Children and Families Bill 2013 – Opinion piece by Nushra Mansuri @SWSCmedia debate

children-and-families-bill-2013I was semi amused to read a blog by conservative MP Jesse Norman last week critically acclaiming the Children and Families Bill and urging us all to celebrate it.  I have to say, I do not totally share his enthusiasm and would also beg to differ with those who are comparing to the Children Act 1989 in terms of its magnitude.  I think that is slightly over egging it!

So what of the Bill itself?  What are the key issues for social workers?  I would highlight adoption, care proceedings, private law, children looked after and their educational achievement and the proposals to change provisions to children with special educational needs.  I think it is interesting to note, that prior to the Bill there were a number of independent reviews ordered by the Government including Munro, the Family Justice Review, the review of the early years foundation, a review on early intervention, poverty and life chances and a review of the office of the children’s commissioner (OCC).  What I think is particularly interesting is which reviews have had a direct influence on the Bill.  I would have to say that in terms of Munro, I can’t really find any evidence of some of the underlying philosophy purported in her reports and recommendations: reduction in bureaucracy, a departure from a target driven culture, a shift from a blame culture to a learning culture, relationship based social work and a genuine attempt to shore up early help by making it a duty.  The Family Justice Review on the other hand has certainly had an impact and also the review of the OCC.

Undoubtedly, one of the long overdue highlights in this bill is to bring England in line with the rest of the UK by making the children’s commissioner a rights based and more independent commissioner of government.  This follows a review conducted by John Dunford in 2010 to which BASW was invited to give evidence.  We certainly welcome this development. Coupled with this is a proposal to transfer a role that is currently housed by Ofsted which is the Children’s Rights Director in England.  The current postholder Roger Morgan has done an amazing job in engaging with children in the care system and drawing on their experiences to make strong representations to influence debates.  Whist BASW supports it being moved to the OCC – this is certainly something we need to watch in the current mantra of more from less.  We know that the OCC is expected to undertake its current functions and more on a reduced budget in the next financial year sot that is bound to impact on their capacity and reach. Children in care more than ever need strong champions and advocates and so we cannot afford to see a dilution of this very important role.

Turning to adoption, we certainly welcome adopters having recognised and formal rights to leave and flexible working.  However, we would like to see is this extended to others who suddenly gain caring responsibilities for children such as grandparents and extended family members.  Research tells us that those that take on this role can often find themselves in financial hardship and perhaps have to give up their income.   Conversely, one of the clauses in the bill implies that the duty on local authorities to consider family and friends could be circumvented as children are quickly placed for adoption.  It is really important to have balanced and fair legislation rather than allow the pendulum to swing to far in either direction.

The proposal to complete adoptions in 26 weeks is a huge worry.    The emphasis seems to be on speed rather than questioning why in some situations it is necessary to take more time.  I have lost count how many times the minister Edward Timpson used the word ‘speed’ in the debate in parliament last week.  Even the period of conception to birth takes on average 9 months.  Thorough assessment of adopters and preparation is crucial to successful placement of children.

The bill also proposes that adopters have access to personal budgets.  Whilst we welcome adopters being given far greater support particularly post adoption we question whether this is this the best way forward.  One of our members who is also an adoptive parent asked recently whether the appropriate resources exist for adopters to buy.  A  child’s needs of course can change over time so a personal budget would need to be flexible to take this into account.  Unfortunately, personal budgets don’t necessarily have a good track record in adult social care so it is important that we draw on good models.  What we would have really liked to see post adoption support to have been made a mandatory requirement.

BASW has serious concerns about outsourcing adoption services from local authorities.  Going back to Munro this smacks of a punitive approach and continuation of blame culture.  Currently, there is a mixed economy of provision but not even those in the third sector herald this possibility arguing that there is not enough capacity to meet the demand for adoption services so this would not be in the best interests of children.

BASW has already said a great deal about the proposal to remove giving due consideration to a child’s ethnicity in respect of adoption.  One needs to remind people why this was so seminal when first introduced in legislation.  There is no evidence base to support this as both an Ofsted report last year and a House of Lords Inquiry on Adoption legislation testify.   Wales will not be following England’s line on this.   BASW will continue to argue the case for its retention in England.

