Children & Social Work Bill [Lords]

Written evidence submitted by John Kemmis (CSWB 33)

"Powers to test different ways of working"

1 This submission is from John Kemmis, former CEO of Voice, a children's charity established in 1975 to give a voice to children in care both individually and more broadly at a policy level. While at Voice we developed children's advocacy in England resulting in some rights to an advocate being established in law. We also set up a project "The blueprint project for a child-centred care system’’, which had a number of positive outcomes for children’s services including projects with local authorities under the banner "Blueprint in Practice". (Ref-Main report: ‘Start with the Child Stay with the Child: a blueprint for a child centred care system’). Before Voice from 1995 to 1997 I undertook improvement projects for children in care with 2 local authorities. Prior to 1995 I worked within 2 local authorities over 25 years involved in many areas of improvement for children in care first as a qualified social worker, then as a front line manager (inc 14 years managing an area office in Battersea) and subsequently as head of inspection and quality assurance for Wandsworth, which included the introduction of the 1989 Children Act and subsequently a major quality improvement project for children in care and care leavers.

2 While at Voice I was asked to be a patron of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) and gave them some assistance in getting established. I remain a patron and have a reasonable understanding of their role and how they operate in practice, being part of their on line practice forum. Until recently I was also a trustee of the Care Leavers Foundation during the period it was operating the "New Belongings Project", for which I was involved in its design. In summary I have a lifetime work experience of developing and improving services for children in care and care leavers, which has included innovation and the involvement of young people in those improvements.

3 The reason why I am making this submission, which is the first time as an individual, is because of my real concern about this proposal to establish a way for local authorities to opt out of complying with children’s legislation. While I remain wholeheartedly committed to improving services for children in care and care leavers, it seems misguided to believe that allowing local authorities to opt out of different parts of the legislation is the right way to do this. All the examples that have been suggested to date can be tried out without the need for this legislative change or may possibly be very detrimental to the care and safeguard of children. Where there may be regulations or guidance in need of revision, there are more appropriate ways to consider these, involving proper consultation with the sector and those with relevant experience including children and young people.

4 One of the important ways to improve services for children has been to involve them and empower children and young people to contribute. For example in the Blueprint Project the young people helped design "Try a different Way" sheets including one about young people chairing their own reviews. This was piloted then almost ten years ago and IROs continue to try this out where appropriate and therefore there is therefore no need for legislative change to test out this kind of ‘innovation’. This has been cited as an example of why this legislation is needed: it is not true.

5 One of the ways we assisted children and young people at Voice to understand their rights under the law was to produce information booklets explaining their rights under the law, so that wherever they lived they were aware what should happen (booklets covered such topics as: children in care, care leavers, those in secure settings, asylum seekers, mental health, complaints procedures, right to an advocate, etc.). If you consider it from the young person’s perspective, it is important that they have an understanding how their care should be and what they have a right to. Children in care are very disempowered compared to the local authority and the adult world and there is complicated legislation that sets the parameters of their care. It is important to empower them as far as possible and certainly not add to uncertainty. Understanding their rights wherever they are living is one way to empower them. Two children in the same home should have the same rights, not different rights because they come from 2 different local authorities.

6 In developing an advocacy service we found that, when local authorities were not behaving in the best interests of the child or were refusing to listen to a reasonable request from a child or young person, the legal rights for that child were hugely important. Accepting that the law can be complicated it’s also important that all those working in this area have an understanding of the law which is consistent across the country. We found that many of the professionals working with young people used the Voice leaflets for the young people to be clear about their legal rights. It is easy to see how the ‘Opt Out clauses" would create confusion and uncertainty if the law didn't always hold good in certain places.

7 The concern about increasing the postcode lottery for children in care and care leavers cannot be overestimated and certainly not dismissed in a brief paragraph. Already the postcode lottery is a massive problem whereby a child’s care by a local authority and the people caring for them can vary hugely. The need is to raise the standard for all children and young people wherever they are living not to fragment the service any further. For example this is what projects such as Blueprint in Practice, New Belongings, Bright Spots….all collaborations between local authorities and voluntary organisations…have been achieving without the need to change the law.

8 One reason cited for the need to be able to opt out of primary legislation has been the wish to reduce the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) role in various ways. If members of parliament are serious about raising standards for children in care they should be looking how to strengthen the role. The IRO role was introduced as an important safeguard for children in care. Children in care do not enjoy the same legal rights that children in family proceedings have to require a particular change. The local authority is expected to be the good parent. To provide a safeguard the IRO role was introduced to oversee the plans of local authorities. It has been stated by supporters of this proposal that not every child needs an IRO. It is absolutely vital that they oversee every child in care. Already there is provision for a lighter touch in relation to the review process and it is quite unnecessary to contemplate reducing their vital role as suggested. Also, they need to have had the qualifications and experience to be able to do the job properly. It is really important if members wish to safeguard these children that this safeguard is not watered down. Instead what is needed is to consider how to strengthen the role, its independence and ensure a high standard. There is no doubt that the opt out provision would put this crucial safeguard for children in care at risk.

9 An emphasis has been placed on the need for "innovation". While some innovation on how to deliver services is often good and can improve a service, equally children often need good well established care and good child centred practice. Most of the child care world recognise that the Children Act 1989 was an excellent piece of legislation. What has been needed is for every local authority and social worker to comply in order for all children to receive good care. To date various pieces of legislation have been introduced to improve various aspects including for care leavers. Local authorities can be tempted to make decisions to save money that are not in the child’s best interest. The legislation has attempted to ensure local authorities behave as a good parent would. It provides a sound baseline and safeguard. The churn within the care system, the way managers and social workers move, the way children are moved, the fragmentation of services, the lack of stable relationships, achieving good enough services with limited resources: these are the areas requiring solutions not the law.

10 The obstacles to good child centred practice do not generally come from the legislation but from the way managers in their organisations set the ethos, standards and rules and how they choose to operate the way the service is or is not provided. Social workers have often referred their child for an advocate not because the law is a problem but because a manager primarily interested in the budget is not giving sufficient weight to the need of the child in their care.

11 It is significant that so many organisations and very experienced individuals have come out against Sec 29 and this piece of legislation including BASW and the social workers, for whom it is suggested the proposal is being made to enable better more flexible practice. Many of those who really know the service and are totally committed to achieving the best service possible for children in care including those in the House of Lords consider this is a misguided if not dangerous proposal. Their opinions need to be heard. It is really important not to erode safeguards for children which have been established carefully over several decades. If there are regulations or guidance needing revision then this can be considered properly in the normal way. Indeed this particular proposal never had the normal consultation with those with knowledge in the sector and clearly has not got its backing except for a few.

12 In summary there is absolutely no need to have this legislative power to test different ways of working: that can be done now. There are many improvements that can be made and often need to be made before ever considering a change in legislation. This proposal represents a worrying dilution of children’s protection and rights that have been carefully developed. Those who understand the way the care system is operating see the need to achieve greater stability for children and their relationships but not to add to the uncertainty or erode their safeguards. As has been stated in the House of Lords-this proposal should be taken out of the Bill at this stage and instead put out for consultation and the children's sector invited to come up with ways to improve how we work for children in care and care leavers. This would be a constructive way forward.

January 2017

 

Prepared 5th January 2017