DfE launches fresh consultation over extending children’s social care exemptions

Fiona Simpson
Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Department for Education has launched a fresh consultation over plans to further extend controversial changes to children’s social care legislation amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The exemptions mean social workers carry out less face-to-face visits. Picture: Adobe Stock
The exemptions mean social workers carry out less face-to-face visits. Picture: Adobe Stock

The consultation, which was launched yesterday (9 February) and will close on 28 February, proposes extending relaxations of local authority duties to vulnerable children surrounding foster care and adoptions processes, Ofsted inspections to children’s social care providers and the continuation of virtual visits by social workers.

The changes were originally implemented using emergency legislation in April last year as part of a raft of exemptions introduced via the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.

The DfE said they had been introduced “to provide local authorities and children’s social care providers with temporary flexibilities to support them during the coronavirus pandemic”.

However, the move split opinion across the sector and led to a Court of Appeal ruling that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson “acted unlawfully” by not consulting children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield over the changes.

Sector leaders also compared the changes to previous attempts by government to relax council duties to vulnerable children.

Despite the majority of changes being scrapped when they expired in September 2020, a handful were extended until 31 March.

The DfE is now looking to extend these further until 30 September. 

The department is calling on sector leaders, social workers, children’s social care providers, voluntary organisations and the children’s commissioner for England to put forward views on:

  1. Two options for the health assessment provision for fostering and adoption: extension of the current flexibilities on fostering and adoption allowing medical reports to be completed at any point of the assessment process for a further six months, until 30 September 2021; amendment of the adoption regulations to manage growing delays in placing children with their new families, by removing the requirement for a full medical examination and allowing the medical report to be completed by other relevant healthcare professionals, such as nurses, in addition to doctors, until 30 September 2021. 

  2. Extending the current virtual visits provisions, for a further six months, until 30 September 2021. 

  1. Extending suspension of the regulation that details the minimum frequency of Ofsted inspections for all children’s social care providers for a further six months, until 30 September 2021. 

A consultation document published by DfE states that the changes may only be used:

  • where staff shortages, due to sickness or other reasons, make it difficult or impossible to meet the original requirements

  • where making use of flexibilities to take a different approach is the most sensible, risk-based response in light of other demands and pressures on services, this might involve focussing services on those most at risk

  • where there is a consequential reason to make use of flexibilities, for example, due to limited capacity in other providers or partners making it difficult or impossible to comply with the original requirements

It adds that “out of 113 local authorities that we have spoken to, 92 have made use of the regulations”.

“For example, the local authorities that indicated they were using the amendments to the fostering and adoption regulations said that this enabled medical reports to be considered at a later stage in the fostering and adoption processes, minimising delays in approving foster carers and adopters for children needing a new, secure or forever family,” it states.

“There are likely to be circumstances in which some services will continue to face specific and exceptional challenges into the spring/summer. Continued availability of a small number of flexibilities, drawing on the experience and evidence gathering of the last few months, may still be needed, so we must be prepared for the potential additional demands that may still be placed on services. We are proposing to extend or amend all the flexibilities in the current regulations, to provide effective support for children and young people involved with children’s social care services during the pandemic,” DfE adds.

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