears to me that this is part of a wider mishandling of a range of issues related to children, which paints the Government in a very poor light. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is yet another blunder in relation to children?
The honest answer is that we do not know, but when children’s services across the country are under enormous pressure, this is maybe not the smartest time to relax safeguards and scrutiny. For that reason, we have to hope and trust that when the Minister says these measures are purely for the purposes of this emergency, she is being entirely frank with us. It would be easier to draw that conclusion if she could tell us what she plans to do after 25 September.
This has been a well-informed debate so far. I would like to begin by reflecting on the big picture of our system for protecting vulnerable children in this country. By international standards, the system ranks at or close to the top of the league tables for its effectiveness in protecting children who are at risk. In respect of children who are in the care of the state, we know that the earlier they go into the care system and the longer they spend in it, the better the outcomes. Where a local authority intervenes at the birth of a child and that child is placed in a secure environment, that child’s outcomes are broadly equal to other children who have not been through the experience of having to go into care. There is undoubtedly an issue around children who come into care late in their childhood, having bounced around the system, at a moment of crisis, for whom the professionals we rely on have little opportunity to turn that situation around.
We know that that is the big picture of how children’s social care works in this country. It is important to reflect that the consistent message from the sector over many years has been that system’s effectiveness is driven by good professional practice rather than by regulation. Governments of all parties have introduced changes many times over the years to try to enable effective professional practice to create the security and protection that vulnerable children need. It is important that Parliament recognises that.
This population of children is around half of 1% of all the children in the country, but they are, as a number of Members have said, incredibly vulnerable. For them, their council is the emergency service that is there to intervene when they desperately need help. Around three-quarters of those children are placed with foster carers. Having had the experience of 20 years leading on this issue in a local authority, I believe that elements of the regulations are helpful in reducing some of the burdens that many foster carers complain about as they go on the journey of taking on that vital role, and have the potential to increase the speed with which foster care placements are made available for vulnerable children.
That is an example of where the regulations target an easement of a process that is heavy on face-to-face meetings. They replace it with no reduction in the requirements, as the shadow Minister mentioned, but with a reduction in the process, to enable that to happen more quickly for the benefit of the children who need access to it.
This debate is happening at the end of a decade in which we have seen a 28% increase in the number of children in that system. Even against the backdrop of a rising number of children, that is very much evidence of a system that is under pressure. Although I am not remotely in favour of a bonfire of regulation, the House needs to recognise that not all regulation is helpful, particularly at a time when we face a national emergency. Many Members have talked about the need to reduce our expectations of schools and schoolteachers to enable us to manage the response to that. We must expect to go through a similar process in respect of children’s social care.
Many of these easements reflect frustrations that prospective adopters, prospective foster carers and children who are going through the system have expressed for a very long time, which are brought into sharp focus by the fact that we cannot go through lengthy face-to-face processes at a time when social distancing and shielding are a crucial part of our national life. For that reason, it seems to me that although the measures outlined by the Minister have a bearing on the wider picture of a system that is under pressure, which needs to be debated, they are reasonable, they are proportionate and they have the potential, following an effective period of implementation, to help reduce some of the logjams in the system that impact our children.
A number of Members have mentioned the need to consult the broadest possible range of stakeholders. I know that the Department has engaged in a process that, perhaps not unexpectedly, has resulted in many organisations saying that although they do not have an objection to the regulations, they will not necessarily come out and support them. I entirely understand that, not least because I hear from many local authorities that they have not needed to implement significant changes to make use of these easements, but if they face a point at which there is either a large increase in the number of children in their care or a crisis in the availability of workforce time, it will be incredibly valuable that they can take advantage of the easements in order to respond effectively. Clearly, however, it would be helpful if we ensured in the future that, for example, directors of public health, chief executives and lead members of local authorities, all of whom will have a very broad perspective on this, were consulted, in addition to professional bodies such as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
In conclusion, the message over many years is that effective protection for children on their journey through the care system relies on good social care and effective professional practice. We in this House need to show confidence at this time of national emergency—as we have in our health professionals—that those social-care-for-children professionals will also meet the highest possible standards without the need for regulations to ensure that. For that reason, I hope that when these measures come to their end we will have the opportunity to learn from them and to see how local authorities have made use of the easements that are available. I also hope that we will see that they have not been misused or abused, and that this has ensured effective protection of our most vulnerable children at this time of national crisis.
