The government’s proposed changes to Working Together guidance to safeguard children will harm children in need, argues Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and co-ordinator of the Every Child in Need Campaign
Who We Are
We are a new group, the Every Child in Need campaign, formed because of concerns about damaging changes proposed by the Department for Education to the system that protects vulnerable children.
We are charities, campaigners and lawyers. We work with and reach thousands of children across the country, including disabled children, children who have been trafficked, and others facing challenges such as street homelessness, physical or sexual violence (often gang-related), parental neglect, educational difficulties and behavioural or mental health problems. All of these are children in need under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
What Is The Problem?
The Department for Education is proposing wide-ranging changes to the legal framework which protects these children. The ministers, Michael Gove MP and Tim Loughton MP, say these changes just involve cutting ‘red tape’, allowing local authority children’s services departments more freedom to meet children’s needs.
Many local authorities – cash-strapped following swingeing cuts to their budgets – are happy to take this lifeline, which will mean less pressure to act quickly when a child in need comes to their attention.
We disagree. The legal framework is not ‘red tape’ – it is an essential safety net for children when they are failed by their local authority. Basic minimum national standards and requirements are essential. A hands off approach, allowing local authorities to do what they want, when they want, is dangerous. Even the government’s own impact assessment recognises this – it accepts that, “there is a risk of negative impact on children if central government is less prescriptive”.
That is not a risk we should be taking. Under the new plans, the whole of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families and Working Together guidance would be replaced with a very slim, minimal and vague document, with the minimum national standards for assessments removed.
Each individual local authority can decide on timescales and content for assessing children in need. We believe this will introduce a new postcode lottery for vulnerable children.
We believe these changes are wrong-headed, dangerous and will place the most vulnerable children at risk. We have three central concerns:
- The proposals are based solely upon ‘children at risk,’ but the changes will apply to all ‘children in need’ – a far wider group. For example, all disabled children are children in need under the Children Act 1989 section 17(10c), but their needs have not been taken into account in the proposals. There are at least 770,000 disabled children in England and Wales. Why have their needs been disregarded? How will they be impacted by these changes?
- The proposals remove national minimum standards for child in need assessments, basic standards which all local authorities must meet. At the moment there are maximum timescales in place, so that when a child in need is referred to children’s services his or her needs must be assessed within 35 working days at most. The department plans to remove this requirement. We believe that many children in need will be left to languish, without the assessments and services they desperately need – and are statutorily entitled to.
- The revised statutory guidance proposed in the consultation is hopelessly vague and general, and will not ensure that children in need obtain assessments with a ‘realistic plan of action’.
We are very surprised to see the department supporting the removal of national minimum standards on the timing and quality of assessments for children in need at this time, when in other contexts they are demanding more proscription and are criticising local authority decision-making.
For example, in the past month we have seen Tim Loughton MP sharply criticise local authorities for their placement and management of vulnerable young people in children’s homes, and the poor quality of local authority data on such children; and we have seen the department demand that adoption processes follow strict national timescales. These proposals run completely counter to that trend.
How to Get Involved
Everyone is welcome to our campaign launch at Doughty Street Chambers tonight, Thursday 26 July, 6pm.
There will be an opportunity to find out more. The meeting will hear from young people who have recently experienced first-hand how damaging these changes can be, when the DfE allowed eight local authorities to run trials.
With no set timeframes, and no minimum national standards, these children were left to languish, without their needs being assessed, let alone met.
We are asking people to do two things:
- Respond to the DfE’s consultation on these issues, raising your concerns. It only runs until 4 September so time is tight.
- Write to your MP, raising your concerns and asking him or her to contact the ministers on your behalf.
Full details are on our website, and you can follow updates on Twitter using #EveryChildinNeed.