Guest post by Professor Kathryn Hollingsworth
In June, the Department of Education launched a consultation to amend the legal framework that protects children in need. The proposals came out of The Munro Review of Child Protection, which was part of the Government’s response to the death of Peter Connelly (Baby P) in Haringey in 2007. However, although the Munro report was supposed to be concerned only with child protection – that is, children at risk of harm – recommendations were also made to change the assessment process for children in need. The category of child in need is much wider than that of children at risk: it covers all disabled children, and can also include trafficked children, unaccompanied asylum seekers and other vulnerable children facing difficulties such as parental neglect, street homelessness, and mental health problems.
The effect of the proposals, should they be introduced, will be to cut down the statutory guidance for child in need assessments. This is described as ‘red-tape reduction’ by the Government but it is much more than that – it will remove the requirement that a child in need assessment result in a ‘realistic plan of action’, and will abolish the existing time limits placed on local authorities to carry out child in need assessments (currently, an initial assessment must be carried out in 7 days and a full assessment in 35). These are not technical legal issues; they are key procedural protections for vulnerable children to secure from local authorities the support needed to protect their welfare.
The issue of rising numbers of children being taken into care in the North East has featured in several articles recently in The Journal Newspaper. Three of these articles can be found here, here and here. In response to a letter from North East local authorities raising these concerns, Tim Loughton, the Children’s Minister responded by stating that “It is for local authorities to manage increases and decreases in demand from within their own budgets, and we have no plans to introduce contingency funds to manage the current pressures you describe.”
Under the new proposals, one of the ways that local authorities could attempt to manage the ‘increases and decreases in demand’ would be to spend less time on assessment if there is no requirement that any action be ‘realistic’. Similarly, with no time limit in place for carrying out a child in need assessment, local authorities could potentially not assess cases until they experience a ‘decrease in demand’, however long that may be.
The government’s own risk assessment recognises this potential and states that “there is a risk of negative impact on children if central government is less prescriptive.” As the Every Child in Need wbsite states, this is a risk we shouldn’t be taking.
What can you do?
A group of concerned lawyers and children’s rights organisations have established the Every Child in Need Campaign to try to stop these proposals. More information about the proposals and about what action you can take if you agree with our concerns can be found on the Campaign’s informative website http://www.everychildinneed.org.uk/
There is also an e-petition that people can sign here.
Please get involved with this campaign if you can and, if anyone would like to discuss it further, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Newcastle Law School