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Legislative update 1: Children and Social Work Bill

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on the government’s plans for vulnerable and looked after children, as current proposals clear the Lords Committee stage

After five days of Committee in Grand Committee, the Children and Social Work Bill now hides away until October – when it will come to the floor of the Lords for Report. Debates so far have been characterised by broad-based opposition to the more controversial proposals. Crossbenchers and LibDems have joined us to back amendments on issues of concern to councils and charities which deliver support for some of society’s most vulnerable young people.

Part 1 of the Bill is dominated by a proposal to give the Education Secretary additional powers to exempt a local authority from requirements under social care legislation. These could apply for up to three years and be extended by a further three. But to exercise such powers would require new regulations, with some approved without a full debate and vote in Parliament.

Labour has led opposition to this issue in Committee, working with others to try and rule out profit-making for children’s social care functions. The government has to date failed to explain how G4S or Serco would be prevented from establishing a not-for-profit subsidiary to deliver their services.

As with existing outsourcing in other spheres of council services, the local authority would retain ultimate responsibility. Previous experience shows that the organisation taking on delivery can end the contract unilaterally, leaving the council to pick up the pieces while children suffer. There is real determination across political lines to pin ministers down on this matter, with more to come at Report.

Part 2 of the Bill is threadbare. To such an extent that we took the unusual step of tabling an amendment at Second Reading to highlight this fact. Ministers are increasingly playing fast and loose with parliamentary procedure by submitting bills that have been hurriedly put together and with large gaps to be filled later on by regulation. Anger at the blatant use of such practice has seen trenchant criticism from both the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.

While all of this has been water off a duck’s back to the government, a change of tack may follow the withering comments of my colleague Phillip Hunt at the final session of Committee on proposed changes to the regulation of social workers. The existing governance model for health care professions is a longstanding arrangement to ensure distance from ministers and to enable regulators to independently discharge their primary function – the protection of the public.

Earlier this year however, Nicky Morgan announced that a new body would take responsibility for all social work standards, training and regulation – including of those who work with adults and those not in public employment. This announcement was made without any detailed consultation with interested parties in the profession. So we are seeking a meeting with the new Education Secretary, Justine Greening in the hope that she will see sense and back off.

Backing off however, will not be in our minds when the debate on this ill-thought out Bill resumes in October, with Labour Peers set to lead the way on ensuring it is in better shape before it proceeds to the Commons.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 20th July 2016

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