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Children in Care

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 30 April 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to safeguard vulnerable children in care during the COVID-19 pandemic following recent legislative changes.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the interests of vulnerable children are this Government’s top priority. The recent changes to secondary legislation are intended to help children’s social care to respond to this unprecedented situation. We have not changed the overarching responsibilities for the protection of vulnerable children. The measures, which are to be used only when absolutely necessary, will help to maintain safeguards while providing services with additional flexibility, allowing them to focus on those children needing the most support.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her response, but it does not square with the clear impression within the child care sector. At this time of national crisis, it should be expected that the Government would seek to ensure the protection of every child in care by strengthening safeguards, not removing them. Yet through these regulations, the Government have decided to weaken the support offered to some of the country’s most vulnerable children. No evidence has been produced to back up the Government’s claim that changes to existing regulations are in response to the pressures of lockdown. There has been no statement from the Government about the proportionality of the changes or how they sit beside human rights law and obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Can the noble Baroness point to any new protections for children resulting from these regulations?

My Lords, these regulations are intended to be a temporary measure to enable the limited flexibility that local authorities need at this time so that, where there are limited resources in some circumstances, services can be directed to ensure that the children most in need get the support that they need. To give an example, we hope that extending the time that a local authority has to respond to an Ofsted inspection from 70 days to when is “reasonably practicable” will be used by some local authorities to ensure that front-line services are maintained.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has raised an important point, but I hope that local authorities looking after the precious children in their care will continue to act so far as possible in the best interests of the children in accordance with the Children Act as it is. Have the Government given special attention to the position of foster parents, who often have children of their own? These are difficult days for families, so the responsibilities of foster parents for the care of children under the care of the local authority may be made more difficult.

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that the primary legislation in relation to the duties on local authorities to safeguard the welfare of children in care remains unchanged, and that decisions still need to be made in accordance with the best interests of children. I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for raising the vital role that foster carers play. Many of them are within the older cohort and therefore may be more vulnerable to this disease. Some of the changes to the procedure in these regulations have been made to ensure that we have enough foster care placements so that, if an emergency call comes from a family in a lockdown situation where unfortunately the local authority may need to remove a child, there is capacity among other foster carers to ensure that places are available for such children to move to. That is the spirit and the purpose behind these regulations.

My Lords, we are only too well aware of the problems of older people in care homes, but young people in care are also facing the risk of losing their carers to Covid-19 or through self-isolation. They are therefore more likely to suffer during the lockdown than other young people. What education provision is being made available to these young people, including suitable computer equipment to enable them to take part in virtual lessons?

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that the recent £100 million computer and access to wi-fi provision that has been offered by the Government includes provision of laptops and tablets to vulnerable children who are included in the Children Act need group. They will have access to online facilities to ensure that they do not miss out on their education.

I declare my interest as a governor of Coram. Has the department issued clear guidance to local authorities as to how they should interpret and apply this new lessening of the regulations, or will each local authority be allowed to interpret and apply them as it sees fit? Does the Minister acknowledge that there are substantial areas of best practice in the way local authorities are applying these regulations? Will she make sure that those are identified and notified to those authorities that are not following best practice, to ensure that what the sector is best at is being applied as widely as possible?

I assure noble Lords that these regulations were made in close consultation with local authorities about the situation they face. We have a partnership of 17 local authorities—Partners in Practice —which we use to ensure that best practice is spread across the country.

What consultation on the proposed changes actually took place in March with our excellent children’s voluntary sector? I know that the Explanatory Memorandum to Statutory Instrument 445 stated that the department needed to consult with the sector in order to understand any difficulties. I am assured that this consultation never took place. Why not?

My Lords, unfortunately there was not the usual 12-week consultation period due to the particular circumstances that we were in. The department consulted the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, as I have said, and local authorities’ principal social workers. There is always engagement with stakeholders. Ofsted was also closely involved, because routine inspections of local authorities have been paused but risk-based inspections will continue. They are an important safeguard for local authority practice during this period.

My Lords, last month’s figures show that some 2,100 people with learning disabilities are living in assessment and treatment units. Families have expressed concern about the impact of this crisis on their care, including suspension of quality inspections, cancelled family visits, increased use of solitary confinement and excessive restraint. How many planned moves of children and young people with learning disabilities from those units back into supported living environments have been delayed by coronavirus? What steps are being taken to ensure their complex needs are being met while they wait?

My Lords, Transforming Care activity oversees such situations to ensure that there are not unnecessary in-patient admissions and that quality of experience while people are in-patients is maintained, subject of course to safety and the need to self-isolate. The chief executive of NHS England wrote to NHS trusts yesterday to say that care and treatment reviews should carry on and should be on a digital platform. I shall write to the noble Baroness regarding her request for statistics.

My Lords, aside from the recklessness of deregulating the children’s care sector at a time when need is sharply rising, is it not a constitutional abuse for the Government to have used the emergency coronavirus legislation to make a major and highly controversial policy change of a nature which was previously explicitly rejected by Parliament in 2017 and to do so by way of statutory instrument without proper consultation—as my noble friend Lady Massey said; I understand that the Children’s Commissioner for England, with her statutory responsibilities, was informed but not consulted—and without parliamentary scrutiny?

My Lords, I can assure noble Lords that this is a minimal change to the procedural requirements in relation to children’s social care. The Coronavirus Act has not been used in this regard; we did not take powers under that Act because it was clear that the secondary legislation could be amended to ensure that there was limited use of the extensive powers granted by Parliament in the emergency legislation. The legislation is under review. The regulations will fall on 25 September if they are not renewed by Parliament. There is scrutiny in the Commons as well as in the Lords in relation to the new regulations.

The Newlife foundation provides specialist equipment for 22,500 disabled children and spends £3 million a year. Unfortunately, because it provides statutory services supplementing those carried out by local authorities, it does not qualify for UK charities funding from the likes of Comic Relief or Children in Need. Will the Minister undertake to ask the Chancellor to widen the criteria for eligibility for emergency funding to include the Newlife foundation charity to help it protect the most vulnerable children in society, the severely disabled and the terminally ill?

My Lords, I can assure noble Lords that there will be detailed guidance in relation to the regulations around special educational needs and disabilities tomorrow. If the matter raised by the noble Lord is not covered in that information, I shall undertake to look at it. For the sake of completeness, I can assure noble Lords that the detailed guidance on these regulations will be published next week.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.