The number of looked-after children continues to rise; there were over 78,000 children in care nationally last year, a 4% rise on the previous year and a shocking 30% rise since 2010. In my home city of Liverpool, there are nearly 1,500 vulnerable children in care who need these protections, including 115 unaccompanied child asylum seekers—double the rate of the national percentage. This represents a rise on last year, with additional numbers coming under the protection of social services during this pandemic.
As schools return and hidden harms are exposed, Liverpool City Council is, like most local authorities, expecting a further rise in referrals. Liverpool is also a referral centre for unaccompanied children seeking asylum—children who need the maximum possible care and support to help them overcome the most traumatic of experiences. At a time when we need to ensure that our most vulnerable children have the support and care they need to survive trauma, neglect and abuse, it is most disappointing to see the Government relaxing these safeguards for financial reasons.
As the Government know, looked-after children face greater hurdles than other children in their adult lives. They are more likely to suffer mental health issues, more likely to end up in the prison system, more likely to succumb to drug or alcohol addiction, less likely to achieve educationally, and more likely to be unemployed. How will loosening the monitoring and support redress the situation?
Nationally, recent analysis by national agencies, including Action for Children, Barnardo’s, the National Children’s Bureau, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Children’s Society, estimates that funding for local authority children’s services has fallen by an astonishing 23% since 2010, with a fall of £2.2 billion nationally. Liverpool City Council has seen its Government income slashed by 64% over the past 10 years, leaving a £460-million gaping hole. If the Government are serious about protecting our most vulnerable children and enabling them positive life chances, the answer lies not in reducing safeguards when they are under the protection of local authorities, but in adequately funding local authorities to allow them to do their job.
I am also concerned that neither the Children’s Commissioner nor the major agencies concerned with children’s welfare were consulted on these changes and nor was there a public consultation. If the Government truly believe their proposals were for the better, why the lack of consultation?
The coronavirus pandemic must not be used as an excuse to force through these measures that the Government have unsuccessfully tried to put through for four years. Allowing local authorities the right to opt out of ensuring that certain safeguards or regular monitoring are in place would have a detrimental impact on the lives of children and their families and erode the rights and entitlements of children.
In conclusion, I call on the Minister to think again and to revoke this SI, to consult and listen to the Children’s Commissioner and the expert organisations, and, indeed, to talk to children and their families. We need to do what is right, not what is possible, and that means looking to adequately fund local authorities to provide maximum care and protection.
I want to reflect on this matter from the point of view of some work that I did last year. I spent some time training with foster care leavers and one thing that came across to me was the fact that they had several parts to their personality—this is not just a broad-brush thing. There was immense ambition and an immense wish to have a normal life, but the problem was that, often, the confidence was not there. They felt let down and abandoned, which means that the challenge for the system is to ensure that there is a consistency in their lives and an ability for their lives to move. They should not feel left behind and ignored during any crisis.
My reading of these regulations is not that they are about trying to reduce safeguarding, but that they are about enabling the machinery of local government—of social care—to help these children and young people get the support that they need. I absolutely agree—100%—that these measures need to be temporary. I need to hear that the safeguarding measures are there, that we will receive updates, as other Members have said, and that we will hear how things are being monitored.
I fear that if we do not put these measures in place, there may come a time when the mechanics are not in place—the reality of day-to-day lives where people cannot go to their jobs and do the social care work, and where there are not opportunities in offices to make sure that things are moving. If that happens, these children and young people will again feel that they have been left at the back, ignored and forgotten. One of the biggest challenges to overcome in life is the unknown, and covid has created an unknown situation for all of us, but let us imagine what it is like for those young people in care. They will not know whether they will reach their forever home or get to the point where they have a family around them. What we must remember in this debate is that behind each and every one of those statistics that has been shared, there is a life. There is a young child or a young person with ambition, who wants to have a family, who wants to have normality. Using these measures to ensure that that happens will be critical. Of course, safeguarding and all of those things are paramount, but we need to ensure also that the machine continues to work in their favour and to support them.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the machinery. Indeed, the Children’s Commissioner has expressed concern that the starting point for these regulations is to ease pressure on services, rather than to think about what is right for the child in front of those services. These are the most vulnerable children—even more vulnerable at a time like this. Does he not think that we have the balance wrong here by focusing more on the machine than on the child?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and I appreciate her making it. Actually, there has to be a balance of both. We have to ensure that there is wraparound care for young people so that they can be supported. The machine is not necessarily an anonymous, amorphous blob of mechanics; it is actually people. It is social carers, who are doing that work on the ground and who should already be trusted in their roles. It is not about trying to say, “Let’s just keep going and going” in ignorance of the vulnerable young people involved. It is about making sure that the system is still working for them. Although I have some concerns, I can say that everything that I have seen in here so far really reflects the fact that we need to ensure that everything can continue, as it should do, to enable these young people to get to their homes, to get to families and to get the support that they need.
