Pressure points

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson takes stock of the Children and Social Work Bill, as it leaves the Lords in a better shape

Back in July, when I blogged on the Children and Social Work Bill after Committee stage, I said Labour peers would “lead the way in ensuring it is in better shape before it proceeds to the Commons”.

Four months later and with the Report stage of the Bill concluded, it’s fair to say that this has proved to be something of an understatement – with a significant number of concessions from the government now secured. Fourteen to date, with one more anticipated at today’s Third Reading.

Labour’s Shadow Education team in the Lords – made up of myself, Philip Hunt and Margaret Wheeler (supported by our legislative and political advisor Molly Critchley), worked hard to achieve these gains, only one of which came as the result of a vote.

That division was on perhaps the most contentious and high-profile issue in the Bill, on the Conservative’s plan to allow local authorities to opt out of providing some children’s social services. A proposal that many feared would pave the way for the wider privatisation of those services, and which led to some clamour from within the sector to delete the related clauses. We however, felt it more appropriate to firstly achieve amendments establishing an Expert Advisory Panel whom the Secretary of State must consult on any proposed use of the power, particularly on the likely outcomes for children and young people.

Under increasing pressure, Education Minister Lord Nash submitted an amendment to the Bill that the provisions in the clauses could not be used to bypass existing legislation that restricts profit-making in children’s services. Then, come Report, the clauses were voted out. The government may well try to re-insert these when the Bill (a Lords starter) goes to the Commons, but the safety net formed by our amendments should endure.

Our second key victory concerned a new form of regulation of social workers, with the government seeking to put these powers in the hands of the Secretary of State. That was rejected outright and Labour worked with the British Association of Social Workers to argue forcefully for the establishment of a new separate legal entity, to be known as Social Work England. It will be a Non-Departmental Public Body with clear lines of accountability, modelled on the approach within the devolved administrations, to ensure separation between the regulator and ministers.

Another government amendment at Third Reading will provide for the social work part of the Bill to be reviewed within five years. The reviewer must be independent, consulting with representatives of social workers, and reporting to Parliament. Initially, ministers were willing to concede none of this.

Other concessions have related to the safeguarding of children, particularly on requiring councils to have regard to parity of esteem for both the mental and physical health needs of children in their care. But also on three issues that were not initially referred to in the Bill, and following interventions from Labour backbenchers: Oona King, Michael Wills and Alf Dubs.

Thanks to Oona, the DWP will be revising regulations so that limits on the number of children in a family who attract the child element of either tax or universal credit should not apply to children adopted from care. Thanks to Michael, extra protections will be provided for whistle blowers who having made a protected disclosure subsequently apply for a children’s social care position. And thanks to Alf, the government committed to publish a strategy by May 2017 setting out in detail how unaccompanied refugee children will be safeguarded and their welfare promoted.

All to the good. Although it once again highlights the fact that the Conservatives continue to rush out ill-thought through or badly prepared bills. Woefully so in this case, as evidenced by the fact that Lord Nash – seemingly without embarrassment – introduced over 150 amendments, including several new clauses.

Had they undertaken meaningful consultation with the relevant sectors, the government could have avoided much of the pain they have suffered on this Bill. But as it now heads for the Commons, we in the Lords can point to another good example of the sort of detailed scrutiny and advocacy that makes our role at Parliament so vital.

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

Published 23rd November 2016 

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