Outcry over downgrades to safeguarding rules

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

At a time of national crisis, emergency measures have to be hurriedly put in place; new priorities emerge and regulatory systems have to be adjusted. This is all an essential part of good leadership. But what if these crisis-inspired ‘shortcuts’ remain when normal life resumes? There are worrying signs that this may happen in areas that affect the most vulnerable in our society.

On 24 April, the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force. The word ‘coronavirus’ suggests these amended regulations are a necessary part of the pandemic response and have been brought in urgently following calls from within the social care sector. But this is not the full picture. The reality is that many of the changes have been unsuccessfully attempted by previous Tory governments.

Article 39, a British charity advocating the rights of looked-after children, explains:

“Four years ago, the Government tried unsuccessfully to grant local authorities the power to opt out of their children’s social care duties for up to six years – as a trial for removing the duties altogether. The move was widely and strongly opposed. Ministers were forced to backtrack in March 2017. Further attempts were made in 2017/18 and then 2018/19.”

The charity has been highly critical of these new regulations. Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s director, said of them, “It is soul-destroying that so much time and effort has been put into systematically eroding the rights of children”.

Ten sets of regulations have been changed. Some of the main effects of the changes are:

  • Rather than visiting children in care, social workers can now make assessments over the phone or by video conference and mandated regular reviews need only take place “as soon as reasonably practicable”.
  • Ofsted inspections of children’s homes graded ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ are no longer required and standards governing these homes have been relaxed so that staff no longer need to have appropriate skills and experience.
  • Emergency, family and short-term placements will have less protection: proper plans will not be necessary for family placements and short breaks up to 75 days, and foster carers can be assessed without health and police checks in place. The definition of an emergency placement is to be extended to nearly six months.
  • Children’s homes may be used as a place of detention for children potentially infected with Covid-19, yet foster homes will no longer be required to report infectious diseases to Ofsted.
  • Long-term care processes have also been modified: adoptions are to “proceed swiftly”; local authorities are no longer required to establish adoption panels; and fostering panels will be optional (these panels are traditionally used to assess the suitability of prospective carers).
  • Local authority action regarding privately fostered children and the timing of independent reviews now only has to happen when “reasonably practicable”.
  • Assessment and support for young carers (typically youngsters who have to look after sick parents), is to be reduced.

While one accepts that routine statutory visits and checks may need to be done remotely during lockdown, it seems that radical deregulation of longer-term processes is taking place unnecessarily. Cynical observers might suspect the government is planning to reduce accountability and privatise services that affect the most vulnerable members of our society.

York Labour Councillor Bob Webb, who is the Labour group spokesperson for children’s services, also raised his concerns last week:

“Worryingly, key organisations who work in the children’s sector confirmed over the weekend that they were not privately consulted before the changes were made.  Nor was the Children’s Commissioner for England, who has a statutory duty to promote and protect children’s rights, including for those in care and other vulnerable children – she was merely informed of the changes.”

The Children’s Society prepared a briefing in response to the Covid-19 Bill in March. In it, they raised concerns about the lack of clarity surrounding the proposed changes. Significantly, they urged the Minister to, “confirm that we will see no loosening of these fundamental child protection protocols as a result of this crisis.” It seems that these concerns are now widely shared among practitioners.

The 1948 Children Act is sometimes overlooked as being a key piece of social legislation. It was a vital strand in the formation of the welfare state and subsequent legislative changes have continued its development. These latest changes – many of which appear unnecessary and which come after previous failed attempts to lower safeguarding standards – suggest the government wants to return us to a care system that would be more recognisable to our Victorian ancestors. We must be vigilant in the ensuring this is not the case. All aspects of our welfare state, including the care sector and the NHS, must be protected from the libertarian ideology of this hard-right government.

If you are a young person in any form of care, you can find out more about your rights by visiting this website: https://rights4children.org.uk

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