The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has sharply criticised the government’s relaxation of regulations relating to children’s social care, saying she does not believe that they are necessary except in one limited case.
The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020’ came into force last Friday (24 April), and are not due to expire until 25 September.
The Children’s Commissioner said the regulations made significant temporary changes to the protections given in law to some of the most vulnerable children in the country – those living in care.
Ms Longfield said: “I appreciate that local authority children’s services are likely to be experiencing challenging working conditions during the pandemic, and there are many inspiring examples of frontline workers going above and beyond the call of duty to keep children safe.
“Nevertheless, I do not believe that the changes made in these regulations are necessary– except perhaps for some clarifications (in guidance) about contact with children taking place remotely during the lockdown.”
The Children’s Commissioner said children in care were already vulnerable, and the coronavirus crisis was placing additional strain on them. “If anything, I would expect to see increased protections to ensure their needs are met during this period.”
Ms Longfield said the changes had 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 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.’,” she said.
“However, the reports I have been receiving from local authorities are 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.”
The Children’s Commissioner said she was “extremely concerned” about the following changes in the regulations meaning that:
- The requirement that social workers must visit children living in care, or who are privately fostered, in accordance with strict statutory timescales – within one week when they have gone into care, and every six weeks for the year after that – have been relaxed. “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 to 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”.
- 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. “Guidance for Children’s Homes and Public Health Officers on how this can be enforced, and setting out a clear scheme for how these deprivations will be monitored will be essential to ensure children’s rights are protected.”
- The independent panels which approve foster carers and adoption placements have become optional, “removing a layer of scrutiny for these highly important decisions”.
- 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.
- Independent visits to Children’s Homes no longer have to occur monthly, so long as ‘reasonable endeavours are made’ to do so, and Ofsted inspections no longer need to take place twice a year.
- Children can be placed with emergency foster carers – who will be approved as carers, but may for example not be approved to care for the number of children placed with them – for 24 weeks rather than the usual 6 days. “Some flexibility if carers fall ill is understandable, but I believe the change to 24 weeks is excessive.”
- Children can now be placed in a ‘short break’ placement for up to 75 days, rather than the usual 17, with reduced requirements on visits and care plans.
- Decisions to place children into care outside their local area with connected foster carers do not need to be approved by a nominated officer – this now also applies to those approved as temporary carers, who may not be connected to the child.
The Children’s Commissioner said: “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.
“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.”
Ms Longfield said this would mean that local authorities could only relax their adherence to duties if they could show their workforce has been significantly depleted, and that this decision must involve the Principal Social Worker and be evidenced and recorded.
In addition, she said, 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, the Children’s Commissioner said.
“In addition, these decisions taken by local authorities, as well as the data that informed them, should be closely monitored by the Department for Education and feed into monthly reviews of the regulations. The Department should also immediately publish an assessment of the impact of these changes on children’s rights.”