A Bill of wrongs

Bev HughesBeverley Hughes on the need to make a better deal for all children and their families

It is welcome, finally, to have a Bill on children’s wellbeing – especially from an Education Secretary who has so far has shown little interest in children’s lives outside the classroom. Indeed, if anything, Michael Gove has presided over the decimation of many children’s services.

The context for this legislation is the disastrous impact on vulnerable children and young people of the Coalition government’s wider policies on welfare and employment; and with falling incomes and higher prices stretching family budgets to the limit. Not an issue for millionaire Cabinet Ministers of course, but bringing real hardship to ordinary families that will see child poverty rise again by 2015. There is nothing, sadly, in the government’s thinking that will alleviate those hardships. 

The Bill deals with a number of important issues for children and families: adoption, family law, childcare, the role of the Children’s Commissioner, special educational provisions and family-friendly employment measures. And as far as it goes, there is much with which we can agree. For the most part however, it is a lost opportunity.

Plans to extend family-friendly employment measures are welcome, building as they do on Labour’s progressive record. But the Coalition is falling short on widening access to leave, particularly for fathers – something we will press hard for. 

Proposals to enable public and private sector organisations to set up new childminder agencies need careful examination, not least because the childminders involved would not be inspected by Ofsted. We all know what happened in Haringey when Ofsted undertook such desktop inspections – a clean bill of health followed by Peter Connolly’s death. 

The adoption measures also build on our reforms. It is unacceptable that it still takes, on average, two and a half years for a child in the care system to be placed for adoption, so we welcome attempts to reduce unnecessary delay. But speed should not come at the expense of good quality decisions about individual children and safeguards must be put in place.

The biggest section of the Bill, part 3, sees the government renege on its intentions, outlined in the Green Paper, to radically reform services for all disabled children. The Bill as drafted cannot meet those aspirations. Not our words but those of the Special Education Consortium and the Every Disabled Child Matters Alliance.

Bizarrely, the Bill does not apply to all disabled children, excluding those without a special educational need (SEN) or who are detained in youth custody. This cannot be justified. Children with a major physical disability, for example, have just as much need for services integrated across education, health and care as children with SEN. The barriers to their educational progress can be just as serious.

Also, the new system would apply only to tiny minority of children with SEN, compared to the 13% statemented currently. The remaining 1.4 million, together with those without an SEN, will have to seek services from a directory published in their local area. But that gives no guarantees and Ministers are refusing to specify minimum standards, with parents set to face the same postcode lottery as they do now.

Our other serious concerns with the legislation include the abolition of current services, the restriction of health services to SEN, the failure to continue support through higher education, the erosion of current entitlements for many children, personal budgets and PSHE.

When the Bill was in the Commons, the government showed itself remarkably resistant to addressing these shortcomings. In the months ahead however, Labour Lords will work with Peers from across the House to make this a better deal for all disabled children and their families. 

Baroness Beverley Hughes is Shadow Children and Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 2nd July 2013

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