Yesterday (Thursday 30 April), Minister for Children and Families Vicky Ford wrote to the Guardian about how the government is making sure vulnerable children are protected during the coronavirus pandemic. Her letter can be read in full below.
This includes making a small number of temporary amendments to legislation – only to be used when absolutely necessary – so that where social workers cannot work as they did before, they can still make pragmatic decisions in the interest of children’s safety.
Minister for Children and Families Vicky Ford said:
The Government’s priority for vulnerable children now, as it always has been, is to keep them safe and put their best interests at the heart of every decision.
COVID-19 has put new pressures on children’s social care. We have seen the impact of this virus on our frontline public services. We must make sure every safeguarding professional can react to the pressures they face in these unprecedented times – which may increase still as we enter the recovery phase.
As a responsible Government, we must protect services and enable them to respond to the greatest need. We have worked across the children’s social care sector to develop legislation to do so. In cases where social workers cannot work as they did before, we are allowing them to make pragmatic decisions through minor, temporary amendments to regulations, while always keeping children’s safety paramount.
The vast majority of regulations remain unchanged. Any amendments should only to be used when absolutely necessary, with senior management oversight, and must be consistent with the overarching safeguarding and welfare duties that remain in place. They will remain in place only for so long as needed.
Our focus remains fixed on protecting all vulnerable children. The duties on local authorities and providers to report their decision-making remains the same. Ofsted inspections continue where there are safeguarding concerns. And new teams are working around the country to improve our understanding about the risks facing these children.
I hope these flexibilities will not have to be used. But it is my responsibility to those who care for our most vulnerable children and families to provide the necessary tools to make the right decisions during these challenging times.
The Department continues working with the sector, listening to all those who raise concerns. Ahead of guidance on children’s social care being published next week, we have responded to a number of claims being made about these regulations below.
Claim: Temporary amendments to children’s social care regulations remove legal protections for children in care.
This is false. Any of these temporary amendments should only be used only when absolutely necessary and must be consistent with the overarching safeguarding and welfare statutory duties that remain in place.
Claim: The government is trying to introduce ‘mass deregulation’ without parliamentary scrutiny.
Absolutely not. The small number of temporary amendments were developed with organisations in the children’s social care sector. They will remain in place only for so long as needed.
We have made no amendments to primary legislation, and the vast majority of statutory duties in secondary legislation remain unchanged.
Claim: The temporary amendments have been made without consultation and without notice.
We have worked at pace with the children’s social care sector and with Ofsted to develop a number of temporary amendments. These are unprecedented times requiring urgent response so that safeguarding professionals can do their jobs effectively in the face of enormous challenges.
Claim: Social workers and local authorities say these temporary amendments are unnecessary.
Any flexibilities in the regulations should only be used if absolutely necessary and are there to protect services while also prioritising children’s safety. In the past few weeks, we have seen that the pressures on services vary according to area, according to the local impact of the virus and measures taken to prevent its spread.
Claim: Social workers no longer need to visit children living in care within strict timescales, only when ‘reasonably practicable’ – even if visits are by phone or video call.
Statutory timescales remain in place. Social workers must always endeavour to work to meet these timescales. In the small number of cases where they cannot meet them, they should be able to demonstrate that they cannot meet them. If a child or carer has concerns about a visit not taking place, they can raise this with their Independent Reviewing Officer, an advocate or mentor.
Claim: Timescales for review plans for children in care have been relaxed, meaning children’s care is not being independently scrutinised.
Regulations remains unchanged wherever a child raises a concern, or others raise concerns that a child may be at risk – including an Independent Reviewing Officer. In these circumstances, reviews must still be carried out as before.
Claim: Staff in children’s homes now only need to have the knowledge and skills to care for children ‘as far as reasonably practical’.
Requirements for every staff member to have the appropriate experience, qualifications and skills for their particular role is unchanged. They must also meet requirements as to their fitness to work. The temporary amendment applies only to specialist non-NHS care related to health or development and do not permit a reduction in the standard of care.
Claim: The independent panels which approve foster carers and adoption placements have become optional, removing scrutiny of these decisions.
These panels do not make the decisions on adoption or foster care. They make recommendations to the agency decision makers, who must decide whether or not a case should be referred to a panel. All decisions must be consistent with the overarching safeguarding and welfare duties that remain in place.
Claim: Independent visits to Children’s Homes no longer have to occur monthly and Ofsted inspections no longer need to take place twice a year.
Ofsted inspections continue wherever a safeguarding concern is raised. We have built in temporary flexibility on timings to limit the number of people entering settings during Covid-19 restrictions.
We have also set up teams to gather data on vulnerable children’s school attendance and to get a fuller picture of any risks facing these children to improve council practice.
Claim: Children can be placed with emergency foster carers for too long and without scrutiny.
This is not true. There will continue to be the same scrutiny of emergency foster carers. The maximum length of placement has been extended to help ensure that all children needing a placement will be able to get one, should there be a need for additional places due to Covid-19, and to avoid children having to move from placement to placement.
Claim: Children’s homes can deprive a child of his or her liberty if they are showing symptoms of coronavirus.
A children’s home cannot itself deprive a child of their liberty if they are showing symptoms of coronavirus. This decision can only be made by a Public Health Officer who has the power to impose proportionate requirements including screening and isolation if any individual has a suspected or confirmed case of the virus. Any decision should be kept under review and must take account of the child’s wellbeing. It is important that all people, including children, follow the advice of Public Health England on self-isolation in order to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Claim: ‘Short break’ placements for children are now allowed for too long with reduced requirements on visits and care plans.
The annual limit of 75 days in any one year remains. We have removed the restriction on no single placement being longer than 17 days to allow for longer placements during Covid-19, so that children do not have to move as frequently.
Claim: Decisions to place children into care outside their local area will no longer need to be approved by a nominated officer.
Any decision to place a child with a non-connected person will still be subject to strict and extensive assessment by the local authority of their suitability, their background and their circumstances. This flexibility is available in cases where additional scrutiny by a nominated officer would delay a child from being placed with an appropriate and approved carer.