Sector leaders, charities supporting care leavers and looked-after children and children’s rights organisations have said ploughing ahead with reforms based on the outcome of the consultation, which is due to close on 8 April, would be “irresponsible”.
Carolyne Willow, director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said it is “absolutely the wrong time” for ministers to push through plans detailed in the consultation document including banning the use of unregulated supported accommodation for under-16s and introducing new national standards for such provisions.
She added: “Parliament has recently passed emergency legislation to deal with Covid-19, and local authorities, charities and others are desperately trying to help children and young people in need of care and protection.
“This is absolutely the wrong time for ministers to be pushing through retrograde policies on the back of a consultation which children and young people have not been able to contribute to. We have just over a week left until the consultation closes and still the Department for Education has not even produced an accessible version of its proposals, and clearly in the middle of a global pandemic this is not a priority conversation for social workers and advocates to be having with children and young people.
“We have been advised that there are grounds to legally challenge the failure to consult under both the Human Rights Act and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, should the consultation not be postponed.”
Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of Become, the national charity for children in care and young care leavers said: “At a time of national crisis, we believe it would be irresponsible to push through significant reforms which change the way in which young people in care can expect to receive care and support.
“We are working tirelessly with young people to support them in the midst of a pandemic. The focus needs to be on them and only them right now. During this emergency the priority needs to be the most vulnerable.”
Jonathan Stanley, National Centre for Excellence in Residential Childcare (NERCC) manager, added: “Now is a time when we need staff to be able to be fully dedicated to caring for vulnerable children and young people. Keeping calm and carrying on keeping safe is the front and centre of daily life. It is not an exaggeration to say that staff and young people are worried for their lives. I am hearing of some amazing work where staff are assuring young people and lifting worries. The minister can support this all important work by postponing the consultation.”
The consultation has already drawn criticism over a lack of involvement of young and care-experienced people and faced claims of “secrecy” after it emerged DfE had set up a working group of experts including representatives from Ofsted, the Local Government Association and directors of children’s services, to draft proposed national standards for settings.
Organisations have also called on use of unregulated supported accommodation to be banned for children up to 18 years old.
Sir Alan Wood, chair of the group, said it had been due to hold a meeting over the phone yesterday (30 March) but said the meeting had been postponed due to lack of availability of members.
He added that the DfE was set to arrange an alternative meeting but said it had not yet made a decision on whether to extend the consultation.
“As far as I am aware, DfE is in the process of making a decision on whether the consultation will be extended, obviously this will have to be done soon.
“I think part of this will depend on how much information has already been received and from what I have heard, quite a lot has already come in.”
However, organisations have further criticised a lack of involvement of young people in the consultation.
Wood previously confirmed that the expert group had not been tasked with involving young people in the consultation and said that DfE was in talks with children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield on this.
The children’s commissioner’s office confirmed it was in talks with DfE but added it had been working on a separate report on unregulated supported accommodation.
Willow added: “Our understanding is that the children’s commissioner sought the views and experiences of children and young people in unregulated accommodation before the government’s proposals were published. It’s difficult therefore to see how this counts as engaging children and young people in the official consultation exercise.”
Sacks-Jones said: “Care-experienced young people deserve the opportunity to contribute to this consultation. How can they when most are facing urgent challenges around finances, education, career and the many other issues this situation brings.
“We have delayed our own consultation work so we can better respond to the needs of care-experienced young people and we urge the government to do the same.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of 40 organisations has called on the government to offer more support for children in care and care leavers.
In an open letter to the government, the group called for extra safeguarding measures to stop children being placed in unregulated supported accommodation.
Last week, children’s homes providers warned that settings could close due to staff sickness and isolation, leaving a lack of capacity for children needing to move to new provisions.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Ensuring vulnerable children and young people remain protected is a top priority for this Government.
“We are providing £1.6 billion of additional funding to councils to address any pressures they are facing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including within children’s social care.
“We want to ensure that everyone who wishes to respond to this consultation gets an opportunity to do so. We are considering the timing of the consultation, and we expect to provide on update on this shortly.’