We have come so far with children’s rights, why are we going backwards? Those are not my words. They are the words of Charlotte, a 19-year-old care leaver. I start with those words because it is young people in care and those entering care who are directly affected by this legislation and yet it is the same young people who have been denied a say, as their rights have been ripped away. They were not consulted.
As a former social worker and fostering manager, I am deeply concerned about the impact of this legislation. Coronavirus has led to more anxiety, more stress and increased loneliness for many children. Right now, they need more support, not fewer protections. Anyone who has worked with children knows that their safety must be a top priority. Indeed, the Children Act 1989 says that the welfare of a child is paramount. The safeguards that the legislation removes or dilutes include how often a child sees their social worker, whether and when their care is independently reviewed, and if a proper care plan is put in place for them. A lack of contact with significant professionals increases the risk to children. The Department for Education reported that only one in 20 children identified as vulnerable continued to attend school during the lockdown. This means that so many children have already been living without the safety net that school would usually provide.
The National Youth Advocacy Service, which does incredible work with children in care in Lewisham East and across the country, has made more than triple the number of safeguarding referrals during the lockdown compared with last year. NYAS is worried about how many children will be placed at risk and might go unnoticed by local authorities under this new legislation. These changes may be enforced temporarily, but their impact could last a lifetime. The adoption that is waved through without an independent panel shapes an entire childhood and beyond. Adoption and fostering panels should be able to sit virtually.
The legislation leaves huge gaps in rights and protections for children in care, and this Chamber must not allow children to fall through those gaps. With that in mind, what is the Minister’s view on the comments from the Children’s Commissioner for England? We have heard her quoted so many times, and with her comments I will conclude my speech. Anne Longfield said:
“I would like to see all the regulations revoked, as I do not believe that there is sufficient justification to introduce them. This crisis must not remove protections from extremely vulnerable children, particularly as they are even more vulnerable at this time.”
I am pleased to be able to say a few words on this vital topic, because issues of child protection and social care for children are some of the most important that we as Members of this House and our colleagues in national, regional and local government will ever have to deal with. Indeed, much of the very essence of our jobs as Members of Parliament is to build a safer and secure community and a brighter and more sustainable future for the next generation. It is clear to me, however, that the changes contained in the regulations before the House are not fit for purpose. They will, as many stakeholders have indicated, seriously undermine legal safeguarding protections for some of the most vulnerable children in our country. These changes are unnecessary and could end up putting children in harm’s way.
While we appreciate and understand the impact on local authorities in England as a result of coronavirus, the Government have yet to provide the evidence to justify the regulations. As such, I welcome the fact that Her Majesty’s Opposition will oppose them and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), the shadow Secretary of State, for her remarks at the start of this debate.
I want to be clear that I do not believe it is acceptable to make sweeping reductions in children’s rights with very few safeguards and absolutely no parliamentary scrutiny. The world has changed so very much in recent months and among many changes to our way of life, provision was made for local authorities in England to have “easements” on their statutory duties on adult social care to respond effectively to the demands of coronavirus. This was in the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is important to note that the same flexibility was not granted in relation to children’s social care, yet guidance published in early April suggested that local authorities did not have to meet these statutory duties.
This stands in stark contrast to the Welsh Labour Government under the leadership of the First Minister, Mark Drakeford. Hon. Friends have already mentioned today the differences in approach to legislation in the countries across the UK. Rather than following the approach taken by Ministers in this House, in Wales, they have chosen to issue guidance that explains how local authorities can work in an innovative way to continue to meet their statutory duties in the spirit of the law. This is, as is so often the case, a matter of will, and I want to ask the Minister to think again.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) said, one important stakeholder is the Children’s Commissioner for England, who said in April that the current crisis should not
“remove protections from extremely vulnerable children”.
I agree with her completely.
Ahead of this debate, I received a very helpful briefing from Napo, the trade union and professional association for probation and family court staff. These are hard-working professionals who work around the clock in all parts of the UK to protect, support and defend some of the most vulnerable children in our country. I am inclined to listen to them and I suggest that the Minister does the same thing.
The Napo briefing noted that its members have very real concerns about child safeguarding during this continued lockdown period, and with schools still broadly closed and reduced access to children’s social services, it is vital that this House strengthens legislation to protect vulnerable children, not reduce it.
