Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Written evidence submitted by Pete Bentley (CSWB 52)

Written Evidence to the Public Bill Committee (Children and Social Work Bill)  


1) I have been professionally involved with adoption for many years initially as an adoption social worker with a Local Authority, then as a consultant employed by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering for 15 tears, an author of independent reports to the courts where the possibility of adoption was involved and currently as the independent chair of a Local Authority adoption panel. I am a registered social worker (reg no: SW21718).The views expressed are my professional views alone. 

Summary

2) I support the evidence submitted by ‘Nagalro’ (the professional association for children’s guardians , family court advisers and independent social workers), of which I am a member of Council, in relation to proposed New Clauses 2-9. I make some further points on the New Clauses and also on Clauses 9 and 33. Specifically I do not believe that New Clauses 2-9 should stand part of the Bill.

Proposed New Clauses 2-9 of the Bill

3) To the extent of the reliability of my memory (I started work as a children / families Social Worker in the mid 1970's) I recall that all legislation since then, relating to children / children's social care / adoption etc, has had genuine 'cross party' support and thus has not been subject to sudden change if the party who is in government changes. 

4) In relation to the Governments intention to re-insert, in essence, those clauses that were removed by the House of Lords, I am very concerned that children's legislation will have the potential to become a 'political football' between whatever party is the Government of the day and the official opposition. I can think of nothing professionally worse and request that all members of the House of Commons reflect on that before voting on whether to include New Clauses 2-9 as part of the Bill. I draw attention to, not only the full debate in the House of Lords where Peers from Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Cross Benchers all made significant points as to why the then Clause 29 should be omitted from the Bill, but also to the speech by Tim Loughton MP (a previous Conservative Children's Minister) when he spoke, at second reading in the Commons at column 49 on 5th Dec 2016:

5) ‘I support the Bill as it stands, but it could certainly be improved by a number of enhancing amendments, although I would not include among those any that would rehash clauses 29 to 33. I was alarmed by the Minister’s comments that strongly suggested that those clauses will be revisited. That would be a shame because, after the good work done in the Lords, we were promised a period of reflection -perhaps it could be referred to as a pause, as we have had for other legislation-but that reflection will not have lasted long if the Government return with amendments. I caution them to extend the period of reflection before they hurry into repeating what was clearly a mistake. A clear majority in the House of Lords and a great majority of important organisations involved in child protection were not in favour of the proposed changes and made their feelings clear’.

6) I suggest, that in respect to any other aspects of life, (eg housing / transport / planning / environmental etc ) there is no existing  provision that permits a person who is  subject to either primary legislation or regulation to apply to the relevant Secretary of State for exemption from such statute or regulation. If I am correct in this I further suggest that it is exceedingly dangerous to 'experiment' with such an approach involving as it will children, and the likely hood of the removal of legal safeguards in existing legislation which are there to protect them (see the written evidence from Nagalro).

7) As the Independent chair of an Adoption Panel I note that the Government Minister, Lord Nash, stated at 2nd reading in the Lords (column 1203 14th July 2016) :

…. there is criticism that adoption and fostering panels which are only advisory add little value and can often delay the process of approving prospective carers. Exemption could allow local authorities to trial removing a potentially invasive and unnecessary requirement from one of the many layers of checking, leaving the agency decision-maker who currently makes the decision to exercise their professional judgment’.

8) However I draw attention to a survey conducted by CoramBaaf published in July 2016 (full details on their website), relating to the role of adoption panels in the ‘matching’ process. They found that the overwhelming majority of those participating in the survey were of the view that:

a) the panel is an important part of the process particularly for the child and the adopters. 

 b) they value the independent scrutiny and quality assurance of the agency's planning, the contact and support arrangements, and the information assembled in the reports.

c) they welcomed the advice offered and its influence on agency practice.

9) In respect of the proposed safeguards proffered by the Government following its defeat in the Lords (by 245 votes to 213), I would draw attention to the words of Ray Jones, professor of Social Work, Kingston University, in an article ( in the Guardian 15th November 2016) entitled ‘Justine Greening should withdraw the disastrous Children and Social Work Bill ‘.He questioned the genuine independence of any ‘expert panel’ created by proposed New Clause 6 of the Bill. He states:

10) ‘In 2014, the DfE created the Innovation Fund to promote new practice within children’s social care, with a board to oversee operations and set its strategic direction. It appointed three people with financial services and investment banking experience (one of whom was appointed as the board’s chair), plus Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children. The only person on this board with practical experience in children’s social care was the chief social worker.’

and

11) ‘When the government sought to promote and publish more serious case reviews the same year, it again appointed an "expert panel" to make it happen. The four members of  the panel were a journalist, a barrister, an air traffic accident investigator and a former career civil servant who had been chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund before becoming the head of the NSPCC. Not one of the panel had any frontline experience in child protection or its direct management.’

He concluded :

when the government appoints "experts" to oversee and direct children’s social services it has consistently considered commercial and financial expertise more relevant than direct experience.’

12) I suggest the views of Professor Jones require serious consideration particularly as he was the previous Director of Social S ervices of a Local A uthority (Wiltshire).

Clause 9 of the Bill

13) Clause 9 of the Bill now adds to subsection 4(f) of Section 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (which deals with relationships the child has with specified persons and to which the court or adoption agency must have regard) the following wording:  

'with any person who is a prospective adopter with whom the child is placed.’


14) The absence of a definition or clarification of the word 'placed' is troubling: does it mean formally ‘placed’ (as provided for by the Adoption Agency Regulations 2005) after the making of a Placement Order or could it be intended to include a placement with foster carers who are approved adopters under the 'foster to adopt provisions ' introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014? In the latter situation the child is of course ‘placed’ (using the dictionary definition of the word) with their intended prospective adopters.


15) If the latter it is concerning that the birth parent(s) of a child, initially voluntarily placed with foster carers under section 20 of the 1989 Act, could without having obtained any legal advice, and the Court not having yet made any order, see their child on a pathway to adoption. At the application for a Placement Order stage clause 9 would require (Sec 1(4) of the 2002 Act) the court to have regard to the relationship with the original foster carer who has always also been the prospective adopter of the child ( under the ‘foster to adopt’ process). The effect being that adoption could be almost ‘preordained’.

16) I respectfully query the need for Clause 9 at all as the existing legislation ie section 1(4)(f) of the 2002 Act, already requires the Court or Agency to have regard ‘to the relationship which the child has…. with any other person in relation to whom the court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant’.

Clause 33 of the Bill (Social Work England)

17) Despite Government assurances to the contrary I am concerned that the provisions in the Bill do not guarantee sufficiently that the regulator ‘Social Work England’ will genuinely be independent of the Government of the day. Social Work regulation should not, in my view, be ‘political’ (of whatever colour). 

January 2017

 

Prepared 9th January 2017