The Department for Education (DfE) is consulting on plans to reduce more than 700 pages of statutory guidance to three documents totalling 68 pages.
One of the documents sets out guidelines for professionals on assessing so-called “children in need” and their families.
The draft guidance proposes to end the 10- and 35-day targets for completing initial and core assessments. Children and families will instead receive one assessment within timescales set at a local level.
The changes are intended to cut red tape and free local practitioners to use their professional judgement.
But a campaign group of charities and legal professionals has said the plans are “wrong-headed, dangerous and will place the most vulnerable children at risk”.
The Every Child in Need campaign argues that the proposed guidance overlooks disabled children and focuses solely on children at risk of “significant harm”, despite the fact that many children deemed to be “in need” of support services do not require child protection intervention.
Stephen Broach, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and spokesman for the campaign, refuted the claim that the draft guidance simply amounts to a reduction in bureaucracy.
“They want to replace the whole of the framework for the assessment of children in need with a very slim document,” he said.
“There is no focus at all on disabled children or those who could be suffering from low level neglect and wouldn’t hit that threshold, but who urgently need support.
“Each local area will be asked to set its own timescales for assessing children in need and we cannot begin to think why that is a good idea, particularly when the government is introducing tighter national timescales for adoption.
“It seems to us to be completely off the wall to introduce a new postcode lottery on assessments.”
Broach said the current guidance is an “essential safety net for children when they are failed by their local authority”.
“Basic minimum national standards and requirements are essential,” he said. “A hands off approach, allowing local authorities to do what they want, when they want, is dangerous.
“We cannot see how that could be justified, other than for local areas to save money. Many local authorities - cash-strapped following swingeing cuts to their budgets - are happy to take this lifeline, which will mean less pressure to act quickly when a child in need comes to their attention.
"We don’t think we should be putting disabled children or children in need at risk in this way, even though finances are tight.”
A spokeswoman for the DfE argued that the proposed guidance refelects recommendations set out in the Munro review of child protection.
“The government agreed with Professor Munro ’s recommendation to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy so professionals are free to exercise their own judgments to deliver the right help for all vulnerable young people, including those with disabilities," she said.
“The government is currently consulting on our proposed reforms and believe that together they will bring about a real change in culture by putting the needs of children and families back at the centre of practice. All the responses will be carefully considered along with the independent evaluation and further evidence from the trial authorities, before a final decision is made on any proposed changes.”
Ambitious About Autism, Just for Kids Law and Maxwell Gillot Solicitors are among the organisations supporting the campaign. The campaign launches officially at an event tomorrow (26 July).