Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Written evidence submitted by the Local Government Association (CSWB 53)

1. About the Local Government Association (LGA)

1.1. The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We work with councils to support, promote and improve local government. We are a politically led, cross-party organisation which works on behalf of councils to ensure local government has a strong, credible voice with national government.

1.2. We aim to influence and set the political agenda on the issues that matter to councils so they are able to deliver local solutions to national problems. The LGA covers every part of England and Wales, supporting local government as the most efficient and accountable part of the public sector.

2. Summary

Looked-after children (Part 1, Chapter 1):

2.1. The LGA supports the Bill’s strong focus on support for children in care, including provisions to clarify corporate parenting principles, create a clear local offer for care leavers, and extend personal adviser support for all care leavers up until the age of 25. We agree that this local commitment should be matched at national level, and we therefore supported the principle behind the creation of a national offer for care leavers, as outlined in New Clause 16 led by Emma Lewell-Buck MP. However, new burdens must be fully funded to ensure that resources are not diverted from other services for vulnerable children, which are already considerably over-stretched.

2.2. The provisions outlined in clauses 8 and 9 reflect existing good practice, ensuring that courts and social workers focus on children’s long-term interests when planning care. The broader emphasis on permanence is particularly welcome, allowing placement decisions to be firmly based on the needs of individual children and young people.

Child safeguarding (Part 1, Chapter 2):

2.3. The recent Wood Review recommends that the current system of serious case reviews be replaced by a more flexible programme of local learning reviews supported by a national panel to consider more serious cases. The LGA supports this general approach, but we are concerned that the provisions outlined in the Bill risk politicising the serious case review process. Therefore we supported amendments 35 and 40, led by Emma Lewell-Buck MP, which sought to limit the role of the Secretary of State in determining the detailed processes for conducting local reviews of serious cases. The detail of these decisions should be left to the discretion of locally accountable agencies under the broad framework already established in the Bill.

2.4. Councils remain committed to providing the best possible care for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, including those who have been identified for resettlement in their area at a future date. It is right that all partners share this commitment, and we supported amendment 16 led by Stella Creasy MP, Caroline Lucas MP and Emma Lewell-Buck MP.

Personal, social and health education (new clause)

2.5. We support the principle of increased access to personal, social and health education (PSHE) for children. When designed and delivered effectively, evidence suggests that these lessons have a positive impact on pupil wellbeing and can be a valuable element of a robust local safeguarding strategy. However, we are concerned that the amendment as currently drafted places a duty on local authorities without providing the powers necessary to enact it, and contains no provision for parental choice.

Different ways of working (new clauses):

2.6. Freedom to innovate can be a powerful tool in improving outcomes for children and young people, and we strongly support the principle of allowing councils to shape provision around the needs of children and young people rather than the constraints of inflexible legislation.

2.7. The powers set out by the Government should only be used where this is clearly shown to be in best interests of children, and we are pleased that the Government has more clearly linked these to the corporate parenting principles outlined in clause one. We are also pleased that provisions have been removed that would have allowed the Secretary of State to make these decisions on behalf of a council in intervention. In light of this, and the additional safeguards introduced by the Government in earlier stages of the Bill, we welcome the ability for councils to test the new ways of working and we support its inclusion in the Bill.

2.8. However, we remain concerned that there is currently no mention of local government representation on the expert panel that will oversee these applications. This is crucial to ensure that the process is informed by expertise from within the sector, which we feel is essential for the credibility of the process.

Secure children’s homes (new clause)

2.9. Secure children’s homes perform a vital role in providing support and protection for some of our most vulnerable children and young people. But provision is currently limited, with just a handful of homes providing this valuable service in England, the majority run by individual local authorities which bear a significant financial and reputational risks to provide what is essentially a national service.

2.10. While we are clear that more work is needed to improve the level of provision available in England, we recognise the problems caused by the gap in existing legislation recently identified by the High Court. We, therefore, support amendments 9 to 15, NC1 and NS1, led by Ed Timpson MP, which amends legislation to allow local authorities in England and Wales to place children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and makes provision relating to the placement by local authorities in Scotland of children in secure accommodation in England and Wales.

Regulation of social workers (Part 2):

2.11. We previously raised concerns that the new social work regulator would not have the guaranteed independence necessary to balance the needs of the public; requirements set by the Government; the interests of the profession; and the organisational requirements of employers who will have overall management responsibilities. We are pleased the Government has addressed these concerns, but much will depend on how the regulator operates in practice.

Background

3. Looked-after children

3.1. These clauses consolidate and clarify existing corporate parenting principles, require local authorities to publish information on their local offer for care leavers, and extend personal adviser support to care leavers up the age of 25. Corporate parenting is one of the most important roles a council has and it is right that looked-after children and care leavers know what support is available to them. We agree that this local commitment should be matched at national level, and we supported the principle behind the creation of a national offer for care leavers, as outlined in new clause 16 led by Emma Lewell-Buck MP. However, any new burdens must be funded accordingly.

