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Government consultation on whether to continue relaxing children's social care a 'shambles'

Campaigners against controversial measures introduced during lockdown say they lack confidence in Department of Education consultation on extending them beyond end of September

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 10 September, 2020

A government consultation into whether to extend a controversial relaxation of children’s social care safeguards introduced during Covid was labelled a “shambles”.

The measures had already come under fire from campaigners for being brought in without public consultation in April.

England’s Children’s Commissioner criticised the move while children’s rights campaigners claimed it was “unlawful”.

The consultation on whether to extend the reduction in local authority duties – known as statutory instrument 445 - beyond an expiry date of 25 September to the end of next March was launched during the summer.

It gained 189 responses showing most wanted safeguards to be reinstated and support for continued flexibility in a small number of areas.

However, the consultation document raised alarm by stating it had received a number of “campaign responses” which it described as “organised responses to influence the results of the consultation”.

Campaigners feared the wording suggested the findings were being skewered, particularly as it was not initially clear if these responses were even included in the findings.

The Department for Education denied this but admitted it had failed to include their responses to every question asked in the consultation due a “technical error”.

It has since recalibrated the findings to include them.

Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s University, said a climate of suspicion had been created around the DfE’s process.

“The shocking shambles of the DfE publishing an erroneous report on its consultation about removing statutory safeguards for children, which had already been noted to be riddled with biased questions, is of serious concern.

“For civil servants to decide to categorise some responses as 'campaign responses' and then not to include them in its analysis generates incredulity.

“It has not only created confusion and concern but raises significant questions about the competence and credibility of senior civil servants in the DfE advising government on children and families and social work.”

Children’s rights charity Article 39 is one of the most active campaigners against the measures.

Its director Carolyne Willow said: “This is sinking to a new low. Not only were those organisations and individuals with a specific children’s rights focus deliberately excluded from private and confidential exchanges with the chief social worker [for children and families] and others at the Department for Education before statutory instrument 445 was produced, it now turns out that our responses to a later public consultation were omitted from the official record.

“Even with this revised document, the numbers still don’t add up. What we now need is an independent audit of all of the consultation responses and a report which can command respect and help to rebuild trust.”

Robin Sen, honorary research fellow at Sheffield University, said it was important the DfE re-established trust in its processes ahead of a planned review of the children’s care system.

This, he said, meant being open to “perspectives other than the one it itself holds” and coming to decisions based on “garnering consensus between different key stakeholders”.

“Everything about SI445 gives little confidence that this will be the case,” he added.

“If the government wants to establish a genuine care review, as the Scottish Government did, then this is the latest illustration that now is time for it to rethink the way it is conducting itself."

An appeal hearing by Article 39 challenging the legality of amending statutory regulations without consulting the Children’s Commissioner during Covid-19 was heard last week.

At a previous High Court hearing Mrs Justice Lieven said Article 39 was right to question the removal of safeguards to children.

She said: “These are not administrative burdens, or minor matters, they are fundamental parts of a scheme to protecting vulnerable children.”

However, the Education Secretary was found to have acted lawfully in the circumstances, a ruling Article 39 continues to appeal against.

England is the only part of the UK to have amended children’s social care regulations during the pandemic.

Relaxations that will continue after 25 September, based on the consultation findings, are the time taken for medical information in fostering and adoption assessments; use of virtual visits and extended time between Ofsted visits of children’s homes.

The Covid-related easements are not the first time the government has caused controversy over children’s rights. The 2017 Children and Social Work bill proposed relaxing some children’s social care duties to allow local authorities to innovate and try out different ways of working.

Article 39 warned this represented a “bonfire of children’s rights” built up over 80 years that would put vulnerable children at greater risk.

Fears were also expressed that the move was a stepping-stone to privatisation, with fewer statutory obligations making children’s social care more attractive to profiteering businesses.

A vigorous campaign by Article 39 and other organisations including BASW and Labour MP and former social worker Emma Lewell-Buck saw a government U-turn.

However, concern has remained among campaigners of a wider long-term goal of privatising in children’s social care.

Speaking in November 2014, then education secretary Michael Gove said he wanted to see “innovation and competition” in social work and praised private sector take-over of “under-perfoming” children’s services.

Not long after, a consultation on Powers to delegate children’s social care functions was published.

Opposition by campaigners saw the government limit such transfer to non-profit making organisations (though as Unison pointed out, nothing stopped them from setting up not-for-profit subsidiaries).

It is against this background that the latest moves to relax social care responsibilities to children during Covid-19 have caused such controversy.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.