I want to make one further point, which is that these regulations make sweeping changes to foster care. The changes have caused great concern, and they include scrapping foster panels, extending emergency placements with local authority foster carers from six days to 24 weeks, reducing councils’ obligations to privately fostered children, and removing conditions and levels of scrutiny for some foster care placements. The impact is wide and potentially very dangerous indeed.
I hope the Minister will listen to those in this House who have raised these concerns today, but if the Government will not listen to us, will they please listen to professionals out in the community? They do an amazing job under difficult circumstances every day, and I commend them for it.
I am grateful for being allowed to speak on what as other Members have said is an essential matter. When we first went into lockdown, we were in unprecedented times and it was very disconcerting. None of us in the Chamber could have been unaware of just how disconcerting it was, not only for us in our job, but for our constituents, who came to us with the most complex problems.
It is absolutely my belief that the Minister and the Government brought in these regulations with the best of intentions to keep children safe at a time when we could not imagine at all how normal life would continue. However, as right hon. and hon. Members have said, time has brought perspective and shown how we have managed to adapt. Seeing me participate in a virtual Parliament when I had no idea how it worked was an example of what we can do if we have to. However, time has also shown us that some of the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations are not the best way of doing things. Right hon. and hon. Members—each and every one of them—have very eloquently and very significantly confirmed that to be the case. I want to give an example of where the regulations fall down. That was never the intention, but it is quite clear that they have fallen down.
The example I would give is the issue of contact. When I spoke to some of my primary schoolteachers at the start of lockdown—I have had, and still have, a good relationship with them—one teacher expressed her concern that she was not able to see and connect with a child in her class. She watches over and gives the child that little bit extra emotional support because of their vulnerability, given her position and the knowledge that she has of that child. She encourages and she affirms that child more than the rest of the children in that class in a very quiet way, because the child shows signs of not receiving that support at home. The role of the teacher in a class is so critical, and the knowledge, perception and initiative of the teacher can help such a child. She made contact with every parent of those in her class to establish the easiest way to keep in touch with her children—whether by phone call, video call, messaging the parents or a Zoom class—and to continue to play her part in meeting their needs.
How much more is that true for children who we know have support issues and who need contact with their social workers? I understand that lockdown is a very different time. It is not possible physically to visit children, but there are other forms of contact and support. Taking away the need for social workers to make contact in temporary homes is not a good thing, and I believe it is not necessary. If we are making changes, we should say that, although physical visits may not be practical there is an obligation to have direct, sustained contact to lend support to these most vulnerable of children and to deliver for foster families.
Adoption UK said that in 2018
“more than half of all newly-placed adopters wondered in the early months whether they had done the right thing and whether they would be able to cope. 54% experienced stress, anxiety and/or symptoms of post-adoption depression.”
It is very clear that that comes in different forms. Even at the best of times, the early days of a placement can be particularly difficult for new adopters. For those currently at this stage in their adoption journey, that has been compounded by the covid-19 lockdown, leaving them isolated and detached from their usual support network. Removing statutory duties to support these new families will only leave them feeling more isolated, and will put more adoptive placements at risk. That can never be allowed to happen, as we know how important those placements are.
I have received, as have other Members, numerous briefings from Become and Adoption UK, among others—all expressing deep and sincere concern about the effects of these regulations and the vagueness of the proposed end date.
I will conclude by asking the Minister a couple of questions. If she is not prepared, or unable, to revisit the need for the measures, will she at least confirm that the emergency regulations will expire on 25 September 2020? If not, will she outline the circumstances in which she believes it will be necessary to extend them and how that decision will be made?
This is a deeply unprecedented time, and it falls on all of us to protect and support those who are most vulnerable. Protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of the Government’s response. Many Members have spoken with great passion this afternoon, and I welcome this opportunity to explain the work that the Government have been doing for vulnerable children.
Every child is different and different children are vulnerable for different reasons. Therefore, we have been setting up networks of support across the country for different groups of vulnerable children. For some vulnerable children, especially those with a social worker, attending school is an important protective factor. That is why schools, colleges and early years providers have remained open for them throughout. When children have not attended, we have worked with education settings and local authorities to ensure that social services are in touch with them. We have been surveying local authorities, and the vast majority of the most vulnerable children—those with a child protection plan—have been seen or contacted by their social worker within the past fortnight.
