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Researching Reform: Will the new government be the final nail in the coffin for child welfare?
Sep 29, 2018, 21:53 PM
family law, children, Conservative Government, General Election 2015, child welfare
With the Conservatives returning to power this month, their continued focus on fiscal austerity will mean more government spending cuts on state-provided services. Child welfare has already been badly hit by drastic cuts to the family justice and social work sectors in a bid to reduce government debt. Will this second round of austerity measures irreparably damage our child welfare system, or will it be the wake up call we need to work together to protect children’s fundamental human rights and the democratic process?
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With the Conservatives returning to power this month, their
continued focus on fiscal austerity will mean more government spending cuts on
state-provided services. Child welfare has already been badly hit by drastic
cuts to the family justice and social work sectors in a bid to reduce
government debt. Will this second round of austerity measures irreparably
damage our child welfare system, or will it be the wake up call we need to work
together to protect children’s fundamental human rights and the democratic
of David Cameron’s new cabinet has unveiled tensions which are likely to play
out inside the family sector. Whilst Theresa May remains Home Secretary, and
will continue to oversee the nation’s Statutory Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse
(SICSA), the appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary will bring old
conflicts to the surface, which could harm the sector.
Secretary, Gove and May came head to head over the topic of extremism in
schools, a disagreement that Gove will not have forgotten – he had to publicly
apologise for his conduct over the matter. As Justice Secretary, Gove will be
tasked with managing prisons, sentencing and
criminal justice, areas which overlap with Theresa May’s brief at the home
office. It would be almost impossible to
imagine Gove and May’s professional rivalry will not at some point cause more
chaos and confusion inside the child welfare sector. That Gove’s appointment
also appears to be a tactical move to block Theresa May in the next leadership
contest says more about the self serving nature of politics today, than it does
The erosion of
democracy in the UK and its impact can be no better witnessed than inside the
child welfare sector. Whilst Chris Grayling was Justice Secretary, legal aid
was removed for all but a tiny selection of cases. The ‘lucky few’ who are now
eligible for legal aid, such as those involved in domestic violence and child
neglect matters must show specific forms of evidence in order to access this
aid. That most vulnerable men, women and children trapped inside violent relationships
and cycles of neglect rarely have the support they need to document their abuse
is a cruel irony lost on the current government, and of course, its
Conservatives have pledged to protect spending on the NHS, education and
international aid, they may have to
make deep cuts elsewhere
in order to reduce borrowing back to sustainable levels. And they will do that
by making cuts to ‘unprotected’ departments, of which social care is one.
The social work sector is understandably worried about
the implications of further cuts, but this is not the only concern being voiced
inside the sector. Fears over a renewed fervour to extend the criminal
offence of wilful neglect to include children’s social care are also mounting. If
the law is extended in this way, as proposed by the previous government, social
workers could face up to five years in prison for failing to protect children
from sexual exploitation and neglect.
This measure has been heavily criticised in
the past, and current research from the US suggests that mandatory
reporting is not effective, and notoriously hard to enforce.
What is becoming clear is a vicious trend
towards punitive measures in order to jolt the child welfare sector. Michael
Gove’s reputation as a would-be radical reformer may well be one of the reasons
Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen to place Gove at the helm of Justice,
however his presence inside the sector will not be welcome if he approaches the
sector in the same manner in which he chose to engage with the teaching quarter. Gove was unceremoniously demoted after his
heavy handed approach was rejected by the entirety of the UK’s teaching body.
Michael Gove is also going to be overseeing
the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, in order to make way
for a Bill of Rights. Whilst the decision to move
away from the Human Rights Act is viewed by many inside the legal sector as
flawed, plans for the creation of a Bill of Rights are likely to go ahead. And
whilst we do not yet know what a Bill of Rights will look like, or how it will
work in practice, the interim period may well see grave miscarriages of justice
inside the child welfare sector, which has increasingly come to rely on the
Human Rights Act to protect fundamental freedoms which have been steadily abated
by policy and legislation.
If Michael Gove wishes to improve the
sector, he will need to immerse himself inside the system, understand the many
varied and delicate nuances of child welfare and offer thoughtful and
reparative policies. Much can be achieved by elevating standards inside the
sector, for example, rewriting curriculums for social workers and better,
child-welfare focused training for judges, as well as sourcing the right kinds
of people to work as magistrates and senior members of the judiciary. These
actions are budget-friendly and would go a long way to reforming the system in
a positive and progressive way, and would remove many of the current issues
plaguing the system.
If those of us inside
the sector wish to improve outcomes for children and their families, it is up
to us to ensure the government, and our new Justice Secretary understand the
issues and our collective commitment to protecting our most vulnerable. The
current economic proposals are short sighted, and likely
to leave a devastating legacy for generations to come. We must continue to
place pressure on government officials in order to safeguard against political
interests which sit at odds with democracy and human rights. The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.