Below is the text of the speech made by Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields, in the House of Commons on 10 June 2020.
With this statutory instrument, the Government are trying to do what they failed to do in 2017, during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, and what they failed to do with their myth-busting guide in 2019.
In 2017, the Government proposed allowing local authorities, under the guise of innovation, to opt out of protective legislation for children. The aim was to deregulate, on the back of the LaingBuisson report, making the sector ripe and ready for privatisation. After a groundswell of cross-party objection both in and outside this place, the changes, which comprised a whole chapter of the 2017 Act, were removed at the 11th hour. In 2019, the then Minister disseminated a dangerous myth-busting document advising local authorities to dispense with the statutory guidance in relation to the most vulnerable children. Again, this attempt to deregulate and wipe away hard-fought-for protective legislation for children was eventually quashed and the document withdrawn.
Any child protection strategy—whether we are in a pandemic or not—that requires the dispensing of the law to achieve it is counterproductive and downright dangerous. I am not sure if the current Minister is aware, but the legislation that the Secretary of State so cavalierly dispensed with under this SI took decades to achieve and was hard-fought-for by the profession and in this place and the other place. It led to our having one of the safest child protection systems in the world.
However, the Secretary of State’s actions have removed the safety net, because since 24 April this year, vulnerable children in care of the state, which stands at a record of more than 78,000, have lost their right to visits from their social worker when they are in placement. They have lost their right to have reviews regarding their care. They have lost their right to have temporary carers who have an existing connection with them. They have lost their right to have their complaints thoroughly investigated. These changes either substantially dilute or remove 65 legal protections and, worryingly, the expiration date can be revoked. In other words, this may become a permanent change.
The fact that a child is in placement does not always mean that they are safe. That is why this legislation existed. Children have been harmed, even murdered, by their carers. The consequences of having no social worker oversight and no one visiting or speaking to them about their care could not be more serious.
This SI has also seen a relaxing of the requirements that govern children’s homes, a dispensing of fostering and adoption panels, emergency foster placements extended to 24 weeks and relaxations on placements away from a child’s home area, and for children who are privately fostered, there is no longer a timeframe on when the local authority needs to check up on them in that placement.
Despite the Government’s attempts to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny, they have also been disingenuous in stating that they have consulted key organisations about this SI when they have not. The facts are that a petition to withdraw the SI has, in a short timeframe, amassed over 7,300 signatures, and 51 organisations and over 452 individual social work professionals are calling for it to be withdrawn. Not a single local authority has publicly admitted asking for these changes. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long-Bailey), the Government are facing legal action from Article 39, because it, like many across this House who signed this prayer, has a grasp of the legislation and cares deeply about children. No social workers or local authorities regularly cite protective legislation for children as a block to them carrying out their role. What stops effective children and families social work is the constant barrage of cuts and resource stripping over the past 10 years.
To use this pandemic as an excuse to reignite experiments from 2017 and 2019 on the most vulnerable of our children is reprehensible. The Minister has so far been unable to explain to me the rationale and demand for these changes. I would like her to explain to the House today which local authorities, organisations and social workers asked for these changes, who was consulted on them, and when they were consulted. What involvement does the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families have in these changes? On which date did the Department begin assessing these changes? Additionally, the Minister should be able to share with us today how many local authorities have actually dispensed with these protections and what the outcome of such has been on the children concerned—because I cannot imagine, having been one myself, that a single social worker would allow any child they work with to be put at risk in this way.
I urge the Minister to revoke this SI immediately before she and her colleagues who follow their Whips on this vote are culpable for the significant harm that children may already be suffering and will certainly suffer in future.