Government to establish expert panel to vet 'exemption clause' bids

Derren Hayes
Friday, October 14, 2016

The government intends to set up an expert panel to consider applications by local authorities to be exempted from statutory duties relating to children's social care under controversial proposals, it has emerged.

Richard Watts will take over as chair of the LGA's children and young people board. Picture: Islington Council
Richard Watts will take over as chair of the LGA's children and young people board. Picture: Islington Council

Provisions contained in the Children and Social Work Bill, which is currently going through parliament, are intended to give councils the ability "to test different ways of working" within children's services by freeing them from "requirements imposed by children's social care legislation".

The proposals are controversial, with a number of organisations and prominent individuals in the children's services sector opposing them because of concerns it could water down vulnerable children's rights and lead to privatisation of parts of the child protection system.

In an effort to allay fears, the government will table an amendment to the bill next week when it is debated in the House of Lords proposing that an independent board be created to review and approve applications for exemptions from legislation.

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association's (LGA) children and young people board, told CYP Now that an expert panel could be an important safeguard to ensuring applications are thoroughly considered.

However, he said that the Children's Improvement Board should play a key role in such a panel.  

"The safeguards we want to see are not just parliamentary process but giving local government a say in whether freedoms should be offered to individual councils," he said.

"The government is talking about setting up a new independent board to do that. We think the Children's Improvement Board would function perfectly well signing off whether innovation is the right thing to do without the bureaucracy and expense of a new quango.

"Local government is best placed to judge whether the freedoms individual councils want are the right balance between getting a universal offer and giving freedom to do things differently."

The improvement board, which is co-chaired by Watts, is made up of representatives from the LGA, council chief executives group Solace, the Association of Directors of Children's Services and the Association of Local Safeguarding Children Board Chairs.

However, Watts said he does not expect there to be a "massive demand" from councils to use the so-called "exemption clause", and is more concerned with another of the bill's proposals that could see struggling councils - such as those rated "inadequate" by Ofsted or that have had commissioners appointed by government - forced to adopt "some flexibilities".

"We are strongly opposed to the clause that gives the Education Secretary very wide-ranging powers to force individual councils in intervention to take some flexibilities," said Watts.

"We do worry what that is a back door to. A lot of councils see that as potentially a backdoor to mass privatisation of children's services.

"Councils should have the right to innovate wherever they can, but we don't think it should be imposed on them by central government.

"So we are going to lobby for the removal of [that] clause."

Earlier this week, Labour's new shadow children's minister Emma Lewell-Buck, a former frontline child protection worker, also confirmed that she will campaign against the exemption clause proposals.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment. 

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