Whilst we think that introducing virtual school heads to all local authorities is a good move in supporting the educational achievement of looked after children, we are disappointed that this is a solitary proposal in the bill for improving the situation for looked after children; so much more could have been in the bill.  It doesn’t feel like a level playing field for the 65,000 children in care when there is such a disproportionate focus on the minority of children suitable for adoption.

The plans to extend the system of special educational needs from birth to 25 but needs closer examination as it would appear that some children with disabilities who may not have special educational needs will be excluded.  In theory we can all sign up to the notion of “improved co-operation between health authorities and local authorities” but what does it mean in practice and does it have any teeth?  Those who are lobbying on this area are of the opinion that joint commissioning is essential to success in this area.  These proposals have failed to take into account all groups of children and young people, notably those who are in detention; coincidentally, a consultation was issued last week that focuses on the education of children in custody so the thinking very much needs to be joined up.

The 26 weeks timeframe for care proceedings signals a return to a target driven culture which fills many of us with dismay after the evidence unearthed by both the SWTF and the Munro review demonstrates that targets do not necessarily improve outcomes for children but can be perverse incentives as the quest to meet them becomes the be all and end all at the expense of children’s best interests being served.  We also worry that if courts have less scrutiny over children’s care plans that this will also be detrimental to children in an environment of scare resources where those charged with overseeing the plans i.e. IROs are not independent of their local authority employers and also have burgeoning caseloads.  The proposals to change to contact are also worrying and again we need to go back to the original principles that informed the Children Act 1989 about the importance of children in care having contact with their siblings and birth families.

An area that is often the poor relation compared to public law is private law: to suggest that all separated families should automatically go for mediation is risky.  Only 10% of separating families look to courts to resolve their disputes and a significant number of them feature domestic abuse.  This system could mean that victims of domestic violence are silenced and feel coerced into making risky arrangements for contact with between children and the perpetrator.  This is likely to worsen with cuts to legal aid and where parents are forced to represent themselves making victims/survivors of domestic abuse even more vulnerable.

It’s all very well to unveil brand new sets of proposals to tackle the current ills but without the necessary resources how is this achievable?  Even leading members of the status quo are moving away from putting a positive spin on the current situation which I think tells us something; organisations such as  the ADCS and LGA  and are expressing their disquiet about the cuts, notably £150m being cut from preventative services  to shore up adoption initiatives.  BASW carried out a state of social work survey last year across the UK which painted a dismal picture of services and their capacity to cope with demand.  In the children’s world, social workers felt that the high caseloads and increasing bureaucracy were placing children at risk.  This survey has become the subject of an All Party Parliamentary group inquiry to which social workers are giving evidence.  BASW believes that it is essential that the wider world and those in positions of power know exactly what is going on at ground level.  It is a sad state of affairs to witness a decline in the morale of many social workers as they tell us soberingly that the situation in many parts of the country is dire.  This is not good news for vulnerable children and families.  I listened carefully to a number of MPs in the debate last week from some of the more deprived wards in the country talking about the impact of the closure of children’s centres.  It is not rocket science but sadly by making these cuts to family support services in the community we could end up paying a very big price both economically and in human terms.  Sitting back and waiting for an accident to happen is never a comfortable position.

So, Is the Bill a done deal?  Not necessarily so.  Edward Timpson said last week it has some way to go.  It is now at committee stage and we still have an opportunity to submit written evidence up until the 23 April.  BASW will be doing this in conjunction with others and hopefully unilaterally too.  It will then pass from the House of Commons to the House of Lords where amendments are likely to be made and this is where lobbying is an important and worthwhile activity.  It will then receive royal assent and become legislation.  We may feel that a lot of this stuff is simply going over our heads but I think it is crucial that social workers lend their voices to the debates and BASW very much welcomes hearing from anyone who wishes to air their views on this.   What we need now more than ever is brave leadership that is not afraid to challenge those at the top on behalf of not just the workforce but ultimately, vulnerable children and young people who do not have a voice.  We are talking about a public service where we are all accountable from frontline worker to DCS, to lead councillor in the cabinet right up to the children’s minister, the secretary of state for education and the prime minister.

Join and share your views regarding Children & Families Bill 2013 @SWSCmedia debate today 8:00 PM GMT / 3:00 PM EST / 12:00 Noon PST.

Nushra Mansuri is Professional Officer at the British Association of Social Workers (@BASW_UK).

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