Frances Crook's blog · 8 Sep 2016
The Children and Social Work Bill
The Children and Social Work Bill is currently being considered by Parliament. The legislation was touted as implementing a range of additional safeguards but it contains a number of frankly terrifying ‘exemption clauses’ which would allow local authorities to seek permission to disapply a wide range of legal duties in the name of ‘innovation’.
It is our view that innovation should be in addition to core legal duties, not instead.
The children and young adults our legal team have been working with over the last decade will be the first to lose out. Children in prison are too often out of sight and out of mind.
It is only by calling local authorities to account and demanding they comply with their hard and fast legal duties to children and young people that we have been able to ensure hundreds of young people in and leaving jail get the help they need to make a fresh start.
To underline this, this week HM Inspectorate of Probation said that one in three homeless 16- and 17-year-olds in contact with youth offending teams have been placed in unsafe or unsuitable accommodation, despite it being unlawful. If authorities fail to comply with the law, and we remove the law, there is no holding them to account. Children will be on the streets.
We have a filing cabinet full of cases of children we have helped to secure their rights under the law. Here is an example:
Simon was 17 years old and detained in a prison. His family contacted us in fear for his safety following serious incidents in the prison. In addition to following up the child protection investigations and challenging his regime, which often meant he spent 23 hours a day alone in his cell, the Howard League talked to him about his needs on release from prison.
We found out that, as he had been remanded in custody for more than 13 weeks after he turned 14 and including time on or after his 16th birthday, he was in fact a care leaver. This is because from December 2012, all children remanded to prison became “looked after”.
This was important for Simon, who needed support and assistance to plan for his release into the community so that he could make a fresh start and recover from his traumatic experiences in prison. Yet instead of having a pathway assessment and plan for this, his local authority had closed his case after he was sentenced. This meant that he did not get the support from children’s services that would have been a great help to him.
We contacted children’s services to highlight that, as a matter of law, he was a care leaver. They have now accepted their duties and a social worker has been allocated to support him with planning for his safe release.
The duties arising as a result of being remanded to prison as a child will be top of the list for local authorities wishing to seek exemptions. This was hinted at during a House of Lords debate on the Bill in July, when the Schools Minister, Lord Nash, said: “(I)t is felt that on some occasions applying the full gamut of care-leaver regulations associated with children on remand, who automatically become looked-after when in custody, is not always the best option for those children.”
Lord Nash’s remarks prompted a response from Lord Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, who said: “I was extremely alarmed when he (the Minister) rather dismissed the example of the legal safeguard that could be lifted, of removing the looked-after status from children remanded in custody. That is very often the first time that they have had any stability in their lives and it would be tragic if it was removed.”
Another example of a young person we could only help because we could call on the local authority to comply with its legal duties:
Jeremy had lived on the streets for a year before being sent to prison. He had asked for help from children’s social services in the community but they directed him to housing services, who put him in a hostel and sorted out benefits but only for a short period. He was kicked out when he was arrested.
Despite being on bail, children’s services still did not pick him up and he was made homeless again and living on the streets until he was convicted and sent to prison at 17 years old. We were contacted close to his release because he still had nowhere to live.
The Howard League was told that he might have to ‘sleep rough’ on release. We argued that he was legally entitled to support as a care leaver. Children’s services eventually agreed and worked with other agencies to plan for his release.
When the release package fell apart, as they so often do, the existence of a web of legal duties owed to him by children’s social services meant that he could seek further help and assistance from them to stay out of prison.
And a final example of a child who was able to avoid being sentenced to jail because we could require social care to step in:
Terry was a vulnerable child in custody on remand. His criminal solicitors indicated that there might be a possibility of a non-custodial sentence if a suitably therapeutic and supportive package of accommodation and support was made available by children’s services.
It is also well established that supportive packages that operate on a good lives model are much more effective at reducing the risk of reoffending.
We were able to call on Terry’s local authority to help him under section 20 of the Children Act because the law is clear that, as a child in need of accommodation, it was legally required to identify a suitable package of accommodation and support.
Children’s services subsequently did this and Terry received a community sentence.
Children and young adults like these boys will be on the streets if we cannot force cash-strapped local authorities to help them. ‘Innovation’ means abandoning decades of extending the law to protect children, and that will mean children on the streets.