Children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities always face extra challenges, and this has been a particularly difficult time for them and their families, so we have asked education settings to ensure that those with education, health and care plans can attend their normal school setting, but that has to be on an individual risk-assessed basis to make sure that the child’s needs come first. We have also provided a wide range of specific online resources so that those staying at home can continue their education, and we have committed £37 million this year through the Family Fund to support more than 75,000 low-income families with disabled or critically ill children; £10 million of that is specifically in response to this pandemic.
Some 39,000 adoptive families have had extra help from the increase that we have made to the adoption support fund, and across the country our loving foster carers have been able to access extra help from the increases that we have put into the Fostering Network. Care leavers are particularly vulnerable and often face isolation, so we have made it clear that those who are due to leave care can stay in their current home. We have provided over £100 million of laptops and devices to care leavers and disadvantaged children so that they can stay in touch and access social care services, as well as education, putting care leavers and children in care first.
Teenagers in alternative provision are especially vulnerable, so we are wrapping those in year 11 who are in alternative provision with a bespoke package to support them not only now but through next year, too. For those suffering anxiety, we have increased mental health and wellbeing support and guidance for children, teachers and parents; we have invested in mental health charities; and, crucially, we have ensured that the new 24/7 mental health crisis lines are available to children as well as adults.
Domestic violence impacts on children, so we have worked with the Home Office to invest in specialist services and enlarged Operation Encompass, which brings together police and schools. We have funded the expansion of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and helped to promote its national helplines, so that people have a place to go if they are concerned that a child may be experiencing abuse or facing neglect. Our See, Hear, Respond project, led by Barnardo’s, will further support vulnerable children at risk of harm.
All that I have outlined is just some of the work that we have been doing. A massive amount of work has been undertaken. I thank parents, teachers, childcare providers, social workers, foster carers and our partners in the public, private and charity sectors for all they are doing to support children. I also thank children and young people themselves, especially those in care and in children’s homes.
I am coming to exactly those answers.
The protection of vulnerable children relies on those on the frontline, especially children’s services in local authorities, so we have supported local authorities with additional investment to help social workers to return to the frontline and by deploying more than 250 Ofsted staff directly into local authorities, as well as through new regional teams. But those on the frontline have faced challenges that they have never seen before. I have heard directly from many social workers about those challenges; hence we have needed to give them some regulatory flexibilities.
Will the Minister explain why, in respect of the easing of statutory duties, the standards that need to be met are lesser for children than they are for adults? Will she address the suggestion that many have put to her that we should publish data on local authorities that use the easements so that we can scrutinise what is happening on the ground?
Absolutely. I will address many of the points that have been raised. The safeguards for adult social care are different from those for children’s social care because the statutory framework for adult social care differs. The easements that have been made on adult social care are in primary legislation, not secondary legislation, whereas in children’s social care we have made absolutely sure that the primary legislation stays in place.
Let me continue to set the scene. Those on the frontline have faced challenges that they have never seen before. For those children with special educational needs and disabilities, and especially those with an EHC plan, which sets out the specific provisions required to meet their needs, such provision would normally happen in an education setting. However, although those settings have remained open for children with an EHC plan, not all of them have been able to attend, so it has simply been impossible for local authorities and health commissioners to deliver the full provisions of those plans. That is why we have needed to make some changes.
The regulations on children’s social care are intended to support local authorities and providers, but do not remove any fundamental protections. Let me be really clear: section 22 of the Children Act 1989 remains in place, meaning that local authorities still have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child they are looking after, and section 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 remains, meaning that the child’s welfare is paramount in all decisions on adoption. We have made no changes to primary legislation and the vast majority of secondary legislation has remained unchanged.
The amendments do not reduce the responsibilities that local authorities have to protect children from significant harm and to promote their welfare, nor should they be at the expense of the rights and protection of children in care.
I am going to make some progress and come to the specific questions raised. We did need to prepare for the risk that local services may be unable to fully respond to significant pressures caused by covid-19. Serious staff absences, coupled with an increase in demand for services, could lead to the most vulnerable children being put at risk if services struggle to cope with the requirements of legislation. Some of the changes provide for the ability to diverge from established timescales for a limited number of activities or to cater for situations where there may be staff absences or a need to reduce personal contact. For example, it may not be appropriate for a social worker to physically visit a looked-after child if covid is present or if the household is self-isolating.
Some changes are designed to help ensure that there are minimal delays in the adoption or fostering process. For example, in order to make sure that we have enough foster carers available at a time when potential need has increased, we have given flexibility on who could be a temporary foster carer, while still requiring that carers must be properly assessed for this vital role. Other changes allow local authorities more time to respond to formal reports, such as those from Ofsted inspections.
