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Mon 29 November 2021

Children’s rights charity accuses Minister Vicky Ford of failing to guarantee the Government will seek proper public consultation in reviewing the care of vulnerable children

The Government is accused of potentially attempting to circumvent the normal democratic consultation process in its review of children’s social care, with a planned review’s fast pace raising questions whether the standard policy-making process will be followed when changing the system that cares for vulnerable children. 

Writing to Children’s Minister Vicky Ford, the children’s rights organisation Article 39 asked for “reassurance that the usual policy-making process will be followed in respect of any recommendations for changes to legislation which the Government accepts.”

The intervention came after the review’s chair, Josh MacAlister, told a podcast that the review was happening so quickly in order to capitalise on the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons. 

His statement raised alarm bells with Article 39 Director Carolyne Willow, who wrote in a statement how MacAlister’s reference to the Conservative majority suggested: “ministers may fast-track his recommendations straight to a Bill in Parliament, rather than following the accepted process of public consultation on options for legislative change”. That process includes the Government setting out its options for any legislative change in Green and White papers. 

“His statement also further undermined any semblance that this process is seeking cross-party consensus,” Willow added. 

In response to Article 39’s letter, Ford wrote that MacAlister and his team are “working hard to deliver a bold and broad review” and that she is hoping “the review will deliver bold recommendations”. Her letter also explained that the Government “will follow any appropriate parliamentary process for the implementation of any recommendations”.

While Ford’s letter confirmed parliamentary process would be followed, she does not mention public consultation and she did not confirm “there will be appropriate and adequate Government consultation on any proposed changes to legislation,” said Willow. 

“We are making our correspondence with the Government public,” explained Willow, “as it’s important that those of us contributing to this review do so on the understanding that our participation may be misconstrued as consenting to whatever plans the Government has for radically changing the law.”

The Government launched its review into children’s social care in March 2021 and is scheduled for completion in spring next year.


A Catalogue of Concerns 

The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised a “review” of the care system “to make sure that all care placements and settings are providing children and young adults with the support they need.”

However, its review has been beset with concerns since it was launched. 

In January 2021, the appointment of MacAlister to lead the review caused controversy. A coalition of 27 organisations and 100 individuals wrote to Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, expressing concern that MacAlister “has no professional background in children’s social care”. 

Its authors argued that leading “once-in-a-generation, wholesale review of children’s social care” would be “probably an impossible task for someone with no prior direct knowledge of the children’s social care system”.

The letter also questioned the independence of MacAlister, whose charity Frontline “has been wholly or mainly reliant on substantial funding from the Department for Education from its inception”.

As well as raising the issue of independence, the letter’s authors urged the Government to consider the wide-ranging scope of the review and the speed it was being implemented. 

“Hastily produced plans would inevitably risk making the lives of children, care leavers and families much worse,” it explained. 

Further concerns were raised when in March it was revealed that the £141,329 contract awarded to MacAlister contained a clause advising that the Department for Education “cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations”. If money is needed, the contract explains, the department must “demonstrate how, and over what time period, this would be offset by savings across national and/or local public services”.

This is in spite of the fact that the Children’s Commissioner for England has estimated that councils need at least £1 billion more each year for children’s social care services. 

The review launched on 1 March 2021 with a call for evidence from researchers, with a deadline of 31 March. At the time, the review chair said this would be “the first of a number of calls for evidence”, however the process has not been repeated since. 

The speed reflects criticisms made to the Government regarding its consultation process for its New Plan for Immigration. Migrants rights advocates had argued that the six-week time period allotted to respond to the proposals was not enough considering the wide-ranging scope of the planned changes to the migration system. 

An interim report Case For Change was published in June, with a companion document that stated the review had heard from 700 people with lived experience of children’s social care, 300 people working with children and families, as well as received 207 responses to its call for evidence. 

The report then laid out a series of questions, although no explicit legislative or policy proposals. 

“The review has not published any concrete legislative proposals which those potentially affected and those representing their rights and interests could respond to,” said Willow.

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