Children and Families Bill

Memorandum submitted by Barnardo’s (CF 13)

About Barnardo’s

Barnardo’s works directly with over 200,000 children, young people and their families every year through over 800 services across the UK .

A number of our services work directly with groups who will be affected by this Bill, including:

- 32 adoption and fostering services

- 132 Sure Start children’s centres

- 114 services working with disabled children

- 18 projects supporting young carers and their families

We use the knowledge gained from our work with children to campaign for better policy and to champion the rights of every child. With the right help, committed support and a little belief, even the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children can turn their lives around.  

Barnardo’s view on the Children and Families Bill

Barnardo’s warmly welcomes the fact that the Government have chosen to give legislative priority to a number of extremely important issues that affect children and young people.

The Bill includes important changes which will make a real difference to their lives, including processes to improve the adoption system and reforms to help improve childminding practice.

Barnardo’s has a number of suggestions as to further steps the Government could take to ensure that their proposed reforms are as effective as possible.

This briefing covers the following topics, which are of particular relevance to the vulnerable and disadvantaged children with whom Barnardo’s works:

- Fostering and adoption

- Special educational needs

- Childcare

- Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England

- Support for young carers

1. Fostering and adoption

2. The Bill introduces substantial changes to the adoption and fostering systems, designed to speed up care proceedings and the placement of children.

These include:

3. Giving the Government the power to remove powers for adopter recruitment from local authorities and transfer them to the voluntary sector (Clause 3)

4. One of the Government’s proposals that we have particular concerns about is their threat to remove the power to recruit adopters from all local authorities, and transfer this responsibility to the voluntary sector.

5. This measure was announced only two weeks before the Bill was published, and was not subject to consultation. Clause 3 gives the Secretary of State power to give directions to Local Authorities to make arrangements for their adopter recruitment, assessment and approval functions to be carried out by an adoption agency. These directions can be applied to a) one or more councils, b) a type of council, or c) all councils in England.

6. This means that the Secretary of State can now strip councils of any role in recruiting and approving adopters.

7. It appears that the Government’s intention is to threaten Local Authorities to improve their performance in recruiting, so that there are enough approved adopters to address the "backlog" of children waiting for adoption. The Clause is framed as what is known as a "sunrise clause": that is, it does not have a commencement date, but will act as a threat hanging over local authorities. The implication of (c) is that, irrespective of a local authorities’ progress, or indeed, irrespective of actual progress across the care and court system, the Secretary of State can indiscriminately remove those powers from every single local authority and transfer them to voluntary adoption agencies.

8. This may be an attempt to ultimately introduce a market based approach to the sector. However, international law rightly prevents agencies from making a profit out of adoption, in order to mitigate against the trafficking of children across international borders. So a simple market – in which new entrants are enticed to come into the market because of the opportunity to make money, is not possible.

9. This means that, in the absence of the public and private sector, the only possible providers are voluntary adoption agencies, or charities. Charities are independent bodies with their priorities set by their trustees, and there is no guarantee that enough charities will decide to increase their role in adoption to fill the gap left by local authorities.

10. Local authorities currently recruit about 80% of the adopters. It does not make sense to remove 80% of the supply of adoptive parents if the aim is to increase adoption.

11. We believe that the implementation of this measure would be likely to be extremely disruptive in the short-to-medium term. It could take five or ten years for the capacity of the voluntary sector to adjust to the new environment; it could take much longer than that for new relationships of trust to be built up between the voluntary organisations holding lists of potential adopters, and local authorities holding lists of children needing adoption.

12. Barnardo’s agrees that more must be done to speed up the adoption process, and indeed are supportive of many of the Government’s other measures. However, we think this proposal is highly risky and unlikely to achieve its intended results. It should therefore be removed from the Bill.

13. Encouraging local authorities to place children with their future adoptive parents more swiftly, by requiring a local authority looking after a child to give preference to placing them in a ‘fostering for adoption’ placement if one is available (Clause 1)

14. Barnardo’s welcomes this proposal. We believe that fostering for adoption will play an important role in preventing children from going through unnecessary and traumatic changes of placement.

15. As with any change that affects very vulnerable children in the care system, it will of course need to be implemented with caution.

