Legal Threat Over Removal Of Protections For Children In Care During Outbreak

Emergency coronavirus law branded "an outrageous attack on safeguards" by charities.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson arrives in Downing Street
Education secretary Gavin Williamson arrives in Downing Street

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The government could face legal action after ministers used the coronavirus crisis to remove protections for children in care.

As reported by HuffPost UK last week, children’s minister Vicky Ford deployed executive powers to change the law so children in care are entitled to less contact from their social worker.

Ministers say the move is temporary and has been driven by under-pressure councils attempting to cope with social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But children’s charity Article 39 has called it an “outrageous attack on safeguards” and director Carolyne Willow has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson threatening court action if changes are not reversed.

The temporary regulations, brought in using executive powers, mean that instead of every six weeks, social workers can ‘visit’ - by phone or video call - “as soon as reasonably is practicable”.

Fostering panels, which bring together children with registered foster carers, have been scrapped, as has the need for care plans to be independently reviewed every six months.

All are seen as key, regular interventions which offer young people in the care system a voice.

The changes also temporarily mean adult care-givers working in homes do not need to be qualified.

Charities have questioned whether local authorities are behind the changes.

Willow said: “This is an outrageous attack on safeguards which have been built up over 70 years, often in response to terrible failures to protect children.

“Legal action is always a last resort but we consider that this is the only way to ensure the rights of children in care are quickly reinstated.

Children's minister Vicky Ford
Children's minister Vicky Ford
Empics Entertainment

There is no obvious link between Covid-19 and the vast majority of the protections snatched away from vulnerable children. Indeed, since 2016 there have been three failed attempts by government to remove some of the most significant safeguards taken away this time – actions which were, in the past, strongly resisted by parliamentarians, care experienced people, social workers, children’s lawyers, charities and others.”

Labour has backed charities and Tulip Siddiq, shadow minister for children and early years, has put forward a motion in parliament.

She told HuffPost UK: “These changes are unnecessary and could put children in harm’s way. They must be revoked immediately, or at the very least withdrawn pending proper safeguards and scrutiny to make sure that children in care are protected.

“It is not acceptable to make sweeping reductions in children’s rights with very few safeguards and absolutely no parliamentary scrutiny. We understand the pressures that local authorities are under right now, but these measures could increase the risk of harm to children and the government has not produced any evidence to suggest they are necessary.”

Oliver Studdert, partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, helped to draft the letter to the education secretary.

He said the statutory instrument put forward by Ford removes “a number of the essential protections put into place by law to safeguard children in the care system”.

He added: “The government should not use the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to implement a large number of unnecessary and potentially dangerous changes to the way in which looked after children are supported. Many of the changes expose these children, who are some of the most vulnerable children in society, to additional risk.

“The regulations, which are widely opposed, have been rushed through without any meaningful attempt to consult, at a time where children in care are likely to be in need of greater levels of support.”

HuffPost UK has contacted the government for comment.


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