The government has scrapped controversial plans to allow councils to apply for exemptions from children’s social care law, the Department for Education has confirmed.
Ministers have agreed to remove ‘exemption’ clauses from the Children and Social Work Bill, which is currently going through parliament.
The measures, which the government styled as ‘academy style freedoms’ for social care, would have allowed councils to seek exemptions from statutory duties for up to six years.
The aim, the government said, was to allow local authorities to test new ways of working in children’s services. But more than 50 organisations opposed the plans, including the British Association of Social Workers, Unison, the Care Leavers’ Association, and children’s rights charity Article 39. The groups argued exemptions would erode vital legal protections for children.
According to reports, education secretary Justine Greening agreed to back down on the proposals after an intervention by Lord Laming – the chair of the Victoria Climbie inquiry.
Greening is understood to have agreed to support an amendment tabled by Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck that will see the exemption clause deleted from the bill when it returns to parliament next week.
The climb-down comes weeks after Professor Eileen Munro, who was regularly cited by ministers as a supporter of the proposals, withdrew her support. Munro said she had concluded the exemption plans presented a “serious danger”.
Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, said: “It is an enormous relief that legal protection for vulnerable children and young people will stay intact across the country.
“I hope children and young people get to hear that so many care leavers, parents, carers, social workers, academics, children’s homes, parliamentarians, lawyers, paediatricians, charities, trade unions and campaigners fought for their rights for months. And that ministers admitted a mistake and did right by them.”
Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “BASW strongly opposed the exemption clauses from day one. Our policy analysis from the outset was that these were risky for children and families, and would undermine the hard-fought for children’s rights framework of practice in England.
“It was clear from the start that these divisive and potentially dangerous proposals were not needed for innovation in children’s services. The next step for this government must be about engaging more with the profession to secure improvements to enhance rather than dilute children’s rights promote good social work practice in all services.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “These dangerous proposals should never have been made in the first place, so it is good news for vulnerable children across the country that the government has now agreed to our demand that they be abandoned.
“We must learn the lessons from the terrible tragedies of the past. The protections recommended after the appalling cases of Victoria Climbie and Baby P should be enforced, not weakened. There is nothing ‘innovative’ about allowing councils to ‘opt out’ of their duties to children who need protection in law.
“It is an unprecedented climb-down for the Secretary of State to sign Labour amendments removing the flagship policy from her own bill just days before the Commons could debate it. With her Department in disarray and her legislation in tatters, she has been reduced to sneaking out this humiliating announcement in the middle of the night in the hope that no one will notice.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The children and social work bill makes huge steps forward in providing vulnerable children with protection to keep them safe, as well as the support they need as they prepare for adulthood. It will support and strengthen the social work profession, giving it a dedicated regulator, committed to raising professional standards.
“We have listened to concerns raised about introducing the power to innovate, which would have meant councils could test new approaches in order to support the country’s most vulnerable children. In recognition of this we are not taking forward that particular aspect of the bill.”