The rights of children in care are in lockdown

Jonathan Stanley
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

This Sunday not everyone will be hearing the Prime Minister's plans for the ending of lockdown.

When the plans for the ending of the temporary curtailment of everyday life are announced, children in care will still feel the effects through the continuing loss of their rights. Using the powers of the Coronavirus Act the government has removed rights of children in care.

A Statutory Instrument sounds innocuous but under SI445 78000 young people and children in care, have had rights removed - 100 changes to the laws about children in care have been imposed without any public or Parliamentary consultation.

Government says that there was no time for the normal 21-day Parliamentary scrutiny because it "has consulted informally with the sector who have asked for these changes to be in force as a matter of urgency". Since the publication, those identified by the government as having made these requests have stated publicly that they did not. They say they were informed not consulted. The Children’s Commissioner for England, one of those named, has issued a strong statement emphatically calling for the revocation. In her statement she says that she is minded there should be more protections at this time not less.

According to my research, no government across the globe has used this time of all times to reduce protections to children in care. There are 65 removals or weakening of legal protections. The rights lost are to essential safeguards developed over many decades; each a response to an event that was unthinkable until it happened. The change was to ensure it never happened again. The names of Victoria Climbie and Baby P are still within memory, safeguarding was enhanced as a result of their tragic deaths. Legislation followed that protected children.

As you sit and read this some of those protections, everyday expected protections like social work visits and independent reviews of care, are able to be set aside. The removal of these rights will definitely go on until September, and then only be reviewed. The loss may be extended because this crisis is being used as an opportunity by government to take forward plans they have tried before. The government seek to tie their changes to Coronavirus but history shows two previous failed attempts to bring in these changes: the 2015 Children and Social Work Bill and then guidance with the title ‘mythbuster’ only two years ago. This latter inaccurately quoted the legislation or guidance in a way to set up a case for change. Both met with resolute opposition from across social work and social care. The changes were called 'innovation’. Unethical and dangerous was the response from those campaigning. It was unethical and dangerous then, and it is now. There is opposition and campaigning again, outside and inside Parliament.

#Defend children’s rights in care: Scrap SI445 is a collaborative coalition of organisations and individuals. One member is Article 39. On its website you will find details about the rights lost, the details of SI445 and of defending children’s rights in care.

Inside Parliament, the imposition of the changes met with strong oppositional correspondence from both Labour and Liberal Democrat front bench. Emma Lewel Buck MP, now not in the shadow cabinet, asked five Parliamentary Questions. Here’s one: Who was consulted? Not answered. Here’s another: How many local authorities had advised the DfE that they would be unable to make a telephone call or video link to children, for whom they have or share legal parental responsibility, every six weeks? Not answered. What discussions had there been with the Principal Social Worker about the changes to legal protections? Not answered. Not only not answered but the same answer given repeatedly. Revealingly, in answering a question about the date planning started on the changes to these care planning regulations the minister for children Vicky Ford replied that a previous minister had advised the government in June 2019 that it was going to review the regulations. Clearly there has been planning waiting for an opportunity and these changes are not related to Coronavirusat all.

There is a pattern. A recent letter to a newspaper from Vicky Ford, who has probably inherited this plan as it seems far too soon for a new person with no previous involvement in social care policy to have worked it up, was no more than a reiteration of previous media releases. Whilst the government have tactically decided not to answer Parliamentary questions the civil service in the form of the DfE media centre have been deployed to issue a blog. It is in the name of Maeve Mcalister, who according to the DfE website is a junior officer in the DfE Media office for early years, special educational needs and disability (SEND) and vulnerable children section. Undoubtedly a political response, it should be in name of a minister. The politicisation of civil service is something that has been resisted throughout our Parliamentary history. The blog is in the same vein as the ‘mythbusting’ guidance in that claims are stated as having been made. The 'claims' as written by the DfE seek to dominate and determine a discussion. Is it what was said, actually? Learning from mythbusting it is important to look at what is said to have been said, and show if it actually is what was said.

Thankfully, to our knowledge, Covid-19 has had no great effect on the physical health of most children in care. However, it is not hyperbole to see children in care as hidden victims of this crisis. Whilst the population temporarily ceded its rights for free movement to protect others children in care have had their rights to protection removed to be returned at a time still to be determined, perhaps never. The Children Act 1989 is seen as the gold standard across the world. What must the world be thinking of us now?

Jonathan Stanley, children’s residential care consultant at NCERCC

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