Vulnerable children must always be able to access the help they need.
On average, close to 20 bills are laid before parliament each year, which equates to 1,500-2,000 laws. As the representative voice for solicitors in England and Wales working in the public interest, a main function of the Law Society is law reform: lobbying government to ensure we have the best possible legislative framework.
At the beginning of March the Society was part of a group of more than 50 organisations and almost 110,000 members of the public which persuaded the government to abandon a particularly bad law. Clauses 32-34 of the Children and Social Work Bill threatened to remove universal protections that vulnerable children and young people rely upon to live safely. The clauses would have allowed local authorities to apply to the education secretary to be exempted from one or more child protection legal duties in order to try new ways of working.
Under this proposal, government would have been able to exempt individual local authorities from existing statutory duties to children and young people without further parliamentary approval. This could have led to a situation where the legal rights of children would depend on which part of Britain they live in.
Ever since the introduction of the Children Act 1948, child protection laws have been based on giving a base level of universal protection to every young person who faces significant and systemic abuse. Where the law was considered to be inadequate in protecting vulnerable children, the government would debate the issues in public – gathering expertise from children lawyers, social workers and local authorities, among others. Parliament would then legislate to apply what society deemed to be the necessary framework to all children in all communities.
We support the intention of the clauses, which is to drive up standards in child protection social work by encouraging local authorities to innovate. But the actual drafting of the legislation would have had a profoundly negative impact on the rights and legal protections for all children in need in this country. While liberating local authorities from bureaucracy and allowing them to test innovative ways of working is a good aspiration, describing national child protections that have been built up over the last 80 years as ‘red tape’ was a mistake.
The current inquiry into major abuses that happened in care homes during the 1970s and 1980s is a potent reminder that vulnerable children should always be able to access the help they need. The universal duties enshrined in legislation built on decades of learning mean that any court can decide if local authorities are adequately protecting vulnerable children, and most importantly force councils to provide adequate support and services. Many of our members have come across situations where it was the credible threat of legal action that convinced local authorities to provide the necessary help.
The minimum legal requirement for social workers and independent reviewing officers to visit children in care is a fundamental protection, but exemption from these duties is already being envisaged. Research into serious case reviews demonstrates that in almost all cases the child victims were not seen often enough and not seen alone. These are not legal duties we can afford to reduce. A Unison survey found that only 8% of social workers thought the proposed exemptions would not increase risk.
To give credit to the government, after being bombarded with evidence of the dangers of their proposals they have reconsidered and backed down. Our parliamentary system worked, with the House of Lords demanding that the government listen to all the professionals who voiced concerns.
In this, and the wide variety of areas our members practise, the Law Society will continue to lobby to make sure the best possible laws are passed.
Robert Bourns is president of the Law Society