16. Fostering for adoption should only be used when social workers believe that the extreme weight of probability is that the outcome for that particular child will be adoption. The emotional well-being of the child and the prospective adoptive parents must be protected as much as possible. If this does not happen, prospective adopters who go through a fostering for adoption process which does not result in adoption may find it too difficult to go through the process again. At a time when recruiting prospective adopters is very difficult, we are worried about a system which may deter adopters in the future.

17. There could be some unintended consequences with prioritising those who are willing to ‘Foster to Adopt’. Feedback from our services shows that in their experience, many prospective adopters have been on a traumatic and emotional journey which has led them to wanting to be adopters and the possibility of having a child placed with them and then later returned to their birth parents could be too difficult.

18. This does not make them any less suitable as adopters - and we would be concerned that where prospective adopters opt not to take the risk of fostering for adoption, this could prejudice their chances of being considered as adoptive parents for young children.

19. It is also important that steps are taken to ensure that fostering for adoption does not pre-empt the court process: courts may be more likely to decide on adoption even if it is not the best option if a process is already in train that is expected to end with adoption.

20. Removing the explicit need for social workers to take into account a child’s ethnic background when looking for an adoption match (Clause 2)

21. Barnardo’s understands the Government’s intentions to prevent unnecessary delay in the system in this part of the Bill, but we do not agree that the proposed change to existing law is necessary.

22. It is our understanding that it was not the intention of the Children Act 1989 that ethnicity should be the main determinant of whether a child is put in a particular placement. Ethnicity was only supposed to be one factor to be taken into consideration – a position Barnardo’s agrees with. Over time, Barnardo’s believes that the importance of ethnic matching as a prime determinant when making placements has become exaggerated, and this is not supported by the original legislation. Therefore, we do not think it is necessary that the 1989 Act be amended.

23. The most important factor in ensuring children are matched to appropriate families is the training of social workers and the implementation of legislation rather than legislation itself.

24. Barnardo’s believes in some cases, it will be important for a child’s ethnicity and culture to be taken into account when determining whether a placement is suitable.

25. Whether the legislation is changed or not the key challenge will still be to ensure that social workers interpret it in the way it is intended and have the judgement skills to place children effectively.

26. Post adoption support

27. This Bill provides an opportunity for the Government to extend post-adoption support.

28. Clause 4 provides detail on how local authorities must prepare personal budgets for the recipient if asked to do so, with regulations to be made around the details of this. We believe that this post-adoption support should be expanded to more fully reflect the ‘adoption passport’ proposed by the Adoption Working Group in the Government’s Adoption Action Plan.

29. One straightforward step the Government could take to improve post-adoption support would be allowing parents to use their budget with a voluntary adoption agency even if they have adopted through their local authority - and vice versa.

30. It also does not make sense to limit support to only families who adopt: the Government should show its commitment to supporting families looking after vulnerable children by extending personal budgets to foster carers, special guardians and family and friends carers.

31. Furthermore, we believe that all adopted children and those in foster care, with special guardians and in the care of family and friends should have priority access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

32. Special educational needs

33. Part 3 of the Bill provides for reforms to the Special Educational Needs system. Barnardo’s is supportive of the Government’s intentions, which aim to support better joint working between agencies and introduce unified Education, Health and Care plans for children and young people.

34. However, we would like to ensure the reforms are as effective as possible in practice and Barnardo’s supports the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign’s briefing on this part of the Bill containing suggested amendments. 

35. We have additional concerns about how proposed reforms in this Bill and other previous Acts (such as the Education Act 2011) will come together in the future.  In particular, the local authorities’ role in education is changing substantially, with many powers passing to schools and the final allocation of some responsibilities still as yet unclear.  The Bill needs to be robust enough to ensure that it will still be as effective once this transition period is completed and responsibility is, most likely, more dispersed. As such we suggest that certain clauses might benefit from further reference to the role of Academies, Children’s Centres, Early Years Providers and other forms of provision to ensure the intentions of the Bill are ‘future-proofed’ against any potential changes to responsibilities for Special Educational Needs and Disability policy.

36. Childcare

37. The Bill includes a number of provisions which will be used to implement policies in the Government’s recent paper ‘More Great Childcare’. Barnardo’s is supportive of the Government’s intention to make changes to the childcare system in order to ensure that children receive good quality early education.

38. We are particularly pleased that Clause 76 of the Bill includes steps to remove bureaucracy relating to the use of school buildings to provide childcare. This is something that Barnardo’s has previously called for.

