A group of campaigners have issued a fresh warning over risks to children’s “essential protections” they say are posed by the government’s Children and Social Work Bill.
Twenty different membership and campaigning organisations have united to oppose clause 29 of the bill, which gives the government powers to exempt local authorities from legal duties.
The ‘Together for Children’ group includes the British Association of Social Workers, CoramBAAF and National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers. Care leaver and abuse survivor organisations, and a further 20 individuals – mainly social work academics and lawyers – are also members.
The controversial clause allows the education secretary to excuse local authorities of legal duties for up to six years, including obligations under parts of the Children Act 1989, the Children Act 2004 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.
The government has claimed the powers will allow councils to test new ways of working. However, the Together for Children group warned the move could see children miss out on vital protections that have been built up through legislation over 80 years.
The group said: “This will affect all of the social care services children receive from local authorities, including child protection, family support, the care system and support to care leavers, and services for disabled children.
“This would expose children to a postcode lottery of protection. During the testing phase, which could last up to six years, a child in Newcastle could have very different entitlements to protection and support from a child in Northampton and Norwich.”
Jenny Molloy, author, care leaver and BASW Patron, also opposed the clause, and said interfering with laws passed to protect children “could be taking away children’s first sight of freedom from abuse”.
“We should be making rights and protection stronger so children in care have great childhoods and futures they can really look forward to.”
Lawyers warned the clause could lead to a “piecemeal dismantling” of safeguards.
“All systems are dynamic and the present system needs to be improved, but this cannot be achieved simply by allowing individual agencies to opt out of those parts that they find inconvenient,” Martha Cover and Debbie Singleton said.
Martha Spurrier, the director of human rights campaigning group Liberty, said: “In one fell swoop, these proposals would let councils opt out of 80 years of children’s care legislation.
“The essential protections those laws enshrine are the product of decades of learning, public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny and, sometimes, the tragic consequences of failure by the state to keep children safe from harm. With no consultation, this government has decided those protections are dispensable.”
The Children and Social Work Bill is currently going through the Lords and is due to be debated again next month. The innovation clause, and proposals to bring social work regulation under government control, have come under heavy criticism from peers.
Lord Warner, former commissioner for children’s services in Birmingham, said the government had provided “no evidence that primary or secondary legislation is impeding innovation in children’s services”.
The innovation clause has been backed by Professor Eileen Munro, who said the reforms will mean “trusting professionals to use their judgement rather than be forced to follow unnecessary legal rules”.
In July, Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, said the proposals could help challenge rules that have been built up over years “for which there is little evidence of positive effect and lots of evidence of money and time poorly spent”.
She said: “I do think there should be debate. But contrary to the media headlines this is not some kind of sinister political plot to overthrow public authorities or a ruse to wipe out decades of children’s rights. We need to think a little deeper about what is really being offered here.”