The government will bar councils from using controversial ‘exemption’ powers in the Children and Social Work Bill to opt out of child protection and child in need duties, Community Care has learned.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson has written to stakeholders to tell them the government has tabled amendments offering “substantial” changes to the so-called innovation clauses.
The proposals, which allow councils to apply for exemptions from statutory social care duties in order to test new ways of working, were deleted from the bill after the government suffered a defeat on them in the House of Lords last month.
In the letter, a copy of which has been seen by Community Care, Timpson said the exemption powers were “too important to remain out of the bill” and the government would be re-introducing them. However, he said a revised version of the plans will list a series of “core legal duties” that councils cannot seek exemptions from. These include:
- Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 – the duty to provide appropriate services to children in need.
- Section 20 – the duty to provide accommodation for children who appear to require it.
- Section 22 – the duty to safeguard and promote welfare of looked-after children.
- Section 47 – the duty to make enquiries and take action to safeguard or promote welfare of children at risk.
- Section 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004 – the duty to make arrangements for promoting co-operation to improve wellbeing of children.
The move is designed to stem fierce opposition to the proposals, which has seen the government accused of undermining children’s rights. A coalition of more than 20 organisations, including the British Association of Social Workers, has called for the plans to be scrapped.
Timpson said the heated debate over the proposals was merited but he was “alarmed” at the suggestion ministers wanted to “dismantle” protections for children. The revisions to clauses would “put it beyond doubt” that the proposals were about allowing councils to change how they deliver support, not children’s entitlements, he said.
“These parts of legislation set out who is eligible for support and the duties of local authorities towards them, and by taking them out of scope, we are making clear that power could never be used to revisit the fundamental duties of local authorities to support and safeguard vulnerable children.”
Other changes in the amendments will include:
- Powers allowing the education secretary to impose ‘exemptions’ on services under government intervention will be scrapped. Only councils will be allowed to apply for exemptions and “if they do not wish to, that is the end of the matter”.
- References to the exemption clauses being used for “efficiencies” will be removed to “make clear that the power is about better outcomes for children”.
- Expectations on who local authorities must consult when applying for the power will be widened. This will include the workforce, affected children and voluntary sector partners.
- The government will consult on statutory guidance to accompany the power, including seeking views on what councils should need to demonstrate in order to apply for trials and how trials should be monitored. An annual report on how exemptions are used will also be published to improve transparency.
“These are a substantial and responsible set of changes that significantly tighten up the scope of how the power can be used and who can use it, and will increase consultation and transparency,” said Timpson.
“We have listened very closely to the issues that have been raised and we want to continue to consult with those working in children’s social care as the clauses progress, including on the guidance that will accompany the power.”