Confusion over consultation on child protection duties

Children's social care groups are worried and confused by a government consultation ordered by communities secretary Eric Pickles (pictured) on whether to ditch a council's legal duty to investigate child protection concerns. Picture: Rex Features

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Children’s social care groups are worried and confused by a government consultation on whether to ditch a council’s legal duty to investigate child protection concerns.

Last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government opened a consultation to examine all statutory duties that are placed upon councils as part of a wide-ranging review.

The DCLG is seeking views on which duties are essential and which could be removed. It follows communities secretary Eric Pickles’ declaration of war on councils’ “barmy rules and regulations”.

However, many professionals are confused about whether the government would seriously consider freeing councils from child protection duties or those concerning children in need and children in care.

Kirsten Anderson, head of research, policy and communications at the Children’s Legal Centre, said: “We cannot understand why the government would want to review certain local authority duties, such as the duty to investigate and respond to complaints of child abuse contained in section 47 of the Children’s Act 1989.

“Many of the safeguarding obligations fall under international and European legal obligations, including those in the United Nations Convention of Rights for the Child and European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to which the UK is a signatory.

“These conventions set out fundamental rights to which children are entitled, including the protection from all forms of violence, exploitation and abuse. It is necessary to retain these local authority duties in order for the government to meet its obligations under these conventions.”

Anderson said the duties cannot be looked at in isolation. “Together they are vital to protect the fundamental rights of children and young people, and to hold local authorities to account. Furthermore, it is not for local authorities to pick and choose which they wish to repeal simply on the grounds that they are ‘burdensome’.”

Perdeep Gil, a child protection consultant, agreed: “What is the rationale for putting everything up for consultation, particularly section 47? Who will be able to challenge local authorities if children are failed and harmed. Without government giving us more detailed reasons one could infer that this consultation is a process of rolling back state protection of the most vulnerable. If so, this is shocking.”

One child protection expert, who did not wish to be named, added: “If any of these statutory safeguards are removed, this would in effect be setting children up to be harmed.”

Social workers have also hit out at the credibility of the consultation, pointing out that there are already a number of ongoing reviews looking at bureaucracy and child protection systems, including Professor Eileen Munro’s and the Family Justice Review.

The government has given no indication as to how this consultation would sit alongside them.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said: “I am outraged. How can this go out after the Department for Education has already commissioned Eileen Munro to review child protection, Graham Allen to look at early intervention, Frank Field to look at child poverty and the Family Justice Review to look at the entire family justice system? Will this all be washed away?

“The bureaucracy issue is being dealt with by Munro. Including social care duties in this consultation is a complete overreaction to an issue that is already being tackled in a credible way. If Pickles can suddenly decide this is in his remit, how can he justify it? It’s ludicrous.”

Community Care is awaiting a response from the Department for Education.

REGULATIONS UNDER REVIEW: Statutory social care duties that could be under threat include:

Section 47, Children Act, 1989: Ensures local authorities make enquiries when there are suspicions that a child is being harmed to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child.

Section 20, Children Act 1989: Ensures children are looked after and accommodated by the local authority in circumstances where parents or others are unable to do so.

Children Act 1989, Section 17: To ensure a focus on how well children in need are progressing and whether their development will be impaired without the provision of services.

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