Children and families need urgent reform in the King’s Speech
7 minute read
Tomorrow, the Government will be unveiling its final King’s Speech of this Parliament. We argue that Government needs to use the Speech to introduce a Children’s Social Care Bill to address the mounting crisis in our children’s social care system. In this piece, we set out the shape of a Bill that could make the children’s social care system fit for purpose.
Children’s social care is in crisis. The number of children subject to child protection enquiries has trebled in the last 20 years. 194,000 children in England were subject to such an enquiry in 2022/23. For almost 70% of them, professionals concluded there was no risk of significant harm. This is borne out by calls to our advice service, where parents, for example describe their desperation to get help for their child’s deteriorating mental health, often to no avail and that they instead feel the finger of blame being pointed at them.
There are a record number of children in care, with many placed in inappropriate accommodation far from home. Meanwhile early support services are being closed and even in the last few days we’ve heard of councils struggling due to steeply rising care costs whilst the larger private sector children’s home providers are making record profits.
Our current system is not consistently working in the interests of the most vulnerable children, families. The Government commissioned its own Independent Review into Children’s Social Care which made clear, a major reset is needed now, otherwise 100,000 will being in care by 2032. The system isn’t working well enough for children and families, or the public purse and it isn’t sustainable.
Stark regional inequalities are at play, with a child in Middlesbrough 12 times more likely to be subject to a child protection enquiry than a child in Essex. This is despite the Government’s pledges to ‘level up’ the UK and reduce regional inequalities.
The King’s Speech provides an opportunity to change the direction
The King’s Speech, taking place tomorrow, must take serious action. So far, the Government has tinkered at the edges with pathfinders that entrench a postcode lottery for families who urgently need support. To rise to the scale of the crisis, we propose the introduction of legislation to help resolve the crisis in children’s social care. The following provides some of the key components that could be included in such a Bill:
Early help to prevent crises
A functioning, well-funded system of early family help would assist children and families as needs arise and effectively prevent this scale of intrusive intervention. Such a system should help families to understand their rights, responsibilities, and options, and provide practical support to ensure their child can stay safely and thrive at home..
Shifting the focus towards prevention and averting crises before they arise with early family help has wide support. Our ambition now needs to be delivered on. Legislation would provide an opportunity for that. Josh MacAlister’s Independent Review on Children’s Social Care’s called for a “revolution in family help” with a £2.6 billion investment over five years. To date, just 10% of that required investment has been committed. We welcome progress on Family Hubs but to make a real impact this will require sustained, long-term investment.
Championing kinship care
Following our Time to Define campaign, the Government has committed to developing a definition of kinship care. But they must introduce this definition in primary legislation so that all kinship families (I.e. family and friends raising children who can’t live safely at home) are recognised and supported across public services.
Half of kinship carers in work have to give up their job to take on the care of the child. Yet, that often pushes them into reliance on a welfare benefits system that is not designed for kinship families. A right to paid employment leave for kinship carers, akin to adoption leave would help transform the experiences of many kinship families. It is a step also supported by many businesses who wish to assist such carers but are struggling to do so without Government assistance.
Kinship families often face extortionate legal fees in the process of taking on the care of their children. This leaves some in significant debt. In other cases they decide they can’t afford to get the legal advice they need, despite this potentially having a long term consequences for the child and their families. Any improved package of support for kinship families must include non-means- and merits-tested legal aid for kinship carers and prospective carers.
A Children’s Social Care Bill would also be a once in a generation opportunity to introduce a national financial allowance for kinship carers, so that no family is forced into poverty because they have stepped up and done right by the child.
Family group conferences
Family group conferences are the epitome of early intervention. They galvanise the strengths of a child’s family and friends to come up with a solution that helps the child to live safely and thrive – whether at home with parents or in kinship care. There is plenty of evidence – from the UK and internationally in countries like New Zealand – on their effectiveness including in averting children from needing to come into care.
The Bill should include a new legal right to a family group conference for any family involved with children’s social care services.
Building not breaking relationships in the care system
We all need people to turn to throughout our lives, during good and bad times. Unfortunately, the children’s social care system too often breaks important relationships when they remove children from their family, leaving them without support networks when they need them most
Family Rights Group’s Lifelong Links approach works to ensure care-experienced children and young people have people they can turn to for practical and emotional support as they grow up. Lifelong Links is proven to lead to improvements in young people’s mental health and stability in their living arrangements while reducing the chance of negative outcomes like homelessness when they leave care. It should be made an offer to all children and young people in care and care leavers.
The importance of free, expert, and independent advice
Family Rights Group’s independent, specialist advice service ensures families, including parents and kinship carers, are able to understand their rights and options and navigate the system. It increases the likelihood of a child staying safely in their family and saves the state money in the process. All families involved with children’s social care services need access to such independent advice.
Unfortunately, at the moment, funding constraints mean the service is only able to advise four in ten callers.
But the consequences of not acting are great
If the Government does not act to change the current situation with detailed and ambitious legislation to implement its plans, it risks allowing more children to be taken into an overstretched children’s social care system.
Beyond this, leading charities within the children’s sector recently carried out research on the cost of inaction for the country and found that delays to needed reform will cost £1 billion over the next ten years. At a time when councils are struggling to make ends meet, this could tip many into bankruptcy.
Action now could prevent this, changing the trajectory of children in need across the country and putting local authorities on firmer footing. As a corporate parent to an ever-increasing number of children, the Government must embrace steady funding and evidence-informed reform.
Joe Smallman, Communications Officer at Family Rights Group