Professor Eileen Munro has withdrawn her backing for controversial ‘innovation’ powers in the Children and Social Work Bill after concluding they pose a “serious danger”.
Munro, whose landmark review of child protection was published in 2011, said government plans to allow councils to seek exemptions from social care legal duties to test new ways of working will create more dangers than benefits.
Ministers have regularly cited Munro as a supporter of the innovation powers, relying heavily on a statement issued last year where she signalled support for the plans. However, last night Munro revealed her change of heart.
In a message to MPs, seen by Community Care, Munro said: “I have been reading the debates in Hansard and the submissions about the Social Work and Children Bill. I’ve also been meeting with some of those who oppose the bill and I have reached the conclusion that the power to have exemption from primary and secondary legislation creates more dangers than the benefits it might produce.
“I saw the exemption as allowing the opportunity to test new means of achieving the will of Parliament as expressed in the Children Act and related legislation. The projects would be in the spirit of the legislation and would not override the will of parliament.
“While I understand and respect the motivation of the current government, there is a serious danger in having such wide-reaching powers in statute. Some future Secretary of State might use them in ways that are completely contrary to the current intentions and consequently subvert the will of Parliament.”
Munro urged the Department for Education to pursue a “less ambitious but still useful reform” by going to parliament to amend “specific laws or regulations” that are blocking innovation, rather than introducing the broader exemption power.
The intervention by the leading child protection expert marks a blow to the government weeks after it won a crucial House of Commons vote to get the innovation powers restored to the bill. Peers had previously voted to remove the clauses from the legislation.
The government has faced fierce opposition to the plans from Labour and a group of social care organisations, including the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). A BASW survey of more than 1,000 social workers found 76% opposed the exemption clauses.
Campaigners called on ministers to scrap the plans in light of Munro’s comments.
Carolyne Willow, director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said: “The death knell has finally sounded for this appalling attack on children’s law and Parliamentary sovereignty.
“From the start, ministers claimed their dangerous plan to test out the removal of legal protection from vulnerable children and young people had the backing of Professor Munro. Well now she has walked away.
“Nobody wants our child protection and welfare system to lose its legal infrastructure. Ministers must do the decent thing for children and young people and withdraw these hated clauses.”
Willow’s charity is a founding member of Together for Children, a coalition of more than 50 organisations opposing the plans. This week the group published an analysis of expert evidence submitted to the committee of MPs scrutinising the Children and Social Work Bill. The report found only one of the 47 submissions concerning the exemption clauses backed the government.
Responding to Munro’s intervention, the Department for Education said the innovation clauses were never intended to undermine children’s rights and pointed to a series of government amendments to the bill that built in additional safeguards to the approval process for exemptions.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We know that over-regulation can get in the way of good social work practice, and the power to innovate will allow local authorities to test new approaches in a carefully controlled and monitored way. We have amended these clauses to strengthen the safeguards – to suggest the power to innovate would place children at risk is simply wrong.”