Children’s Act hits its 20th birthday: Sir Roger Singleton’s views

It is often believed that the Children Act 1989 was principally a response to the enquiry into child sexual abuse in Cleveland in 1987, where 121 cases of sex abuse were identified by paediatricians at Middlesbrough hospital, writes Roger Singleton, chair of the independent safeguarding authority and former Barnardo’s chief executive.

That is not so. As is another popular misconception that the enquiry arose out of a failure of professionals to act. On the contrary, the enquiry’s genesis lay in the over-zealous response of paediatricians and the local authority’s social services department’s to allegations of abuse. Of the 121 suspected cases of abuse, 96 were later dismissed by courts as wrongly diagnosed.

As early as 1984 the House of Commons Social Services Select Committee reported on the need for a thorough overhaul of child care law. Other influences included Law Commission reviews, inter-departmental working parties, a white paper and the outcomes of enquiries into the deaths of Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry and Kimberley Carlile. These were taken together with decisions in the European Court of Human Rights and the “Gillick” judgement, which judged that parental authority yielded to the child’s right to make their own decisions when they have reached sufficient understanding and intelligence.

The most important principles of the Act were as follows:

● The welfare of children must be of paramount consideration when determining the next stage of a child’s upbringing. This was probably a landmark in terms of signalling a clear intention in relation to decisions about children, yet one which we still struggle to balance with the need to work in partnership with parents.

● The principle of non-intervention or no order. That the court should not make an order “unless it considers that doing so would be better for the child than making no order at all”.

● The concept of parental responsibility replacing that of parental rights. This had significant implications in terms of private law proceedings, the issue of fathers’ rights and the role of the family court in decisions about contact and residence.

● Consideration of the wishes and feelings of the child and a much stronger emphasis placed on the child’s voice. This gave some legislative encouragement to the movement towards better involvement/participation of children and young people in the many aspects of individual decision making and service planning.

● Consolidation into one Act of both public and private law as it applied to children.

● Local authorities were charged with a duty to identify children in need and to safeguard and promote their welfare. In the years preceding the Children Act wardship had become an increasingly popular means of managing care proceedings. The Children Act imposed restrictions on the use of wardship, placing the onus of responsibility on local authorities rather than the judiciary to make decisions about children’s futures. There are differing views about the wisdom of this. Guardians preferred the wardship arrangements which they felt put pressure on local authorities to respond to children’s needs. Local authority social workers considered that judges were too influential.

When the Lord Chancellor introduced the Bill into the Upper House he described it as “the most comprehensive and far reaching reform of child care law which has come before Parliament in living memory”. As one wit observed as he looked around the Peers Chamber “That is a very long time.”

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