Last week, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, accused the government of showing a total disregard’ for the parliamentary process in rushing through secondary legislation without proper scrutiny and time given for debate. He urged ministers 'to rebuild the trust with [the House of Commons] and not treat it with the contempt that they have shown'. Though not mentioned by name, the Speaker could have easily been talking about The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which were laid on 23 April and came into force the very next day.
The Regulations, known among campaigners as Statutory Instrument 445, made around 100 changes to 10 sets of children’s social care regulations, removing or diluting 65 safeguards for children in, and entering, care. This included watering down statutory timescales for social worker visits to children in care, deleting the duty to hold six-monthly reviews of each child’s welfare in care, and removing the requirement for senior officer oversight before a child is placed with fostering to adopt carers (which significantly reduces the chances of rehabilitation with birth parents). There had been no public consultation and parliament was given no opportunity to question ministers ahead of the law changing.
There hadn’t even been an announcement that changes were on the way, though the day before the Regulations were laid the Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford, was asked about her Department’s review of statutory duties when she was before the Education Select Committee. David Simmonds MP, former Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, asked the Minister whether the Department would learn 'from the suspension of any of those statutory duties, to see where it has exposed the fact that they were not leading to purposeful activity, with a view to dispensing with those statutory duties and freeing people up to do more useful things in future?'. The minister replied, 'that is exactly the point'.
Following a very successful campaign involving over 60 organisations and many hundreds of care experienced people, social workers, lawyers and others working in children’s social care, as well as litigation by my charity (Court of Appeal judgment awaited), the vast majority of the legal protections were restored on 25 September. But just as the Speaker this week urged the Prime Minister to rebuild trust with members of parliament, there is a lot of catching up to do for vulnerable children and young people.
It is to this government’s shame that it found the time to execute a massive deregulation project during COVID-19, yet failed to introduce any legal protections for over 6,000 looked after children living in unregulated accommodation. A consultation launched in February, the very month officials started work on Statutory Instrument 445, has still not produced any policy change. The consultation itself was precipitated by a powerful BBC Newsnight investigation, ‘Britain’s Hidden Children’s Homes’, launched in May 2019.
Over a series of programmes, Newsnight reported the death of 18 year-old Lance Walker in supported accommodation in 2016; serious sexual and criminal exploitation; and children not even having beds to sleep on. In June this year, I discussed supported accommodation with a group of 10 young adults who had all lived in unregulated accommodation while in care. One was a victim of a very serious crime by a member of staff and urged the government to require DBS checks, another described these settings as “a house without parents” and a third said: 'You have to be like Bear Grylls –and survive –it’s the only thing you know what to do'. One young woman had been admitted to hospital with a lung infection caused by mould on the walls of her property. The Children’s Commissioner for England has called for a complete ban on unregulated accommodation for looked after children (the government proposes only to prohibit these placements for children aged 15 and under). She reports that, whilst some children enjoyed the freedom and respect that can come with supported accommodation, others were going cold and hungry, and feeling scared and alone – echoing Newsnight’s shocking findings.
As the COVID-19 global pandemic reached the UK, families held each other close. Children in the care of the state (and that includes child prisoners who have also suffered appallingly) should be able to rely on the same compassion from their ‘corporate parents’ in Whitehall and Westminster, and now that the vast majority of Statutory Instrument 445 no longer applies, we look forward to new legal protections and substantial additional funding for local authorities who have during this period shown remarkable fortitude against a decade of cuts.
Carolyne Willow is director of Article 39