Family group conferences should be made statutory, says former education secretary

Alan Johnson makes call during MPs' debate for a statutory duty on local authorities to ensure family group conferences take place before children enter care

Local authorities should have a statutory duty to carry out a family group conference – and consider kinship care options – as soon as it is decided that a child might need to enter care.

That was the message from former education secretary Alan Johnson, who warned the House of Commons that budget cuts were forcing local authorities to “retrench” on using “vital” family group conferences to establish the views of young people.

“In the vast majority of cases, that does not take place until after the child goes into care. It should be held before that decision is made,” Johnson said.

Johnson served as the secretary of state for education for more than a year under the 2005-2010 Labour government, and in a debate on children in care held yesterday he also voiced concerns around support for kinship care, which were shared by Labour’s current shadow children’s minister, Sharon Hodgson.

Johnson said: “The system neither encourages nor sufficiently supports the important alternative of kinship care.”

Hodgson said that there had not been announcements on kinship care that matched those made by the government on adoption, and said that, despite new guidance, there was still no statutory duty on local authorities to explore kinship care options.

“That means many local authorities look into kinship care only after a child is placed in the care system, causing avoidable upheaval for the child and the extended family,” she said.

‘Entrenched fear’

MPs were debating a motion brought forward by Conservative MP Lucy Allan, that the government should do more to reduce the number of children coming into care by helping to support children to remain safely with their family or extended family.

Allan said rising care numbers were a result of professionals having an “entrenched fear” of getting child protection wrong, and called on ministers to do more to support kinship care placements.

“I urge the minister to consider more support for kinship carers and to continue to encourage local authorities to see kinship care as often being in the best interest of the child. It allows the child to stay with siblings in a familiar context,” she said.

Early intervention

Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister under the coalition government, criticised how early intervention had seemingly “gone off the radar” and asked what had happened to the early help recommendation made in the Munro review of child protection in 2011.

Hodgson called on the government to consider a “more comprehensive early intervention and prevention strategy, and improving the support on offer to kinship carers”.

Hodgson said: “A significant number of children are being looked after by their grandparents or other relatives, but there has been little development in Government support for kinship carers that mirrors, for instance, recent announcements on adoption. Allowing a family member to care for a child instead of that child going into residential or foster care is important for the development of the child, but it can also help to reduce the strain on local children’s services, the budgets of which have been devastated by cuts.”

Independent advice

The childcare minister, Sam Gyimah, said that the government had considered an early help duty based on Munro’s recommendations, but concluded this was not necessary as there were existing provisions in the Children Act 2004.

“However, we have strengthened our statutory guidance to make it clear that early help services should be part of the continuum of support to vulnerable children,” he said.

Johnson also raised the issue of funding for the Family Rights Group’s independent advice line for families, which is set to end later this year.

“The simple fact is that demand for the charity’s services has gone up and its funding has reduced,” he said.

“That is bad enough, but if the Government do not pull their finger out, the service will cease completely on 31 March.”

Gyimah addressed these concerns, saying “there is a strong evidence base for continuing to fund its helpline. We will take that into account in making forthcoming decisions about voluntary sector funding.”

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