Children in care are at risk from “unjustified” rules that have stripped back visits and inspections during the pandemic, a watchdog is warning – calling for them to be revoked immediately.
In an interview with The Independent, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said the country’s most vulnerable youngsters were now less protected, including from sexual abuse by grooming gangs. Emergency regulations, which water down certain safeguards regarding children in care, were introduced to help councils cope with coronavirus. They are due to stay in place until at least September, but Ms Longfield said: “I think they should be revoked now – I don’t think they are necessary or justified.”
The commissioner revealed worrying examples of failings by local authorities that had reached her desk, since the rules came into force – “without public scrutiny” – at the end of April. One child worried about their care was told “we don’t do complaints anymore”, while a second in care left home to live somewhere else, but the council “did not notice for weeks”.
“There is a potential for children in care not to be given the protection they need and for them to be put at greater risk,” Ms Longfield said. “For some, that means they are at greater risk of grooming or exploitation, especially older children in semi-independent accommodation.”
The criticism comes as one children’s charity launched a High Court legal action against the “dangerous” regulations, warning decades-old safeguards had been “snatched away”. One requirement lifted – for a six-monthly review of a child’s care – has been traced back to the manslaughter of a 12-year-old by his foster carers way back in 1944. Labour has forced a Commons debate on the controversy next Wednesday, protesting that ministers had “not produced any evidence” to show the relaxations are needed.
The regulations, rushed through because of the “extraordinary pressure on local authorities”:
* Allow social workers to contact children living in care, or privately fostered, as soon as “reasonably practicable” – rather than within one week initially, and every six weeks for the year after that
* Relax requirements to review care plans – depriving children of the opportunity to raise concerns and have them independently scrutinised
* Allow children to be locked up in care homes if they are showing symptoms of coronavirus – without, it is feared, clear guidance for monitoring this
* Scrap monthly independent visits to children’s homes – and twice-yearly Ofsted inspections – provided “reasonable endeavours are made”
* Remove the requirement for independent panels to approve foster carers and adoption placements
* Allow local authorities to approve anyone as a temporary foster carer who meets requirements – rather than only someone connected to a child, such as friends or family.
Ministers said they were needed because of fears that care staff would be struck down by the pandemic and forced to isolate, creating shortages. But Ms Longfield said this had not happened and criticised the original decision, saying: “The focus was not on the best interests of children, it was on the system and the providers of it. It didn’t give the impression that children were centremost in anyone’s priorities – when all of this should be based on the best interests of children, especially those that the state has such a high level of responsibility over.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Just For Kids Law group of children’s charities, echoed the criticism, saying: “These are children who have already received great trauma in their lives and now they will find it more difficult to cope by themselves.”
The application for a judicial review has been launched by the charity Article 39, which says it has identified 65 separate removals, or dilution, of protections – some of which will survive even if the regulations are removed in September.
It has accused ministers of smuggling through “deregulation on steroids”, arguing it is the fourth such attempt to relax children’s social care rules since 2016. “The legal protections snatched away were carefully built up from the 1940s onwards and the government’s actions are dangerous”, said Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s director. “They were the culmination of decades of children’s experiences, testimony, learning and positive social work. Terrible failures to protect children are also a significant part of that history.”
And Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s spokesperson for children, said: “These changes are unnecessary and could put children in harm’s way. They must be revoked immediately, or at the very least withdrawn pending proper safeguards and scrutiny.” The department for education declined to respond to the children’s commissioner’s criticisms and call for immediate revocation of the regulations.