Below is the text of the speech made by Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, in the House of Commons on 10 June 2020.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 445), dated 21 April 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23 April 2020, be annulled.
I thank the Minister for making time for this debate this afternoon in response to the prayer motion we have laid against these regulations. The Labour party has been clear that we do not support these regulations, and we will be voting accordingly.
These regulations make significant changes to the statutory protections for children in the care system, who are some of the most vulnerable and at-risk children in the country. Coming into force on 24 April and due to expire on 25 September, the regulations relax to a significant degree the safeguarding responsibilities of local authorities in relation to children going into and in the care system. The changes are wide-ranging, and I will not go into all of them today, but I will outline some of the provisions contained in the regulations that have caused the most concern.
First, social workers had been required to visit privately fostered children or those in care within one week when they go into care and every six weeks for the year after that. This requirement has been changed to
“as soon as is reasonably practical”,
even for a phone or video call. The requirements to review plans for children in care to set timescales have also been relaxed, denying children the opportunity to raise concerns and the problems they are having.
Secondly, independent panels, which approve foster carers and adoption placements, have become optional, and local authorities can now approve anyone who meets the requirements as a temporary foster carer, rather than only those who were connected to a child, with consequences for the future outcomes of that child. In addition, approval is no longer needed by a nominated officer to place children into care outside their local areas. Together with the change to allow placement with temporary carers who may not be connected to the child, this could mean that children are moved away from their home or anyone they know.
Thirdly, there now only have to be “reasonable endeavours” made to visit children’s homes, instead of monthly visits, and Ofsted inspections no longer need to take place twice a year.
Fourthly, controls on the periods of time children can be placed in emergency or short placements has been extended beyond any reasonable definition of short. Children can be placed with emergency foster carers for 24 weeks, rather than the usual six days, and children can be placed in short break placements for up to 75 days, rather than 17 days.
Finally, as the Children’s Commissioner has highlighted, children’s homes can now enforce the deprivation of liberty of children if they are showing symptoms of coronavirus, in accordance with the Coronavirus Act 2020.
I am sure the whole House agrees that these are not small changes. It is easy to see how a whole generation of looked-after children could be adversely affected during the six months the relaxed duties are in place—if, indeed, the Government do reverse them later this year. It is important to recognise the group of children we are talking about in this debate. As of 31 March 2019, just over 78,000 children were in the care of local authorities, up 4% on the previous year. On top of this, many more are classified as in need or at risk, and may flow in and out of the care system; about 100,000 children flow through the care system each year. Looked-after children have, almost by definition, faced great trauma in their lives. They may have started life in child poverty, in abusive households, in households that suffer from substance abuse or domestic violence, or with parents who suffer from mental illness. They could have been at risk of female genital mutilation, gang violence, child sexual exploitation, or radicalisation; or they could have been an unaccompanied child seeking asylum.
The outcomes for these children are much worse than for their peers. A report by the Social Market Foundation highlighted the fact that of children in or leaving care only 14% achieved five A*-C GCSEs in 2015, compared with 55% nationally, and they are five times more likely to face exclusion than their peers. In 2015-16, an estimated 39% of children in secure training centres had been in care, despite children in care accounting for about 1% of all children; and almost 25% of the adult prison population have previously been in care. Similarly, looked-after children are four times more likely to have a mental health condition, and 40% of care leavers aged between 19 and 21 are not in employment or education.
I am setting out these issues for the House because any disruption to the care of these children could have a significant impact on the rest of their lives. It is clear that these children are incredibly vulnerable, and in the context of the pandemic they need more support, not less. Our opposition to the regulations is echoed by the Children’s Commissioner, a chorus of children’s charities and MPs from across the House; and Article 39 has applied to the High Court for judicial review of the changes. A specific campaign group, Scrap SI 445, has been established, such is the strength of feeling against the regulations.
The following are just a few examples of the opposition that has been voiced. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said of the regulations:
“I think they should be revoked now—I don’t think they are necessary or justified… There is a potential for children in care not to be given the protection they need and for them to be put at greater risk… For some, that means they are at greater risk of grooming or exploitation, especially older children in semi-independent accommodation.”
She went on to say:
“The focus was not on the best interests of children, it was on the system and the providers of it… all of this should be based on the best interests of children, especially those that the state has such a high level of responsibility over.”
The National Youth Advocacy Service has said that reduced contact by professionals increases safeguarding risks, with the Department for Education reporting that only one in 20 students identified as vulnerable continued to attend school during the lockdown. Many children and young people at risk of harm have been living without the safety net that school would usually provide, as well as having less contact with social workers and other safeguarding professionals.
The British Association for Social Workers said:
“Looked after children and young people are among the most vulnerable in society. Hard won rights in law are not simply bureaucratic processes but exist to protect children and young people and promote their well-being.”
“Some of the changes in the Regulations seem suspiciously close to the ‘freedoms’ that were in the original draft of the Children and Social Work Bill”—
“clauses that were subsequently thrown out by a coalition of Parliamentarians, after a vigorous campaign by civil society groups and service users.”
Finally, Become, the charity for children in care and care leavers, listed its objections thus:
“There was no justification or evidence for removing these particular safeguards…The emergency amendments were introduced just one day before they came into force without appropriate consultation or parliamentary scrutiny…The emergency amendments lack clear guidance or parameters about how and when they should be used…Current guidance does not provide sufficient detail on how the use and impact of the new powers will be centrally collated and monitored by government or Ofsted.”
There is clearly consensus across the board that these regulations are not necessary. They are disproportionate to the need expressed by local authorities; will significantly increase the risk that these children and young people are already exposed to; are likely to be detrimental to children’s outcomes; were introduced with no scrutiny and minimal consultation; and have no guarantee that they will be revoked in September. As such, the Labour party opposes these regulations and urges the Government to revoke them with immediate effect.