Virginia Bottomley, former health minister
The Children Act was a culmination of many years’ preparation following dissatisfaction around children’s legislation. It brought together private and public law affecting children, and reinforced the principle that the welfare of the child must be paramount and their interests separately considered: this critical concept that children are not possessions. They actually have rights of their own.
At the time, it was described as the “most comprehensive and far-reaching reform of parliament in living memory”, a description I completely agree with. And it had cross-party support. Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister, but I recall even Jeremy Corbyn, at the time, had a word of praise for it. My role was to oversee the implementation of the legislation, including the training of social workers and the development of guidance. In my former life, I was chair of the juvenile court in Lambeth, I worked in a child guidance clinic and I was a trustee of the Children’s Society. So my preoccupation had been with children’s wellbeing. It was a key reason I came into parliament. To be the minister responsible for the implementation of an act I had so much confidence in was a real delight and extremely rewarding. One of my objectives was to promote understanding of the role of social workers. I used to say they were victims of ritualistic abuse. Either they were castigated for leaving children within the family so long or they were castigated for removing the children too fast, as in the Cleveland child abuse scandal. Achieving recognition that removing a child had to be a decision with many stakeholders – and that the social worker’s role was a particularly difficult one – was part of my message.
I think the rights of children need to continue to be argued for now. Children can’t speak for themselves and they don’t have a vote: their rights need to be reaffirmed by every new generation of politicians.
It’s easy to unconsciously turn a blind eye to child abuse and neglect. That’s why legislation like the Children Act has constantly to be reinforced.
Al Aynsley-Green, Children’s commissioner for England, 2005-09
The act was seen at the time to be a major step forward in promoting the best interests of children.
It exposed the need for vulnerable children to be protected and heralded the development of the principles for the safeguarding of children that we now take for granted. But although legislation is critically important in setting benchmarks, fine words can be so easily hijacked by cuts in resources. Today, there is a lack of political and public will to put the needs of children, and especially their rights, at the heart of policy and practice.
The stark reality is that the outcomes overall for our children across health, social care, education, justice and poverty are some of the worst in the developed world – and, after ten years of austerity, are getting worse. There is increasing poverty and inequality alongside devastating cuts to public services. Why are so many children being failed on such a grand scale?
I am calling for a Royal Commission on Childhood to scope out the realities of the lives of children, especially those most vulnerable through disadvantage and disability.
Building local communities with resilient children at their heart should be the focus for a new Children Act. Sadly it is the nature of our current politics that these calls are likely to go unheeded.
Ruth Scotten, social worker and adoptive parent
The idea of putting children at the heart of legislation was good in theory but I don’t think it has been executed particularly well. My view is that children aren’t heard and they are not always at the centre of things.
This is due to a lack of resources to effectively implement the act. There is still an assumption that when you remove children from chaotic homes where parents are in difficulty, you are moving them on to a better life. However, that doesn’t always happen for children in care.
For example, local authorities are neglecting their duty to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children locally.
Some place children all over the country. Children who are removed from their parents may need the support they get from other relationships, either with people in their family or ex-foster carers, or friends and teachers they were at school with.
The trauma of being separated from everyone and everything they know affects their self-esteem, their identity, their sense of guilt – it creates the feeling: “I must be bad.” Despite my passion for social work and supporting families, I’ve struggled with the changes over the years. I think there’s an overriding focus on paperwork, with increased workloads that take away from spending time with children and families, and building relationships where real work and change can happen.
I adopted two siblings who I think would not have needed to be adopted if their birth mother had been supported. Children may be removed from their parents because of the risk of harm – but I don’t think there’s enough understanding of the risk of harm from separation and the long-term impact of that. For example, my daughter was removed on her birthday. That will always hang over her, every year. Unfortunately, my children didn’t have a good experience of foster care.
The impact of them being separated from her has been as detrimental as anything that could have happened to them if social services had worked with their birth mother – who is now in a good place, but at the time was not supported at all – to keep the family together.