3.2. Extending personal advisers for care leavers up to the age of 25 is a positive step. However, new burdens funding is needed to ensure that funding is not simply diverted from other children’s services, which are already over-stretched. Councils in England currently look after 69,500 children who are unable to live with their birth parents, a figure that has increased by just under 2,500 over the past three years. [1] Over 3,000 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in the UK during the year ending September 2016, [2] and councils were providing care and support for more than 4,000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children at 31 March 2016. [3] LGA analysis has identified a £1.9 billion funding gap in children’s services by 2020. [4]

3.3. National minimum standards for the local offer and regulations for personal advisers could create unnecessary and costly bureaucracy. Local authorities are already held to account for the performance of their children’s services through the inspection process, with a particular focus on services for looked-after children and care leavers. Further national regulation may hamper local authorities’ ability to respond flexibly to the specific needs of their population of care leavers.

3.4. The focus on children’s long-term interests is positive. It is especially welcome that the Bill includes not just adoption but other types of long-term placement. Adoption is not right for every child. Local and central government must continue to strive to improve the experience of all children in care, whether looked after by friends or family, in foster care, a special guardianship arrangement, or in residential care.

4. Child safeguarding

4.1. The recent Wood Review of local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) recommended that the current system of serious case reviews be replaced by a more flexible programme of local learning reviews and a national panel to consider more serious cases. We welcome this approach, as the current system delivers poor outcomes in terms of learning for the considerable time and cost involved.

4.2. However, we are concerned that the panel outlined in the Bill is too closely controlled by the Secretary of State, which risks politicising the serious case review process. Reviews must be fully independent of government control to ensure they are able to consider whether changes are required at both national and local level without fear or favour. We, therefore, supported amendments 35 and 40, led by Emma Lewell-Buck MP, which sought to limit the role of the Secretary of State in determining the detailed processes for conducting local reviews of serious cases. This should be left to the discretion of locally accountable agencies under the broad framework already established in the Bill.

4.3. We are pleased that the Government has listened to our concerns and amended the Bill to ensure that local child safeguarding practice reviews focus on identifying systemic improvements rather than individual errors. The systems-approach for undertaking these reviews was designed, in part, to move away from a blame culture and instead provide practical recommendations to ensure that such incidents do not happen again. Failings and poor practice in relation to child protection must be always be identified and addressed, but it is important to be clear that practice reviews are not inquiries into who is culpable for a child coming to harm.

5. Safeguarding unaccompanied refugee children

5.1. We are supportive of the Government’s plan to publish a safeguarding strategy by May 2017. It is positive that this will outline their plan to recruit and train more foster carers to support the increasing number of UASCs. In 2016, the Fostering Network estimated a shortfall of 9,000 foster carers to fully meet the needs of looked-after children already in local authority care. [5]

5.2. Councils have an important role in supporting families, children and vulnerable adults who are seeking asylum. We already look after more than 4,000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children in England and are also supporting the children and young people arriving from refugee camps in Europe and areas around Syria. We have supported the voluntary national transfer scheme to ensure unaccompanied children are placed more fairly across the country as a means to ensure that vulnerable children will have access to the services and support they need. It is right that all partners share this commitment, and we supported amendment 16 led by Stella Creasy MP, Caroline Lucas MP and Emma Lewell-Buck MP.

5.3. The challenges faced by councils in caring for unaccompanied children relate to the availability of foster placements, access to therapeutic support, legal advice, interpreters and school places. The Government has recognised that it is vital that the scheme is clearly linked to other existing programmes for supporting refugees and asylum seekers, alongside related issues such as trafficking, keeping children safe, and bringing communities together.

6. Personal, social and health education

6.1. We support the principle of increased access to PSHE for children. When designed and delivered effectively, evidence suggests that these lessons have a positive impact on pupil wellbeing and can be a valuable element of a robust local safeguarding strategy. However, we are concerned that the amendment as currently drafted places a duty on local authorities without providing the powers necessary to enact it. Academies and free schools, which make up 18 per cent of primary and 65 per cent of secondary schools, fall outside of local authority influence. Any duty should, therefore, fall upon schools themselves, rather than local authorities, to make sure that PSHE is embedded in all school curriculums, rather than being dependent on school structure.

6.2. Additionally, we are conscious that some parents may wish to remove their children from some or all PSHE lessons for religious or personal reasons. Any amendment introducing the compulsory provision of PSHE should include provision for parents to opt their children out of lessons, if they consider this to be in the best interests of their child.

7. Residential care

7.1. Residential care is a crucial part of the care system, and we welcome the recent Narey Review and the strong focus that it placed on improving that care and support that children and young people in children’s homes receive. We are clear that, while fostering and adoption can provide a fantastic family environment for a great many children and young people, they are not necessarily the right option for every child.

7.2. The question of whether to extend Staying Put to children in residential care was a key focus of the review, which identified significant legal, practical and financial challenges – including the safeguarding of younger children – that would need to be overcome. Narey instead recommended that the Government trial varieties of a ‘Staying Close’ model, where young people would live independently but in close proximity to the children’s home while continuing to receive ongoing support from a key worker from their previous home and making frequent visits to the home.

