The Government has published new guidance on delivering children’s social care services during the COVID-19 crisis. Importantly, this includes details of the relaxation of certain legal duties that protect some of the country’s most vulnerable children and young people, and the circumstances in which these powers may be used.
As well as explaining what has changed, the National Children’s Bureau believes that it is just as important to identify which duties stay the same. We therefore welcome the clarity the guidance gives to local authorities, local safeguarding partners and providers, that most of the statutory duties under current legislation remain in place. We also support the Government for clarifying that the new powers should only be taken up as a last resort and that their use, and the reasons for doing so, should always be properly recorded.
However, NCB is concerned that the monitoring arrangements are not yet sufficiently robust to provide a clear picture of when and where these new powers are used. In some areas, these changes may already have been made, but so far there is no requirement for this information to be collected or analysed nationally. To get a clear understanding of the impact on children and young people, this needs to change.
NCB believes it should be reiterated that local authorities must continue to respect the fundamental principle of the existing legal framework: that decisions are made on a case-by-case consideration of the best interests of each individual child. As it stands, councils could mistakenly apply the powers in blanket fashion to all the children they care for. Similarly, the guidance should be unequivocal when it comes to the need for local authorities to continue other vital safeguarding activity such as Multi-agency Child Protection Conferences, throughout the crisis.
Furthermore, NCB urges the Government to assert clearly and consistently that these powers are temporary and are due to expire automatically on 25 September.
In relation to specific regulations and duties, more could be done to set out the level of care and diligence that authorities should exercise when applying these new powers. In some areas, such as the use of restraint in children’s homes, the guidance requires authorities to be mindful of issues including consent and involving children and young people in the development of processes. In other areas, such as duties to review the care of looked after children, there is little further detail.
While the new Government Guidance is a welcome step forward, there is more work to be done to ensure that giving local authorities more leeway does not place vulnerable children at greater risk.