Steve Walker, director of children’s services, Leeds city council
I was a 30-year-old social worker when the act and its 12 volumes of guidance and regulation came in. It made clear that although children’s welfare has got to be the paramount consideration, we should not be interfering in the lives of families any more than we need to – and that children do best when we are able to keep them within their own family. These principles were all informed by research and it really shifted the balance of power.
But any legislation, no matter how strong, revolutionary and well-meaning it is, will be implemented within a context. And that context has changed over time. We have seen children’s services departments put under increased financial pressure because of reductions in funding to local authorities. As a result, our ability to implement some key parts of the act has become diminished.
The act didn’t introduce thresholds. It just talks about children in need. Most councils – Leeds is an exception – have created threshold criteria to manage demand – and, in my opinion, that has undermined the principles and the approach of the act.
In the past, there was a range of preventive and early intervention services, such as children’s centres, that supported families. Now, local authorities find it increasingly difficult to adhere to the values of the Children Act, due to financial constraints. For section 17 of the act, around children in need, to operate well, local authorities need to be well-funded but also – since the council doesn’t provide all the services in isolation – it’s equally important that health services, the police and schools are well-resourced too. Limiting resources has limited our ability to provide services and a support network to children in need, and that results in increased need for statutory intervention.
Cathy Ashley, chief executive, Family Rights Group
The Children Act is an example of how if you engage with the sector, draw on evidence and look at how problems can be addressed from all sides, it can result in extraordinarily robust legislation. When we have spoken to people involved in the care system – from parents and young people to carers, lawyers and social workers – we have found that no one is pushing for a major overhaul of the act, which is extraordinary 30 years on. The problem is the environment we are now working in is not consistent with the principles behind the act. Section 20, which is when a child goes into the care system with the voluntary agreement of the parent, was seen by legislators as a way of enabling children to be safely raised, where possible, within their families. What we now see is that these provisions of the act are too often viewed through the lens of child protection, not family support.
Since the case of Peter Connelly [Baby P], too often a culture of blame, shame and fear has permeated the system, affecting those working in it as well as the children and families reliant on it. To address this blame culture, we need to invest in family support services where, actually, effective support around the family could make a difference.
This is particularly important for child victims of domestic violence: increasingly, mothers are being blamed for failing to protect their child from the perpetrator.Statutory guidance related to the act also needs an overhaul. If a council thinks that a child shouldn’t be with their parents, it should initiate care proceedings. Instead, we know that sometimes, they misuse section 20 on parents who are very vulnerable, who agree for their child to go into care, or be placed with a potential adopter without understanding the long-term consequences, or having the benefit of legal advice. There are far more children now in kinship care than there were when the act was introduced and it doesn’t put in place a robust support network around these carers. There should also be greater emphasis on keeping siblings together. They should have the same presumption of contact with each other as they do with their parents, which the act doesn’t currently provide for.
“Annie”, whose children were taken into care
The whole purpose of the act is to keep families together where it is safe to do so. It also specifies that parents should be given the support they need to care for their children. That didn’t happen for our family. Six years ago, my newborn son was removed from me when he was six days old. I hadn’t harmed my baby; he was removed on the likelihood he may suffer harm in my care.
Although 258 days later he was returned to me and his case subsequently closed, the trauma of that enforced separation has devastated my family. We will never get over it.
A previous set of care proceedings relating to my older children had shocked me into recognising the impact of my behaviours. I needed support and help to repair the damage I had done to them and myself. But the lack of resources because of local and national budget cuts has made accessing help when you’re struggling as a parent almost impossible.
The fact that there is virtually no family support out there has contributed to a loss of trust in social workers; families know that children’s services can’t offer much that really makes a difference when you’re struggling and, very often, trying to bring your children up while living in poverty.
