Lords defeat government over child protection proposals

Plan to deregulate council social workers is a bad idea that has not been properly evaluated, says Lord Ramsbotham

Peers voted 245-213 in favour of an amendment to scrap clause 29 of the bill in its entirety. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA

The government has suffered a defeat in the House of Lords over plans to allow councils to opt out of legal obligations to vulnerable children.

The crossbencher Lord Ramsbotham successfully moved an amendment to delete a prominent clause of the children and social work bill designed to give ministers extensive powers to sidestep children’s legal rights built up over decades.

The government argued that council social services departments were over-regulated and that proposed powers in clause 29 of the bill would free them to drive “innovation” in social work practice and make services more efficient.

But peers, who voted 245-213 in favour of an amendment to scrap the clause in its entirety, said ministers had failed to “win hearts and minds” and make a persuasive case for why the powers to strip away children’s rights were needed.

The government must now decide whether it wants to re-insert the clause when the bill moves to the House of Commons, triggering the prospect of “ping-pong” between the two houses.

The vote is the latest blow for the government over a bill that has attracted widespread opposition since it was published in June without any formal prior public consultation. Ministers have had to allay concerns that the powers are aTrojan horse to enable core child protection services to be privatised.

In June the cross-party Commons education select committee delivered ascathing critique of the bill, saying that improvement in children’s social care was more likely to come from concentrating on the basics, such as reducing social worker caseloads, than through structural reforms.

The clause 29 powers would allow ministers to permit councils to suspend specific social care legal obligations for a three-year period, with the possibility of a further three-year extension and the option for a permanent exemption if the innovative practices they enable are deemed a success.

During the Lords debate on Tuesday, Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, said the proposals were a “subversion of the rule of law” and were widely opposed by frontline social workers and children’s charities.

He said: “These clauses seem like a bad idea dreamed up in Whitehall that has not been properly evaluated or impact-assessed.”

Labour’s education spokesperson in the Lords, Lord Watson, said there was no evidence that councils “had their hands tied” by over-regulation, and said the wide-ranging powers would lead to a postcode lottery in legal safeguards for children.

Speaking for the government, the education minister Lord Nash said an unintended consequence of the build-up of children’s legal protections over the years was that overregulation had got in the way of good social work practice.

But Lord Warner, a crossbencher, described the proposed powers as “draconian” and “fundamentally flawed”. Ministers should go back to the drawing board and “conduct a proper review” of what was needed to help services improve services, he said. “They have chosen an extremely large sledgehammer to crack quite small nuts.”

The crossbencher Lady Howarth, a former director of social services, said she was sympathetic to the aims of the government in wanting to improve children’s services. But ministers had “simply not won hearts and minds of the vast number of people out there in the community”.

The vote was welcomed by Carolyne Willow, director of the children’s rights charity Article 39. “The fundamental flaw with clause 29 was that it allowed highly vulnerable children to have different legal protections on the arbitrary basis of where they happen to live. Peers have determined this to be unacceptable.

“We hope the government will now listen and respond to the huge opposition its plans have provoked. The very worst response to this defeat would be for ministers to simply reinsert the clause when the bill enters the Commons.”

Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said: “Our child protection laws are the result of a century of learning, public debate and parliamentary scrutiny – but, with no research or proper consultation, this government has decided they are dispensable.

“Well done to the Lords for doing the government’s job, listening to the concerns of social workers and campaigners, and standing up for children’s rights. If the prime minister really wants a country that works for everyone, she must now prove it by scrapping this dangerous and undemocratic plan once and for all.”

Unison’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, said the plans to remove statutory duties protecting children should never have been put forward. “Social workers recognised the danger of removing decades of child protection law; it’s a pity ministers didn’t bother to ask them about the risks posed by the proposals,” he said.

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