The government has been defeated in the House of Lords over controversial proposals to allow councils to request exemptions from statutory social care duties.
Peers voted 245-213 in favour of amendment to delete the proposals, set out in clause 29, from the Children and Social Work Bill.
The so-called ‘exemption’ clause handed the education secretary the power to grant councils exemptions from statutory duties under children’s social care for an initial period of three years, subject to parliamentary approval.
The government said the powers would enable services to cut red tape for social workers and safely trial new ways of working.
But opponents, including Labour and a coalition of more than 30 organisations including the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), claimed the measures threatened legal protections for vulnerable children that had been built up over decades.
The growing backlash against the clause led the government to offer concessions in a bid to win over critics, with an amendment to the bill building in extra safeguards before exemptions were approved and ruling out the powers being used to change rules prohibiting profit-making in child protection.
It wasn’t enough to convince peers, who said ministers had failed to make a convincing case for why the powers were needed.
The government must now decide whether to re-insert the clause when the bill moves to the House of Commons. However, the final bill would have to be agreed by the Lords. By convention peers are expected to agree measures that were in the governing party’s manifesto but the exemption proposals were not.
Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, a charity that campaigns for children’s rights that opposed the plans, urged ministers to scrap the plans entirely.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association Social Workers, welcomed the vote result.
“I think what runs through is the lack of evidence that this was the right way to make improvement in children’s social care,” she said.
“The DfE couldn’t substantiate their approach in a strong, credible way. It was poorly drafted legislation with lots of holes. The case for it undermining children’s rights and leaving the door open for fragmentation and privatisation of services was strong and wasn’t disproved.
“Our position was always ‘show us the evidence’. Probably the fundamental problem around this is the government didn’t talk to the sector, didn’t consult, didn’t work up something that would enable us to have really beneficial flexibility while protecting children’s rights.”
Martha Spurrier, director of human rights organisation 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.”
The defeat marks the latest setback for the government’s children’s social care reform programme just a week after ministers performed a U-turn on proposals to bring social worker regulation into a Department for Education agency.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our bill aims to give every child the best possible start in life, and to suggest it would place them at risk, or open services up to privatisation is simply wrong.
“Local authorities should have the freedom to work with social workers so they can develop new and effective ways of supporting the vulnerable children in their care and we are committed to giving them that freedom.
“We are disappointed that peers have not accepted these clauses but there was a good debate about the issues and we will carefully consider next steps in the light of the concerns raised.”
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