The flexibilities were developed rapidly and they needed to be, so the scope for formal consultation was more limited than normal and it was necessary to forgo the standard 21-day rule for their coming into force, but the views of a wide range of organisations did influence the regulations that were laid before the House, and I do welcome the opportunity to discuss them tonight. It is important to be clear exactly what those flexibilities are; otherwise young people will be unduly concerned. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) has suggested that short-break placements for children are now too long and there will not be any requirements on visits and care plans, but the annual limit of 75 days in any one year remains. We have removed the restriction on no single placement being longer than 17 days, simply so that children do not have to move between homes as frequently, and I am sure she will understand that.
Opposition Members have also suggested that social workers will no longer need to visit children living in care, but that is simply not the case. Statutory timescales remain in place. Social workers always must endeavour to meet those timetables, and in the small number of cases where they cannot meet them, for reasons such as sickness or self-isolation, they must be able to demonstrate that they can meet them and why the temporary amendment can be used. It is not the case that children’s homes can deprive a child of his or her liberty. That decision can be made only by a public health officer, who has the power to impose proportionate requirements, including screening and isolation, if any individual has a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus. That decision must always be kept under review and must take account of the child’s wellbeing.
It has also been suggested that children could be placed with emergency foster carers for too long and without scrutiny, but in fact there will continue to be the same scrutiny of emergency foster carers. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) asked about decisions on placing a child in care outside his local area. I thank him for his invitation to meet his all-party group on children, as I would be delighted to do that. In fact, any decision to place a child with a non-connected person would still be subject to strict and intensive assessment by the local authority of their suitability, background and circumstances. This flexibility is available only in cases where additional scrutiny by a nominated officer will delay a child being placed with an appropriate and approved carer. He also raised the important issue of serious safeguarding cases. No changes have been made to primary legislation that require local authorities to investigate suspected cases of the risk of significant harm, or local authorities’ powers to make applications for emergency protection orders or applications for care protection orders.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) asked why there were differences in other parts of the UK. Structures and approaches differ across each part of the UK and so will the pressures that are felt. We in the Department for Education speak to providers and local authorities in England. These changes are a response to what we have been told. Other countries will have spoken to their own local areas and will take actions accordingly.
The Children’s Commissioner has a very important job to speak for children and it is right that she does so. We agree on the importance of protecting vulnerable children—indeed, I speak to her regularly—but on this matter we disagree. I set out clear responses to the points she made in an article in The Guardian in a point-by-point statement published on the Department’s website. I suggest that Members who quoted her look at the detailed responses I have made, because we have worked to address many of her concerns on the guidance that we have published for local authorities. We are continuing to engage with her about how we can ensure our guidance is clear.
This is a really important point: these flexibilities should be used only when absolutely necessary and in the interests of the child, because the child’s interests must come first. If there is no pressing need to use them, they should not be used. The flexibilities must be approved at chief officer level in local authorities or by top-tier management in other organisations. The decisions for their being used must be recorded. Ofsted will take note of any usage and stands ready to take action. Indeed, Ofsted is taking action, even at this time, to suspend 17 children’s homes or stop them taking children.
Monitoring is important. We have been gathering information regularly on which of the regulations are being used and why we are holding a monthly survey of local authorities. We are working with key organisations, including children’s charities and provider representatives, to seek feedback on how the regulations are being used and the effect on children. I am glad to report that they are being used infrequently. The flexibility most likely to be used is one that allows medical reports to be considered at a later date of an adoption process, thus minimising delays in approving adopters and allowing for those children to move on into that new forever family.
The changes will expire on 25 September. There is no plan to extend them. If there is a need for further flexibility, it will be on a case-by-case basis after discussion with stakeholders and subject to full parliamentary process. The regulation changes are temporary. They are not permanent. I am committed to keeping a close eye on the situation and will report back to Parliament before the summer recess.
The Government are absolutely committed to supporting vulnerable children and ensuring that they are properly safeguarded. We have demonstrated that through the initiatives I have outlined today. Supporting vulnerable children will continue to be my No. 1 priority, the No. 1 priority of the Department for Education, and the No. 1 priority of the Government during this time.
I am expecting a Division on this Question, and hon. and right hon. Members should be familiar with the Division process. But could I please urge all hon. Members to pause at the relevant Dispatch Box and give their names and vote clearly? The Question is on Motion 5 on the Order Paper.