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Covid-19: Children's Social Care Services

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021

Extension of temporary regulations to support children’s social care during the coronavirus (covid-19) pandemic.

Throughout the coronavirus (covid-19) pandemic, the Government have consistently put protecting the most vulnerable at the forefront of our actions. The duties to our most vulnerable children, which are set out in primary legislation, all remain in place. This statutory framework enables the most effective support and protection to children and their families, by local authorities, local safeguarding partners and other services. However, the impact of the coronavirus (covid-19) pandemic, has required the Government to introduce a number of amendments to secondary legislation to ensure that children and families can be supported in the best way possible despite the restrictions in place across society.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government introduced a series of temporary changes to the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations to support children’s social care services. These changes provided flexibilities to local authorities and other children’s social care settings, in the event that services suffered from high levels of staff absence or an increased need for services supporting vulnerable children. We made no amendments to primary legislation, and the vast majority of statutory duties in secondary legislation remained unchanged.

Over the summer we reviewed these flexibilities and decided that only a small number continued to be needed. Following a consultation, a second set of regulations with fewer flexibilities—the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations—came into force in September 2020. These are due to lapse on 31 March 2021.

The extraordinary measures the Government have taken over the last year means that we are now in a much better position to ease the restrictions that everyone has faced in the coming months. However, the challenges from the covid-19 pandemic remain significant and Government believe that there may be circumstances in which some services continue to face specific and exceptional challenges into spring/summer. As more children are seen by schools, and national restrictions ease further and hitherto hidden harms may come to light, we must be prepared for the potential additional demands that may still be placed on services.

We therefore went out to public consultation on 9 February to seek views on whether to extend all the existing flexibilities for a further six months, up to September 2021, and whether to amend arrangements for healthcare assessments in adoption. This statement updates the House on the outcome of that consultation.

The consultation closed on 28 February and a total of 212 responses were received. Officials engaged with stakeholders, including local authorities, charities, children’s rights organisations and other Government Departments and captured the views of children and young people directly.

The majority of respondents agreed with our proposals to extend the existing flexibilities in relation to virtual visits, medical reports—for fostering and adoption—and the minimum frequency of Ofsted inspections of children’s social care provision. I am therefore today laying regulations before the House to that effect. This means that:

General Practitioners and other health professionals will continue to be given more time to provide information to support the process of approving much needed potential adopters and foster carers. This does not remove the requirement for medical reports to be provided before the child is placed with the foster parent or adoptive parent, but allows some flexibility as to when in the process the report is required.

Social workers will continue to be able to carry out virtual, rather than face-to face visits in some limited circumstances. The regulations and guidance are clear that virtual visits should only happen when face to face visits would be contrary to public health advice, or where face to face visits would otherwise not be reasonably practicable as a result of coronavirus.

The requirement for a minimum frequency of Ofsted inspections for all children’s social care providers will continue to be suspended for six months, until 30 September 2021. Extending the flexibility will enable Ofsted to use their resources under existing inspection powers to carry out inspections to as many providers as possible, prioritised on a risk-assessed basis. It is important to note that extending this flexibility does not prevent Ofsted from inspecting services or change their inspection powers, it only affects the frequency with which they must inspect.

Alongside the regulations, I am today publishing the Government’s response to the consultation, setting out more detail on each flexibility, the rationale for our approach and the views received.

As part of the consultation, we also asked for views on two new proposals in relation to adoption: to allow medical reports to be completed by other qualified medical professionals and to remove the requirement for a full medical examination. While a majority agreed with the first proposal, there were a greater number who disagreed with the second proposal, and concerns were raised in relation to safeguarding. This is an area on which the Government places paramount importance and we therefore want to give this further reflection. We are therefore not proceeding with these additional flexibilities at this time.

Protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of the Government’s response to the virus. These regulations formed part of that response, alongside keeping schools and other settings open for vulnerable children, substantial additional investment in local authority services and additional support direct to children, young people, and their families. The Government are clear that these flexibilities will only remain in place for as long as they are needed and there currently are no plans to extend them beyond 30 September 2021. Their use will continue to be monitored and they will be reviewed in line with the Government road map to recovery. Our guidance sets out clear safeguards about how and when they should be used.

Since the introduction of the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 we have kept the flexibilities under constant review. Data for the period from 25 September to 24 November 2020 suggested that over half of local authorities were using both the existing temporary flexibilities—to enable virtual visits and to allow greater time to provide a medical report for a prospective foster carer or adopter. Out of 113 LAs that we had spoken to over 90 LAs had made use of the regulations. The most used related to virtual engagement with children and families—this had often been used alongside face-to-face visits and, in some cases, this has resulted in greater levels of contact between children, young people, parents, and carers—and improved engagement from some young people. We will continue to monitor the usage of the flexibilities through monitoring information collected from the Regional Educational and Care Teams and delivery partners.

Medical reports

In order to become a foster carer or adoptive parent, one needs to provide a medical report from a General Practitioner. As restrictions are eased and schools return, we expect that there may be more children needing care than is usual, and therefore there will be a higher need for potential adopters and foster carers. Our National Health Service (NHS) continues to face unprecedented challenges during the ongoing pressure from the pandemic. This is unlikely to ease for some time, even when the country enters a period of recovery. Therefore, I am minded to extend the amendments that allow more time for General Practitioners and other health professionals to provide information to support the process of approving much needed potential adopters and foster carers. This does not remove the requirement for medical reports to be provided but moves the time during the process that the report must be provided before the child is placed with the foster parent or adoptive parent.

Virtual Visits

We must be able to keep essential services, such as social worker visits, operating during any local lockdowns, and in cases where households are being required to self-isolate due to a case, or suspected case, of covid-19, or contact with someone who has tested positive for covid-19, in line with medical advice from the NHS test and trace service. The Government recognise that visits by social workers to looked after children provide important opportunities to consider children and young people’s safety and wellbeing and that virtual visits may not always provide the best conditions. We have been clear in the consultation and in our guidance that visits should happen, whenever possible, face to face. The regulations and guidance explicitly provide that virtual visits should only happen when face to face visits would be contrary to public health advice, or where face to face visits would otherwise not be reasonably practicable as a result of coronavirus.

The Government also recognise the importance of ensuring that social workers are well equipped to use virtual visits effectively. Therefore, I am suggesting that it is appropriate to continue to enable visits in these situations to happen virtually. However, in all other situations I would expect face to face visits to take place.

Ofsted inspections of children’s social care providers

The Government and Ofsted are keen that routine inspections of children’s social care providers are resumed as soon as it is safe to do so. At present, Ofsted inspection frequency cycles are suspended due to covid-19, although it is continuing to register social care providers and managers, and to monitor children’s homes where there are safeguarding concerns. Therefore, I am minded to extend the suspension of the requirement for a minimum frequency of Ofsted inspections for all children’s social care providers to be extended for six months, until 30 September 2021. Extending the flexibility will enable Ofsted to use its resources under existing inspection powers to carry out inspections to as many providers as possible, prioritised on a risk- assessed basis.

It is important to note that extending this flexibility does not prevent Ofsted from inspecting services or change its inspection powers, it only affects the frequency with which they must inspect. During the covid-19 pandemic Ofsted is aiming to restart graded inspections from April although it will balance this with the nature and extent of any covid-19 restrictions that might be in place moving into the 2021-22 inspection year.

Throughout this pandemic, social workers, charities, and others working to support our most vulnerable children and families have worked tirelessly to ensure that they continue to receive the support they need. I would like to place on record my personal gratitude, and that of the whole Government, for everything they have done and continue to do. I would also like to acknowledge the extremely difficult circumstances many children and families have faced during this pandemic.

Protecting vulnerable children remains our top priority, as it does for local authorities and children’s social care providers across the country. As the country begins to return to a more normal way of life, it is absolutely right that this also applies to children’s social care.

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