Activism

Campaigners take government to court over kids' social work advice

Article 39 launched a judicial review against the Department for Education after new guidance suggested councils could relax procedures around children in care, despite the law

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Children’s charity Article 39 is launching High Court action against the British government for telling local councils that some responsibilities around children in care can be cut back.

In a “myth-busting” guide published last summer, the Department for Education (DfE) set out to address so-called misunderstandings of local authority obligations towards vulnerable children.

Article 39, which is launching a judicial review into the legality of the document, explained it is concerned by the muddying of protections around vulnerable children which seems to conflict with existing law and regulation – and could present serious risk to children in care.

Foster carers must receive at least one unannounced home visit a year as well as planned visits and support from social workers, according to statutory guidance. But the DfE’s myth-buster refers to just one annual visit as the minimum.

The document also advised councils that visits to children in long-term foster care could be reduce to just twice a year – despite the law saying this can only be done with the child’s consent.

The publication also seemed to relax rules around children who have run away. Councils were advised that they could be offered a visit from a social worker once they return home, but existing statutory guidance says this offer is mandatory.

Lawyers for the charity said the guidance could deprive children of the “fundamental support and protection” they need.

It came from the DfE’s innovation unit, which looks at new ways children’s social care can be shaped and improved.

Article 39 director Carolyne Willow said: “It is not good enough for the minister to say there have been no changes to the law and statutory guidance while at the same time leaving in circulation a document which indicates otherwise. Council duties towards vulnerable children cannot exist and not exist at the same time.

“We are a small charity and taking legal action is inevitably risky financially but we cannot stand by and leave it to vulnerable children to have to go to court to defend the rights that Parliament and successive governments have given them.”

Last year, 50 organisations wrote to the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi asking for parts of the document to be taken out of circulation, but he refused.

The minister said the guidance serves to “help practitioners provide targeted support for children and families”, and “does not seek to change anything in the current statutory framework for children’s social care”.

Labour’s shadow children’s minister Emma Lewell-Buck MP accused Zahawi of “cutting vulnerable children adrift”.

Today the Local Government Association (LGA) responded, with a spokesperson saying that the Association has “always supported the principle of allowing highly trained, experienced professionals the flexibility to test new approaches within … an extensively regulated environment.”

The spokesperson pointed to the massive deficit in funding for local authorities as a reason for new ways to provide social care to be considered: “With councils facing a £3.1bn funding gap for children’s services by 2025 and overspending their children’s social care budgets by more than £800 million in the last year alone, it is more important than ever that scarce resources are effectively targeted at the areas that will make the biggest difference for children and families.

“But it is important that any questions around the accuracy of elements of this advice are clarified as soon as possible, so that councils and their residents can be confident that any action taken is fully in line with current legislation and guidance.”

They also noted that it is important for Ofsted to monitor new practices as they emerge. The DfE would not comment on the issue but confirmed that it had received the application for judicial review.

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