04 May 2020

Controversial emergency child protection laws in England could harm children across the globe

The UK Government has come under attack from international child rights campaigners after making emergency legal changes which affect the way children in the English care system are looked after during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Houses of Parliament, London

 
Emergency legislation removing ten sets of protections for children in care until 25 September, and which were passed this week with no public consultation or parliamentary debate, have been described as an attack on the rights of children in England—and could have serious implications for children across the world.

Hope and Homes for Children fears the reforms could set a dangerous precedent that other countries might follow.

Alongside the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield (OBE), we are supporting calls for the laws to be reversed immediately.

 

“Emergency legislation… described as an attack on the rights of children in England could have serious implications for children across the world”

 

Mark Waddington, Hope and Homes for Children’s CEO, explained: “At a time when other countries around the world are reinforcing their child protection systems, it’s extremely alarming to see England weakening safeguards which are supposed to shield its most vulnerable children.

“Evidence is emerging on a global scale that vulnerable children are becoming more invisible during lockdown, and are increasingly at risk of abuse, neglect, trafficking and modern slavery.

“The UK Government has built a reputation for being a world leader in child protection reform—including becoming one of the first nations to formally pledge to eliminate orphanages in 2018—but this week’s hasty legal changes to England’s childcare system risks damaging this status.”

For children living in vulnerable families outside of the UK, Coronavirus is not just a health crisis—it places them at urgent risk of losing their homes and childhoods to the neglect of an orphanage. The eight million children already confined to orphanages are facing increased levels of abuse, harm and infection due to staff shortages. These children are voiceless, forgotten and need our help now.

 

“At a time when other countries around the world are reinforcing their child protection systems, it’s extremely alarming to see England weakening safeguards”

 

Mark added: “The temporary reforms in England contradict the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK is a signatory, and the UN Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children. This sets a dangerous precedent that other countries might follow.

“More than ever, vulnerable children in England, and across the globe, need the UK Government to demonstrate real political courage and commitment. As a major donor country, in a position of influence, the UK must set an example globally.

“This crisis must not remove protections from vulnerable children and families. It must strengthen them.”

Child protection services across the world are experiencing challenging working conditions during the pandemic, with many frontline workers going beyond the call of duty to keep children safe.

 

“As a major donor country, in a position of influence, the UK must set an example globally.”

 

While contact with children during the lockdown must predominantly happen remotely using mobile telecommunication technology, the Children’s Commissioner for England is concerned about the following changes being made in England:

  • The requirement that social workers must visit children living in care, or who are privately fostered, in accordance with strict statutory timescales—within one week when they have gone into care, and every six weeks for the year after that—have been relaxed. Now if they are unable to visit within the timescales they must do so as soon as ‘reasonably practicable’ thereafter. This applies even if the ‘visits’ are done by phone or video call.
  • Requirements to review plans for children in care to set timescales have been relaxed, meaning that children will not have this opportunity to raise issues about their care and to have this independently scrutinised.
  • Children’s Homes can now enforce the deprivation of liberty of children if they are showing symptoms of Coronavirus, in accordance with the Coronavirus Act. Guidance for Children’s Homes and Public Health Officers on how this can be enforced, and setting out a clear scheme for how these deprivations will be monitored will be essential to ensure children’s rights are protected.
  • The independent panels which approve foster carers and adoption placements have become optional, removing a layer of scrutiny for these highly important decisions.
  • Local Authorities can now approve anyone who meets the requirements as a temporary foster carer, rather than only those who are connected to a child, such as friends or family, as was the case previously.
  • Independent visits to Children’s Homes no longer have to occur monthly, so long as ‘reasonable endeavours are made’ to do so, and Ofsted inspections no longer need to take place twice per year.
  • Children can be placed with emergency foster carers—who will be approved as carers, but may for example not be approved to care for the number of children placed with them—for 24 weeks rather than the usual six days.
  • Children can now be placed in a ‘short break’ placement for up to 75 days, rather than the usual 17, with reduced requirements on visits and care plans.
  • Decisions to place children into care outside their local area with connected foster carers do not need to be approved by a nominated officer—this now also applies to those approved as temporary carers, who may not be connected to the child.