Social workers also know they can’t offer services that might help to minimise the risks they see, and of course local authorities are terrified they will be blamed if a child is harmed, or worse. So, with no money to help at the preventive end, social workers have, understandably, decided they can’t take risks. And, inevitably, the number of children taken into care has risen sharply. The upshot is that across the country, primarily in poor communities, families are frightened. Confidence in the family courts is low. It’s a spiral that’s hard to get out of, but the only way to make a start is to return to the ethos of the Children Act: support whole families to learn how to safeguard their children themselves so that separation is truly a last resort.
Louise Tickle, journalist and campaigner
The Children Act came into force on the day I turned 21. Anyone with the same birthdate would have spent their entire childhood under the previous mishmash of laws relating to the welfare of minors, and their entire adult life watching children grow up in a country which – under the explicit and much-praised terms of this act – prioritised children’s needs, and offered support as of right to their families. The act’s intention was that children across the UK should not just survive, but thrive. Whatever the excellent intentions of the legislation, as a journalist writing on social affairs and child protection, it is obvious that in recent years this has not been happening. The fragile gains made for some of the country’s most vulnerable children during successive Labour governments have been pretty comprehensively destroyed.
Last year, more than 4 million children in the UK were living in poverty – 30% of all children. That figure is projected to rise to more than 5 million by 2022 – hardly surprising given the government scrapped targets on reducing child poverty in 2015 just as austerity and benefit cuts struck families hard. Meanwhile, over the past five years, the number of children in care has soared. Today, so many children are in acute need of high-cost child protection intervention, that councils say they can no longer afford the early help envisaged by section 17 of the act. And so more families end up in crisis and more children end up in the vastly expensive and frequently unsatisfactory care of the state.
Social workers who want to support families are stressed to the point of fleeing the profession, and almost all say austerity has compromised their ability to do their jobs . Education cuts have bitten so deep that some state schools cannot afford to educate children for five days per week. Family incomes are so stretched that some pupils arrive at school hungry: not only do many headteachers now put on free lunch clubs in holidays, but teachers themselves regularly buy food for pupils from their own money. Earlier this year, parliament’s environmental audit committee was so concerned that children and families were undernourished that – in the UK, in 2019 – it recommended the appointment of a minister for hunger. Reporting on the misery, trauma and desperation that are the inevitable result of a society that does not value children, let alone their parents, I look back over the period of my adult life and see the Children Act as marking not a moment when children started to thrive better than they ever had before, but as a marker of what a principled, civilised society should be offering its youngest members – and does not.
Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division in the high court
The ethos and approach of the Children Act was, in 2002, extended to encompass adoption so that the entirety of the law relating to children from birth to adoption and beyond is encapsulated within these two complementary statutes, which, together, form one jurisprudential whole in terms of philosophy, principles and practice.
There is no clamour, not even a whisper, that the basic concepts of child law now need further reform. The architects of the legislation, and its draftsmen, simply got it right. That this is so has been, and continues to be, to the great benefit of the children and young people whose needs it was aimed to meet.
In holding that the Children Act is essentially sound and effective legislation, I am in no way closing my eyes to the manner in which the delivery of dispute resolution following parental separation often falls short or, worse, compounds the potential for harm. This, in my view, demonstrates the fact that the law can only go so far in resolving what are essentially relationship difficulties within families.
Anna Gupta, professor of social work, Royal Holloway, University of London
The Children Act is a highly respected piece of legislation that has stood the test of time. I don’t think changing the act would make much difference if the support families need isn’t available. That is not the issue here.
Obviously there’s an election coming up and I think things would be different under a Labour government. I’ve had a lot of discussions with ministers in the shadow cabinet. Certainly their value base and their philosophy would be much more in line with the original principles of the act. It provided a less intrusive and less expensive way to safeguard children.
Now we have a shortsighted approach to resourcing. It’s very expensive to keep children in care and go into court proceedings. There needs to be much more emphasis on building strength in communities and trying to support families – that would be much more cost-effective in the long run.