17 JAN 2017

Allowing councils to opt out of legal duties to ‘experiment’ with service delivery will place children’s lives at risk

Allowing councils to opt out of legal duties to ‘experiment’ with service delivery will place children’s lives at risk
In just a few months, the Family Court has seen its budget shrink from £2.4bn to £1.6bn. These cuts, as well as ongoing delays in improving the system, are wreaking havoc on society’s most vulnerable families.

The latest set of concerns stem from the drastic reduction in legal aid, which also saw the government implement a set of requirements that had to be met before victims of domestic violence could access legal support. Arguing that the need to show evidence of violence underlined the importance of fairness in legal proceedings, the government conveniently sidestepped difficulties surrounding pre-trial evidence gathering in such cases in order to save money. The measure left countless victims unable to bring their abusers to court, and to protect themselves from further harm. And not just out of court either.

Perpetrators and those accused of abuse are also increasingly unable to access legal representation for family court hearings, and are now cross examining their victims in person, adding to any trauma already present. Case studies are now emerging which show that this practice is leading to some victims finding themselves being interrogated by violent ex partners in court and needing substantial medication and counselling to cope with the aftermath of the hearing.

Clause 29 of the Children and Social Work Bill is the latest cull in a string of measures to unburden the Treasury. The clause allows local authorities to set aside children’s rights in order to experiment with service delivery, but it is just another cost cutting exercise, and one we must ferociously oppose. Like the cuts to legal aid, its working philosophy bares all the same hallmarks which will eventually lead to fundamental rights being eroded and more lives put at risk.

With the news this week that MPs voted 10-5 to reinstate Clause 29 after peers in the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly to remove it, now more than ever we must look at why opposing this section of the Bill is so important. Whilst the government has offered to amend the Clause so that councils can’t request exemptions from specific sections of the Children Act 1989 and Children Act 2004, including child protection and child in need duties, any kind of exemption or removal of basic child rights focused responsibilities, which is what the clause proposes, is both irresponsible and dangerous.

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Currently, the government has offered the following concessions:
  • Powers allowing ministers to impose exemptions on services under government intervention will be scrapped. Only councils will be allowed to apply for these exemptions.
  • References to exemption clauses being used for ‘efficiencies’ will be removed to ‘make clear that the power is about better outcomes for children’.
  • Bodies and individual local authorities must consult when applying for the power to be widened. This would include the workforce, affected children and voluntary sector partners.
  • The government has promised to consult on statutory guidance to accompany the power, which would include seeking views on what councils would have to demonstrate in order to apply for trials and how trials will be monitored. 
  • An annual report on how exemptions are being used will be published to improve transparency.
None of these concessions are viable and should not be entertained by the Family Court or child welfare sector.

Innovation and better outcomes don’t happen through the removal of duties and responsibilities, but through better training, recruitment and team leadership. Crucially, they also depend on an appropriate level of resources, properly allocated for policies and projects which will make the system better for children and families.
We already know what policies and projects make a child protection system work – outstanding professional conduct and knowledge, individual care and attention from the same people throughout the life of the support and schemes which focus on keeping families together wherever possible. With numerous reports, research papers and holistic schemes on offer which have proven consistently that they work both in the short and long term like the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, what the government is proposing is less about innovation and more about economics.

We also don’t need ‘space to innovate’ at the expense of families’ basic human rights.

The current proposals will only increase delay and poor levels of service – requiring councils to demonstrate why the innovation proposals they put forward should be allowed to run is going to cause havoc inside the system. Who will have the time to put these proposals together, and why would anyone do this under the existing pressures faced by the system if not for financial reasons? It’s an ethical and systemic crisis just waiting to happen. Furthermore, ‘Efficiencies’ will simply be masked as ‘better outcomes for children’ in order to cut costs under the innovation clauses, and annual reports detailing the ways in which exemptions are being used could offer a less than accurate picture of the reality, as we have seen with recent reports offered by the beleaguered Troubled Families’ Programme. With so much at stake, and an increased risk of system breakdown, removing basic duties put in place to protect vulnerable children is pure madness.

For a short period of time, The Commons Public Bill Committee is offering the public and child welfare professionals the chance to share their views on the Children and Social Work Bill. For those of us who see no value in Clause 29, the consultation represents a rare opportunity to protect vulnerable children from further harm.

You can follow Natasha on Twitter: @SobukiRa

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing.
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