7.3. The LGA is in favour of this recommendation, and we do not therefore support new clause 12 from Steve McCabe MP, which seeks to extend Staying Put to residential care.

8. Different ways of working

8.1. We support greater freedoms for local authorities to innovate. The children’s social care landscape has changed significantly since the last major legislative reform brought about by the Children Act 2004. The structural landscape has also changed considerably and continues to do so, with greater devolution and combined authorities offering the potential for new delivery models that may not fit comfortably within the existing legislative framework. It is important that local practice leaders are able to design services around the changing needs of local children and young people.

8.2. Any decision to exempt an authority from social care legislation must be clearly shown to be in the best interests of local children and young people, and we are pleased that the Government has more clearly linked these to the corporate parenting principles outlined in clause one. With the proposed introduction of an expert panel, alongside greater parliamentary scrutiny, the LGA was satisfied that the process the Government had outlined would be subject to sufficiently strong safeguards. We were pleased the Government listened to arguments made by the LGA and stated during earlier stages in the Bill that the expert panel would include representation from the voluntary sector, a practice expert, and local government. [6] We want to see local government representation included on the face of the Bill, alongside the Children’s Commissioner and Chief Inspector.

8.3. We are delighted that the clause concerning local authorities in intervention was removed by the House of Lords. During earlier stages of the Bill, we had raised concerns that the Secretary of State would have powers to remove legislative provisions from a local authority in intervention without any form of local democratic scrutiny or consultation with local partners.

9. Profit-making in children’s services

9.1. We remain of the view that limited capacity exists for child protection services to be delivered by external organisations. The complex tasks of child protection do not readily attract commercial or not-for-profit providers. However, it is crucial that we do not create a situation where the easy or profitable aspects of children's services are cherry-picked, leaving councils with an unmanageable portfolio of disjointed and risky services. The experience of our members with roles in the education and criminal justice sectors shows this is a valid and substantial concern.

9.2. Therefore we support the Government’s amendment to the powers to innovate which makes it clear that the prohibition on profit-making bodies delivering these functions will remain in place.

10. Secure accommodation

10.1. Secure children’s homes perform a vital role in providing support and protection for some of our most vulnerable children and young people. But provision is currently limited, with just a handful of homes providing this valuable service in England, the majority run by individual local authorities which bear a significant financial and reputational risks to provide what is essentially a national service.

10.2. Demand for welfare beds within these homes has been increasing significantly in recent years, partly due to a growing need for a safe and secure environment to work with children at risk in particular circumstances, such as child sexual exploitation, and partly due to a lack of availability of other forms of specialist support for particularly high need children, such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). As demand increases, some extremely vulnerable children are experiencing greater delays in receiving the help they need.

10.3. While we are clear that more work is needed to improve the level of provision available in England, we recognise the problems caused by the gap in existing legislation recently identified by the High Court. [7] We, therefore, support amendments 9 to 15, NC1 and NS1, led by Ed Timpson MP, which amends legislation to allow local authorities in England and Wales to place children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and makes provision relating to the placement by local authorities in Scotland of children in secure accommodation in England and Wales.

10.4. In the long-term, there must be a move towards more integrated commissioning of these placements alongside child and adolescent mental health services. Too many children are still unable to access dedicated mental health support when they need it, and it is vital that the system is joined up to make sure that any child experiencing mental health issues gets the most appropriate support as quickly as possible, to avoid problems escalating to this stage.

11. Regulation of social workers

11.1. Good social work can transform people’s lives and protect them from harm. In order to achieve consistently high quality outcomes social workers must have and maintain the skills and knowledge to establish effective relationships with children, adults and families, professionals in a range of agencies and settings, and members of the public. A balance needs to found between greater regulation and encouraging experienced social workers to remain or return to the profession.

11.2. The scope of the proposed agency in the draft regulations published is too wide and risks a conflict of priorities between a register and a professional standards body. There remains a compelling case for a separate professional standards body and a pressing need to focus on improvement in order to attract, retain, and develop the best people.

11.3. We previously raised concerns that the new social work regulator would not have the guaranteed independence necessary to balance the needs of the public; requirements set by the Government; the interests of the profession; and the organisational requirements of employers who will have overall management responsibilities. We are pleased the Government has addressed these concerns, but much will depend on how the regulator operates in practice. The LGA, as employers, and ADCS and ADASS, as representative professional bodies for the senior members of the social work profession, should be involved in the design on a new regulator.

January 2017


[1] Children looked after in England including adoptions, DFE, September 2016

[2] National Statistics – asylum, 1 December 2016:

[3] Children looked after in England including adoptions, DFE, September 2016

[4] Submission to the Autumn Statement 2016, LGA, October 2016

[5] Fostering Network media release, January 2016

[6] House of Lords debate, 8th November 2017 https://goo.gl/6qPFxI

[7] High Court judgement http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/2271.html

 

Prepared 9th January 2017