Story updated 8 December
Children should be removed from their families if there is “any inkling” of harm to them, the education secretary has said.
Nadhim Zahawi made the comment in response to a question from fellow Conservative MP Bob Blackman following his statement on the government’s response to the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case yesterday.
Blackman had said that what Arthur’s case had in common with those of Peter Connolly (2007), Victoria Climbié (2000) and Jasmine Beckford (1984) was that “opportunities to take a child to safety were missed”.
He added: “Will [Zahawi] make sure that the message goes out to frontline children’s social workers that if they have a suspicion—a suspicion—of a child being abused, it will be thoroughly investigated, and if necessary that child will be removed to a place of safety?”
In his response, Zahawi, referencing the national review and joint area inspection he had commissioned to learn lessons from Arthur’s case, said: “I think social workers are doing a tremendous job, and I think it is important that multi-agency work—for whatever reason, and we will find out through these two reviews—missed Arthur in this case and did not take him away.
‘Take child away if inkling of harm’
“The father and partner were obviously evil and manipulative, but nevertheless we have to make sure, if there is any evidence, any inkling, any iota of harm to any child, that the child is taken away immediately.”
He was later asked by another Conservative MP, Laura Trott, about the risks of responses to Arthur’s case leading to a significant increase in referrals and children being taken into care, as happened following Peter Connolly’s case.
Trott said: “We need an increase in resources for social workers in the near term to handle that increase in referrals, and I do think that a balance needs to be struck between taking children away from their parents, or the home that they are in, and making sure that they are safe. Will he ensure that he sends that message to social workers?”
In response, Zahawi delivered a similar message to the one he gave Blackman: “She is absolutely right about how social workers identify support networks for children—I have seen them do that brilliantly. Of course, if there is a scintilla of doubt in terms of any harm being caused to a child, they absolutely should be taken away.
“She also makes an important point about learning from previous cases and the additional work that will now be placed on the social work frontline. We are cognisant of that, and I know that the minister for children and families [Will Quince] is looking at how we can continue to support the frontline.”
Children Act reform not ruled out
Zahawi’s line seems to go beyond that provided for by the Children Act 1989, which makes suffering, or being likely to suffer, significant harm as the threshold for a care order (section 31), with reasonable suspicion of this being sufficient for an emergency protection order (section 44).
During the session, Conservative MP David Simmonds asked Zahawi, who was children’s minister from 2018-19, whether he agreed whether the Children Act 1989 was “perhaps in need of updating”.
In response, Zahawi said any decision on legislative change would need to await the national review into Arthur’s case, the joint area inspection of Solihull and the children’s social care review.
However, he said: “I will not rule out legislative changes if we need to make them.”
More on the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case
‘We cannot have kneejerk reactions’
Zahawi’s comments were criticised by the British Association of Social Workers, who said: “We understand that this is a highly emotive issue, and we absolutely must ensure legislation and guidance is robust on child protection, but we cannot have kneejerk reactions.
“It is premature for the government to be discussing legislative changes to the Children’s Act 1989 while we still wait for more information and conclusions from reviews that are being undertaken.
“All changes to legislation and guidance should go through the proper parliamentary and consultation processes to make sure that we get it right – because we simply cannot afford to get it wrong. Especially not for the many children and young people who receive support from social workers every single day.”
Children ‘best with their family where possible’
In its response to Zahawi’s comments, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Charlotte Ramsden said “the principle that wherever possible children are best placed in their family…sits at the heart of social work and is enshrined in the Children Act 1989”.
She added: “The tension between early intervention and the prompt removal of children from a dangerous situation must be acknowledged as should the real difficulties and dilemmas faced by our staff when making complex, life changing decisions to keep children safe from harm based on the multi-agency information assessment and analysis available at that time.
“We welcome the recognition by the secretary of state for education that the effectiveness of the multi-agency system is crucial to assist in these decisions and that the plan for the national panel review and the [joint targeted area inspection] reflect this.”