New consultation launched on extending exemptions for children’s services

The Department for Education is seeking views on extending controversial “flexibilities” given to children’s services as part of emergency coronavirus legislation.

The Department for Education (DfE) has opened a new consultation on whether to continue some of the “flexibilities” allowed to children’s services passed as part of emergency coronavirus legislation last year.

The consultation is looking at relaxations of local authority duties related to when medical reports are needed in the fostering and adoption process; the continuation of virtual visits and contacts by social workers; and Ofsted inspections – all of which are due to elapse on 31 March 2021.

“Given the continued impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we are now consulting on a proposal to extend or amend those regulations,” the Government says, adding: “we are inviting interested individuals and organisations to comment on our plans.”

The consultation is open until 28 February 2021, and if the extensions are successful they will be in place until 30 September.

The duties were originally relaxed in April last year as part of a wide range of exemptions passed through emergency coronavirus legislation – though many of these exemptions were not continued past September 2020.

The DfE says was “to provide local authorities and children’s social care providers with temporary flexibilities to support them during the coronavirus pandemic.”

However, the Court of Appeal voted unanimously in November 2020 that the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson acted unlawfully in failing to consult children’s rights organisations before making the changes.
Read more: www.socialworktoday.co.uk/News/Education-secretary-acted-unlawfully-in-removing-safeguards-for-children-in-care

This consultation is now seeking views of children’s social care professionals, children and young people with experience of care, charities, local authorities and children’s trusts and social care providers on:

- Two options for the health assessment provision for fostering and adoption.

- On extending the current virtual visits provisions, for a further six months, until 30 September 2021.

- On extending suspension of the regulation that details the minimum frequency of Ofsted inspections for all children’s social care providers for a further six months, until 30 September 2021.

Local authorities, working with their partners and providers, can currently make use of the flexibilities where staff shortages “make it difficult or impossible to meet the original requirements”; where using the flexibilities is the “most sensible, risk-based response in light of other demands and pressures on services”; or where there is a “consequential reason” to use them.

In a consultation document, the Government said it had “always been clear” that the exemptions would remain in place “only for as long as they were needed” and would expire on 31 March 2021.

“However, the challenges from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic remain significant, not least given the context of the new, more transmissible variants of the virus and an increase in infection rates,” the document continued.

“There are likely to be circumstances in which some services will continue to face specific and exceptional challenges into the Spring/Summer. Continued availability of a small number of flexibilities, drawing on the experience and evidence gathering of the last few months, may still be needed, so we must be prepared for the potential additional demands that may still be placed on services.”

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