The leader of the Labour Party has called for the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 to be annulled.
Keir Starmer has tabled an early day motion urging the secondary legislation, which came into force on 24 April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to be abolished.
The government published a statutory instrument in order to make changes to regulations (secondary legislation) relating to the legal protections for children in care as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures are due to expire on 25 September 2020 – though this expiry date can be revoked.
The introduction of the measures relax some duties relating to children in care, including visits by social workers and independent reviews.
Chief executive of WillisPalmer Mark Willis said at the time: “The relaxing of systems and timescales put in place to safeguard vulnerable children is of grave concern to us. This is not the answer. While it may alleviate pressures on local authorities currently working with fewer staff during the outbreak, it is merely storing problems up for post-lockdown when children’s services departments will be inundated with referrals to the many problems we already know are being exacerbated in lockdown such as a rise in domestic abuse.”
A frontline social worker told us: “What worries me is that children in care who are in new placements may not be seeing their social worker regularly and so if they are experiencing any problems or even abuse in their placements, they would not be able to disclose this to a social worker because statutory visits are not being carried out or are being done virtually. For children in care who are in a long-term stable placement with no concerns, this may not be so much of an issue, but in other placements it could leave children at risk.
“The local authority is the corporate parent to any child in care, therefore, if we are not fulfilling our statutory duty, we are effectively abandoning these children," she added.
The measures set out in the secondary legislation include:
- 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 carried out.
- ‘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.
However, the legislation was met with criticism among children’s rights organisations. Director of Article 39 Carolyne Willow slammed the move as “deregulation on steroids”.
She said: “The idea that local authorities have been clamouring to remove fundamental legal protections from vulnerable children during the middle of a global pandemic is just not credible.”
“It is soul-destroying that so much time and effort has been put into systematically eroding the rights of children.
“Having spent hours going through the statutory instrument line-by-line, I haven’t been able to find a single new protection for children. The whole document is about taking away, diminishing and undermining what has been built up for children over many decades.
“Ministers have not even bothered to make a statement about compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, because the statutory instrument will just go through on the nod. We have to assume that the UK’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child have not been considered either,” added Ms Willow.
There was further condemnation of the secondary legislation by the children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield who urged the measures to be revoked.
“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.
“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.’
“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,” she concluded.
The early day motion states: “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.”
The EDM has 10 supporters all from the Labour Party.