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Children’s commissioner calls for secondary legislation for children in care to be revoked

Measures set out in the secondary legislation on children in care should be revoked, the children’s commissioner for England has urged.

While acknowledging that some local authorities may be experiencing challenging working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Anne Longfield said she does not believe that the changes made in these regulations are necessary.

“I would like to see all the regulations revoked, as I do not believe that there is sufficient justification to introduce them. This crisis must not remove protections from extremely vulnerable children, particularly as they are even more vulnerable at this time. As an urgent priority it is essential that the most concerning changes detailed above are reversed,” said Anne Longfield.

The ‘Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020’ came into force on 24 April, and are not due to expire until 25th September.

Changes to legislation includes:

- Currently, social workers must visit children living in care, or who are privately fostered, within one week when they have gone into care, and every six weeks for the year after that. However now if they are unable to visit within the timescales they must do so as soon as ‘reasonably practicable’ thereafter. This applies even if the ‘visits’ are done by phone or video call.

- Requirements to review plans for children in care within set timescales have been relaxed, meaning that children will not have this opportunity to raise issues about their care and to have this independently scrutinised.

- The independent panels which approve foster carers and adoption placements have become optional.

- Local Authorities can now approve anyone who meets the requirements as a temporary foster carer, rather than only those who are connected to a child, such as friends or family, as was the case previously.

- Children’s homes no longer have to have monthly independent visits.

- ‘Short break’ placements for children can now be for up to 75 days, rather than the usual 17, with reduced requirements on visits and care plans.

Anne Longfield paid tribute to the ‘inspiring examples of frontline workers going above and beyond the call of duty to keep children safe’ during the pandemic.
The changes made in these regulations are unnecessary, she added, except perhaps for some clarifications (in guidance) about contact with children taking place remotely during the lockdown.

“Children in care are already vulnerable, and this crisis is placing additional strain on them – as most are not in school, less able to have direct contact with family and other trusted professionals, and facing the challenges of lockdown and anxiety about illness – all on top of the trauma they have already experienced. If anything, I would expect to see increased protections to ensure their needs are met during this period,” said the children’s commissioner for England.

Furthermore, Ms Longfield added that the changes have been made with minimal consultation, and without complying with the usual 21 day rule of being published three weeks before coming into force. The explanation given for this is that ‘waiting 21 days will put extraordinary pressure on local authorities, providers and services to try to meet statutory obligations while continuing to provide care for vulnerable children and young people during the outbreak.’

However, Ms Longfield said that her discussions with local authorities had found that staffing for social care is holding up well.

“It therefore appears that bringing in these regulatory changes to ease excessive strain on a depleted workforce, and to do so without the opportunity for public scrutiny, is not justified,” she said.

“As an absolute minimum, if the government refuses to revoke these Regulations, I wish to see guidance make clear that these changes will only ever be used as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible. Similar protections must be introduced for children as those set out for adults when changes to the Care Act were introduced by the Coronavirus Act. This would mean that Local Authorities can only relax their adherence to duties if they can show their workforce has been significantly depleted, and that this decision must involve the Principal Social Worker and be evidenced and recorded,” said Ms Longfield.

“In addition, guidance would have to be clear that all the ‘reasonable endeavours’ to meet timescales should be recorded and evidenced if the decision was taken to relax adherence to duties. The Department for Education and Ofsted should be notified by any local authority that decides to do so,” she concluded.

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