Beverley Hughes on why the many changes made to the Children and Families Bill show the Lords at its best
The Children and Families Bill that arrived from the Commons in the House of Lords last July was virtually the same bill that the Coalition had published months earlier, despite hours of scrutiny by MPs. It had many significant flaws but the Children’s Minister had rejected all but one of the amendments put forward.
So as Peers began their deliberations, and despite a welcome attempt to improve some important areas of children’s policy and services, there were some serious problems with the legislation proposed. The new arrangements for integrating education, health and social care for children with special needs for example, inexplicably excluded disabled children with no educational need; and also all young offenders in custody – a group whose high level of special educational need (SEN) is well known. In its enthusiasm to promote fostering-for-adoption placements, the government had completely eclipsed the importance of family and friends as first options for children who cannot live with their parents. The Bill also proposed a power by diktat for the Secretary of State to out-source all adoption services at a stroke. And there were glaring omissions on important modern risks to children’s health and well-being.
The Bill returning to the Commons today is radically different, with a remarkable number of significant changes achieved during its time in the Lords. The adoption policy has shifted substantially, with an amendment to require kinship care to be considered as a first option in every case; and the outsourcing power has been curtailed. And Ministers finally agreed to extend nationally the pilots set up by the last Labour government to enable young people to remain with their foster carers beyond the age of 18, by accepting the ‘Staying Put’ amendment.
The arrangements proposed for children with SEN will now apply to detained young people and, in part at least, to all disabled youngsters. Equal responsibility to deliver the services identified in an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan now applies to all three agencies, rather than just education and health. We had a last minute concession that recognises that in contesting a plan, parents should not have to go down the separate appeal processes that currently apply to education, health and care. Schools will have to recognise and respond to the needs of children with long-term medical conditions.
But it is perhaps the Lords’ additions to the Bill that have most dramatically enhanced protection for children. Young carers and parent carers now have parity with the improvements for adult carers introduced in the Care Bill. The amendments to bring in standardised tobacco packaging, and the successful Lords vote to ban smoking in cars with children (which we hope will be endorsed in the Commons this afternoon), will make a significant difference to children’s well-being and hopefully reduce take up of smoking.
Despite this progress, there were some regrettable lost opportunities. Our amendment to make sex and relationship education compulsory in schools was a measured response to the well publicised and increasing dangers of access by young people to online pornography and the use of social media for bullying and sexting. Despite saying they support compulsory personal, health and social education (PHSE) in schools, the LibDems offered the contorted argument that they couldn’t support our amendment because it did not go far enough. They did not, however, table their own amendment.
Similarly, the LibDems voted with the Conservatives against Crossbencher Baroness Howe’s crucial amendment to bring in a statutory system to regulate access to online pornography. These are important issues to which we must return, but which could have succeeded now had LibDem Peers backed them.
Nevertheless, the significant improvements made to this Bill reflect the Lords working at its best and is testimony to the diligence, attention to detail and persistence of colleagues across the House and their willingness to work together. It is not a heart-warming story of cross-party consensus, as LibDems have claimed, because these improvements were hard-fought and hard-won.
Ministers continued to resist any changes until the very end. But alongside the formal meetings in Grand Committee and the Chamber, there were many, many meetings between members across the House and with outside organisations who provided invaluable briefings. The momentum on these key issues grew to a scale that could not be ignored and it is very welcome that, in the end, the government had to listen to the arguments and concede. It is children and families who will benefit.
Baroness Beverley Hughes is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 10th February 2014