What's happening with the Children and Social Work Bill?

Posted by Kate Maher / Tuesday 05 July 2016 / Care leavers Children in care Law
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The Children and Social Work Bill has reached Committee Stage in the House of Lords, and we’ve just had the first two days of discussions. (Scroll down to the bottom for some more detail on what Committee Stage involves.) 

The Bill’s scope is wide ranging, covering the care system, adoption and social work. 

It introduces corporate parenting principles which local authorities must have regard to as they go about offering services and support to children in care and care leavers. These cover:

  • making sure children’s voices are heard and taken account of
  • always acting in children’s best interests and promoting their health and wellbeing
  • consistently securing positive outcomes for the children in their care

It also extends the right to a personal adviser – the person who makes sure a young person leaving care receives the support they’re entitled to – to all care leavers up to the age of 25, not just those in education or training.

Clause 15 of the Bill gives high-performing local authorities the opportunity to exempt themselves from certain duties and regulations in order to innovate and offer certain services to children in new and possibly more effective ways – an opportunity which has been received with uncertainty and concern across the sector. 

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What do we want to see change?
Action for Children, as members of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers, strongly believe that the principles should apply to health bodies, especially because looked after children are nearly four times more likely to suffer from an emotional or mental health problem than children who are not in care. Despite this, many experience difficulties when it comes to accessing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), whether due to inordinately high diagnostic thresholds or unstable placements (living arrangements). 

The fact that more young people will receive the help of a personal adviser is definitely something to be celebrated. However, the Alliance also feels that the way the Bill is worded at the moment places the responsibility for accessing support on the shoulders of the care leaver, rather than on the local authorities who should be reaching out to them. We want this to be addressed too. 

What was debated by members of the House of Lords? 
Peers start with the very beginning of the Bill, and the beginning of the Children and Social Work Bill concerns children in care and care leavers.

A number of peers asked why the corporate parenting principles would apply only to local authorities. What about the other agencies children in our care system regularly come into contact with, like health, or the police?

The importance of protecting and promoting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children in care was actually a key theme of the discussion, with many peers choosing to speak to the amendments which aimed to address these issues.

Baroness Tyler, someone who has consistently asked questions of the Government regarding the mental health of children in care, tabled a number of amendments on this. The Alliance worked with her on two of these, and they all received support from various experienced peers.

At the moment, the local authority has a legal duty to promote looked after children’s educational achievement. Baroness Tyler asked whether it might not be possible to add another – a duty to promote their physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

The two are inextricably linked … All the research tells us that levels of well-being impact on educational attainment and can predict future health, mortality, productivity and income outcomes. There is an awful lot at stake here.
Baroness Tyler of Enfield

The Baroness also asked whether the role of the designated health professional – a doctor or nurse who helps commissioners of health services fulfil their responsibilities towards children in care – could be strengthened. As things stand, these professionals are not always asked to contribute to the strategic planning of services for children in care, and it could be said that the role isn’t being used to its full advantage.

On the second day of Committee Stage, peers also had an in-depth discussion about the support available to care leavers, with many expressing concern that the onus for accessing much needed support fell to the young people who would so recently have left care. If a young person has lost touch with services, they may not know their entitlements or where to go for help. 

What did the government say?

Although the Government, in response to the questions and arguments put forward by peers, were adamant that the principles would only apply to local authorities, he acknowledged that there was a particular desire in the House to see them apply to health. Aware of the critical importance of nurturing and protecting children’s mental health, Lord Nash, the Schools Minister in the Lords, agreed to hold a meeting with Baroness Tyler and others to discuss the issues in more detail.

He was also receptive to the argument that under the Bill as it’s currently written, it is up to care leavers to request support, rather than local authorities to offer it outright. He said he would look into it.

This is all really encouraging – and there’s lots more to come.

The House of Lords is going to be continuing Committee Stage from 3:30pm on Wednesday afternoon. You can watch it on parliament.tv or catch it on Hansard, the official record of debates in Parliament, a few hours later. Alternatively, watch out for future blogs – we really care about this and we’re so glad you do too. 

Got questions about the House of Lords and how members can influence Bills? We’ve got you covered.

Committee is the third stage of a Bill’s progress through each House of Parliament – it has to go through five in both the Lords and the Commons before it can become law. Committee Stage involves line by line examination of everything set down in the Bill. In the House of Lords, all members can take part in this scrutiny. 

Peers also have the opportunity of laying down their own amendments or changes to the proposed legislation. These changes can add new considerations (within reason) or, alternatively, remove sections that members of the House don’t agree with. At later stages, these amendments can be voted on, and, if enough members of the House are in favour, they can be added to the Bill before it becomes an Act. At Committee Stage though, they’re a good way of ‘testing the waters’. 

The House of Lords itself is seen by some as a bit controversial because its members are not elected by the people; the majority are nominated by the Government. Yet, on the other hand, the Lords is filled with experts in a number of different areas. And the Children and Social Work Bill is crucial. It will materially affect the lives of children and young people and the jobs of the professionals who contribute to their care and safety. So when this Bill is making its way through Parliament, it will really benefit from being examined by people who have spent a considerable part of their lives working with and for children. Indeed, they might have been nominated for a peerage precisely because of their services to children and young people.

Take Baroness Howarth. She worked in social services for a number of years, before going on to become the Chief Executive of Childline, and then the deputy and chair of the Children and Families Court and Support Service (CAFCASS) – the largest employer of social workers in England. You’ve got Baroness Lister too, who worked at the Child Poverty Action Group for 16 years, before becoming Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University.

We need people like them, especially as we negotiate such a comprehensive and game-changing Bill. 

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