39. We are aware that that the provisions in this Bill constitute the first stage of several reforms to the childcare sector, and we await with interest the publication of the Childcare Commission’s findings, and further detail on Government’s clear – and very welcome - commitment to improving childcare.

40. Barnardo’s does continue to have serious concerns about vulnerable families’ ability to make use of childcare, which we know from our services is influenced by the cost. Barnardo’s is calling on the Government to return the amount of funding available for parents for childcare to the previous maximum of 80%. This will have the further benefit of making work pay for many more low income families.

41. A recent Barnardo’s report [1] looks at how much families on minimum wage will really earn under Universal Credit for working more than 15 hours a week (when childcare stops being ‘free’), as their benefits fall and childcare costs rise.

42. At 16 hours a week, Barnardo’s finds that single parent families with two pre-school children:

• across the UK will earn £0 per hour
• in Yorkshire and the Humber will earn £1.64 per week
• in London will pay 91p per hour to work

43. For these families, the Government’s intention to make work pay under Universal Credit will clearly not have any real impact, and Barnardo’s believes that any discussion of childcare reform must acknowledge this important fact.

44. Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England

45. Part 5 of the Bill sets out the Government’s proposal to enhance the role of the Children’s Commissioner.

46. We are very pleased that the Government has listened to the recommendations of the Dunford Review, which Barnardo’s welcomed upon its publication, in preparing this part of the Bill.

47. It shows real progress that the Government is taking steps to ensure that the Children Commissioner for England’s powers are more commensurate with the powers of the Commissioners for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is important that the Government considers how the Commissioners can best work together in cases where there are vulnerable children involved with various agencies across nation borders.

48. We hope that the Government can confirm that the role currently performed by the Office of the Children Rights Director is not weakened as these responsibilities are absorbed into the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England.

49. The Government has taken an important step by putting forward legislation that strengthens the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and we are pleased that it has been given stronger powers to investigate and independence from the State. However, we believe that Government could go further to meet international requirements, and this is an issue that we will seek to discuss further.

50. Barnardo’s is broadly supportive of the work of other rights-based organisations, in particular the Children Rights Alliance for England, who are briefing on this topic.

51. Support for young carers

52. This Bill presents an excellent opportunity for the Government to reform the support received by young carers, who are some of the most vulnerable children in society.

53. Young carers are children and young people under 18 who provide regular and on-going care and emotional support to a family member who is physically or mentally ill, disabled or misuses substances. It is very hard to determine how many young carers there are in the UK: the 2001 census identified 175,000, but there may be as many as 700,000 young carers in the UK. [2]

54. Young Carers and the Children and Families Bill

55. The introduction of the Children and Families Bill, alongside the draft Care and Support Bill, presents a significant opportunity to amend and clarify the legal framework for young carers. Young carers’ needs and the needs of their families should be met under children’s legislation because young carers are, first and foremost, children.

56. Why the law should be changed

57. Existing law and guidance is complex and confusing and a barrier to good practice. Furthermore, there is a real lack of clarity about responsibility and accountability for young carers and professionals routinely fail to identify young carers.

58. Children are not considered as part of an adult’s assessment for support, and when adults are in receipt of health or social care services, adults’ services often fail to recognise disabled adults as parents.

59. Barnardo’s believes that reforming the law for young carers would not only improve identification and support for young carers with positive impact on their long-term outcomes, but would also reduce burdens on local authorities by preventing the risk of inappropriate caring and providing a clear framework for whole family support. This would ultimately reduce the costs to the state.

60. Alongside the National Young Carers Coalition (NYCC), [3] we are calling for the Government to take the following steps.

61. The Bill should include a requirement for local authorities to consider whether parents require additional services under adults’ care and support legislation (i.e the proposed draft Care and Support Bill) when they are making an assessment of a child or young person with inappropriate caring responsibilities.

62. The Government should use this opportunity to consolidate existing law and guidance for assessing and supporting the needs of young carers so that they have equal rights to adult carers under a simplified legal framework   

March 2013

[1] Barnardo’s (2012) Paying to work

[2] According to work carried out by the BBC in 2010, which informed a number of their programs themed around young carers

[3] National Young Carers Coalition (NYCC) is a coalition of organisations concerned with young carers and their families, either through direct provision of services and support, advocacy or research. Members include Carers Trust (formerly The Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroads Care), The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, Family Action, Gloucestershire Young Carers and Young Carers Research Group .

Prepared 8th March 2013