Children in care at risk since coronavirus crisis, say campaigners | Society

Changes to legal protections for children in care, introduced by the UK government as an emergency response to the coronavirus crisis, have been condemned as “deregulation on steroids” by children’s rights campaigners.

Activists described the decision to relax 10 key sets of regulations, developed over decades to protect the most vulnerable children in society, as an “outrageous assault on safeguards” and warned that children would be harmed.

One of the key relaxations, which came into force last Friday, is the removal of the requirement for a social worker to visit – or even telephone – a child in care every six weeks, reducing it to “as soon as is reasonably practicable”.

The requirement for a six-monthly review of a child’s care, introduced following the manslaughter of the 12-year-old Dennis O’Neill by his foster carers in 1944, has been similarly relaxed, and adoption and fostering panels which allow for independent scrutiny have become optional.

The government says the measures are temporary – expiring on 25 September – and will allow overstretched children’s services greater flexibility, but there are fears that the coronavirus crisis is being used as an excuse to relax children’s social care duties and the expiry date could be revoked.

Labour’s Tulip Siddiq has written to the children’s minister Vicky Ford calling on the government to publish data to show the impact on vulnerable children. Her Labour colleague Emma Lewell-Buck has posted a series of parliamentary questions to find out more about the process which led to the amendments. “They are using this pandemic to experiment with vulnerable children,” she said.

The measures were introduced by the government as part of emergency coronavirus legislation, via a statutory instrument. Campaigners are concerned there was no public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny and they say many of the changes have been proposed by the government before.

Carolyne Willow, the director of Article 39, a charity that campaigns for the rights of children in institutional settings, said it was “deregulation on steroids”.

She said: “This outright assault on safeguards protecting the most vulnerable children is outrageous. Safeguards are there to protect children from harm, so it goes without saying that these changes forced through without any public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny will harm children.

“The government has produced no evidence to back up its claim that changes to 10 different sets of regulations are in response to the pressures of lockdown. It has also conveniently omitted to mention that this is the fourth time since 2016 that ministers have tried to impose mass deregulation in children’s social care.”

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of Just for Kids Law, added: “At this time of national crisis, in its role as corporate parent the government should be going the extra mile for every child in care. It’s astonishing that isn’t the case and truly shocking that instead government has chosen to weaken the support offered to some of the country’s most vulnerable children.”

There is growing concern about vulnerable children during lockdown. Schools have remained open to them, as well as children of key workers, to provide some protection but the numbers attending are small. Latest figures show 10% of children “in need” and those with education, health and care plans are turning up at school – up from 5% earlier in the pandemic.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “While the vast majority of statutory duties remain unchanged, we have reviewed our regulations to allow some temporary flexibility, to be used where absolutely necessary, to help reduce pressure on the system and enable children’s services to continue to support vulnerable children during the coronavirus outbreak.”

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