Usually when a Government offers to assemble an Independent group of people to oversee challenging decisions it is a sign that they have accepted that choices by politicians will be toxic and could damage the area concerned. Sadly sometimes the experts chosen for such a task are either not as experienced as one might expect in the area concerned or else the Government has a tendency to ignore their recommendations. Let us hope in this particular case the panel is never assembled and the opposition to the idea being proposed is sufficient to force this change to be dropped.
As I have written in this blog before, the Children and Social Work Bill, which is currently going through parliament includes the provision to free Councils from “requirements imposed by children’s social care legislation”. This is a deeply concerning idea and whilst the intentions are described in a positive way, the problem with such relaxations is the unintended consequences from freedoms which are not fully scrutinised before they are embarked upon. The reason given for this change is to give councils the ability “to test different ways of working” within children’s services by freeing them from the legal structures under which they currently operate. Understandably the proposals are controversial, not just in my view, with a number of organisations and prominent individuals in the children’s services sector opposing them because of concerns it could water down vulnerable children’s rights and lead to privatisation of parts of the child protection system. One of these organisations is the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) whose role is to scrutinise local authority care plans for looked-after children, taking into account the views of the child as they do so. According to NAIRO at least two Councils have indicated that if this law is passed, they will request freedom from such scrutiny!
The Labour leader of Islington Council, Richard Watts who is also chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) children and young people board supports the freedoms being granted to his local government colleagues. He said “The safeguards we want to see are not just parliamentary process but giving local government a say in whether freedoms should be offered to individual councils,” He also agrees that an expert panel could be an important safeguard to ensure applications are thoroughly considered. However he argues that the Children’s Improvement Board should play a key role in any such a panel. According to their website which is 4 years out of date, the CIB is made up of 5 people, two councillors and 3 council officers. Their remit is to push for ‘greater self improvement and self regulation’. The CIB is a partnership between the LGA, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), supported by funding from the Department for Education (DfE). It would seem that Councillor Watts wants a panel that is anything but Independent. If he is saying this as a senior figure in the Labour party and the proposal is being made by the Conservative party in Government, who will stand up for the most vulnerable children in our society? It may be however that Councillor Watts needs to speak to the newly appointed shadow children’s minister Emma Lewell-Buck who is a former frontline child protection worker and who has confirmed that she will campaign against the changes. “A lot of organisations are deeply concerned that it is going to allow some local authorities to opt out of sections of the 1989 Children Act, which is the key act that protects children,” she told her local newspaper, “That is something I am going to campaign hard on. People and organisations who work with children day-in and day-out are concerned that there are going to be sections of that Act that authorities can opt out of with the consent of the Secretary of State. These are children who come to children’s services, who are in serious danger and on child protection plans.” She added that she is “very concerned about the direction the government is going with child protection services. There seems to be a drive to privatisation and outsourcing“.