A bonfire of children’s rights

A GOVERNMENT Bill now making its way through the House of Lords will allow local authorities to opt out of child protection laws that have grown up over the last 80 years. Many of these laws were introduced after tragedies, such as the deaths of Victoria Climbié and “Baby P”.

The Children and Social Work Bill will allow councils to opt out of the statutory requirements, placed on them by child protection laws, for three years, which could be extended to six years.

The reason given is to allow local authorities to experiment with new ways of delivering “child protection outcomes more efficiently” — in other words by privatisation or outsourcing to charities. The exemption would mean that local authorities could not be taken to court if these experiments were to go tragically wrong.

Child protection laws currently apply to every child in the country, via local authorities. But the Tories want to change this, by allowing councils to opt out from national law for up to six years. Ultimately, this means that social care laws will no longer apply to all children.

The Children Act 1989 is just one example of the many laws that could fall foul of this proposal. It places a duty on local authorities to investigate when a child is suffering significant harm. It also sets out the requirement to provide children in need with day care.

Other regulations essentially prohibit profit-making companies from running child protection and other key services. None of those would be protected under this new regime. Underpinning the specific obligations and entitlements in the children’s care legislation affected here is the Human Rights Act (HRA).

In the context of child protection, social care, and children with disabilities, it protects the right to life, to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, and respect for private and family life.

The HRA requires public bodies, including councils, to take positive steps to protect these. Any exemptions that undermine these obligations risk violating vulnerable children’s fundamental rights and put the Government in breach of the HRA and the European Convention on Human Rights.

nearly all

The Bill affects nearly all local authority-run children’s social care services. These include child protection, fostering and adoption, family support, the care system and support for care leavers, and services for disabled children.

If passed, protection for children could vary wildly across the country, creating a postcode lottery in which a child could find themselves with a very different entitlement to care and support to their friend in a neighbouring town.Furthermore, the austerity cuts have left most local authorities struggling to meet statutory obligations. If some of those obligations can now be waived, many councils will be pressured to drop them.

The Bill will give almost unfettered power to the Secretary of State for Education, who will be able to create regulations exempting authorities without requiring full parliamentary examination or consulting experts working on the ground such as carers, independent experts, social workers or other service providers.

For a minister to be able to amend primary legislation by creating regulations at the request of local councils allows the subversion of the rule of law and proper parliamentary process. It would reduce the extent and intensity of scrutiny applied to each application.

Liberty and 39 other organisations and experts in social care — including Article 39, the British Association of Social Workers, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood and Women’s Aid — are calling on the Government to think again.

Carolyne Willow, a former child protection social worker, said it would lead to the “fragmentation of child welfare law for the first time” ever.

Crucially, the Government has stated that for these services: “Our ambition is that, by 2020, over a third of all current local authorities will either be delivering their children’s services through a new model or be actively working towards a different model.”

By “different model” the Tories mean “not-for-profit” or private companies.