Labour has suffered a defeat in the House of Commons as MPs have voted to keep new government regulations that weaken legal protections for children in care in England amid the coronavirus crisis.
The opposition party forced a debate and division on the issue this afternoon, after the Children’s Commissioner for England said the regulations were “not justified” and could put children “at greater risk”.
The changes that removed key safeguards for children in care, including the requirement for six-weekly care visits and regular assessments of care plans, were introduced in April without parliamentary scrutiny.
They were put to a vote this afternoon, but Labour did not succeed in overturning the changes, as 260 MPs voted against the opposition party’s motion while 123 voted in favour of it.
Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s children and early years spokesperson, said: “It has been over two months since ministers made sweeping reductions in children’s safeguards, and they have still not produced any reasonable justification for it.”
Implemented through a statutory instrument, which bypasses the need for parliamentary debate, the reforms were slammed at the time as “deregulation on steroids” by children’s rights charity Article 39.
The government said they were needed to help councils prioritise efforts during the coronavirus crisis amid staffing shortages and increased pressure on services, but campaigners disagreed.
Article 39 director Carolyne Willow described the changes as “systematically eroding the rights of children”, and the charity pointed out that the Tory government had tried remove these duties before – and were forced to backtrack.
The key changes include adoption agencies no longer being required to establish adoption panels, and fostering panels become optional, and the care standard weakened in children’s homes.
Until the changes expire in September 2020, the twice-yearly Ofsted inspections of children’s homes are no longer required and placement plans are no longer necessary for kinship care.
Siddiq commented: “Labour understands the pressure that councils are under in this pandemic, but it is not an excuse to remove vital protections for children in care.
“There is no evidence that this bonfire of children’s rights was necessary, and to do so without any opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny or key safeguards was simply unacceptable.”
The shadow minister said the debate would be “an opportunity for the government to admit that they got this wrong and work with us to help vulnerable children through this crisis”.
But Tory MPs queued in the new socially-distanced way to defeat the motion today, despite commissioner Anne Longfield saying of the emergency changes, “I think they should be revoked now – I don’t think they are necessary or justified”.
Article 39 has applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the changes made to children’s social care law by the Department for Education, which they say “significantly increase the level of risk to many children who are already exceptionally vulnerable”.