From education to employment

Vulnerable children and families failed by insufficient data and inadequate implementation and monitoring of legislation

Insufficient data and inadequate implementation and monitoring of the Children and Families Act 2014 has made what should have been a landmark piece of legislation a largely missed opportunity to improve the lives of children and young people.

The Act was envisaged to give greater protection to vulnerable children, better support for children whose parents are separating, a new system to help children with special educational needs and disabilities, and help for parents to balance work and family life.

Despite admirable intentions, the sheer breadth of the areas covered by the Act, a lack of due concern given to implementation, poor data collection to measure impact and a lack of joined up action at all levels, has contributed to children and their families feeling let down by the system.

These are among some of the key findings of a new report, Children and Families Act 2014: A failure of implementation, published 00.01 Tuesday 6 December by the cross-party Children and Families Act 2014 Committee. This post-legislative House of Lords special inquiry committee was appointed in in January 2022 to scrutinise how the Act is working in practice and whether the Act is fit for purpose.

The Committee has found that too much of the legislation has sat on the shelf and languished as a result of a lack of implementation and inadequate scrutiny. Post-legislative scrutiny, by either Government or Parliament, is not just a ‘nice to have’. It is crucial to ensure that legislation is achieving its goals, providing value for money, and improving people’s lives.

All this has been allowed to occur while children and young people continue to suffer through public service failures including poor SEND services, increasing mental health referrals waitlists and creeping delays in family courts.

The report makes a number of recommendations on how the Government can finally realise its ambitions initially set out in the Act across adoption, family justice and employment rights.

They include:

  • Addressing the unacceptable ethnic and racial disparities in the adoption system by establishing an outcome focussed task force, accountable to the Secretary of State.  
  • Improving post-placement support for adopters and kinship carers including the expansion of the Adoption Support Fund, allowing it to be used for more than therapy and ensuring it is also focused on early intervention.  
  • Developing a safe and modern digital contact system for post adoption contact. The Committee warn that the failure to modernise contact threatens to undermine the adoption system. They urge the Government to support adoption agencies in developing and rolling-out a safe and appropriate national digital system for contact as a priority.  
  • Addressing the ever-growing delays in public family law cases, which began long before the pandemic. This requires improved data gathering and sharing, and top-level leadership of an often-disparate system by Government through the Family Justice Board. The Committee urge the Government to publish an ambitious target for the timeliness of public children cases, along with an associated action plan laying out how it aims to achieve this reduction and how it will measure progress.  
  • Producing an impartial advice website for separating couples, providing clear information on the family justice system and to reconsider proposals to make mediation obligatory, by replacing Mediation Information & Assessment Meetings and the mediation voucher schemes with a universal voucher scheme for a general advice appointment.  
  • Reviewing the current approach to empowering the voice of the child in family law proceedings including recommending the Family Justice Council reviews the guidance setting out the approach to judges meeting with children.  
  • Creating an ambition for a move towards a new dedicated 12-week paternity leave allowance and making flexible working a day one right to request and encouraging businesses to advertise jobs flexibly from the outset.  
  • Building robust systems for monitoring and assessing the implementation of legislation, including data collection and sharing and requiring the Government to publish a post-legislative scrutiny plan once an Act receives Royal Assent setting out how the success of an Act will be measured.

The full list of recommendations can be found in the Children and Families Act 2014: A failure of implementation.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield, Committee Chair said:

The Children and Families Act 2014 was passed with the good intentions of giving greater protection to vulnerable children, better support for children whose parents are separating, a new system to help children with special educational needs and disabilities, and help for parents to balance work and family life.

“Regrettably, our inquiry has shown that this could have been the case, had any real focus been on implementing and monitoring the impact of the Act, without the added incessant churn within the Government.  Instead, it was a missed opportunity and has ultimately failed in meaningfully improving the lives of children and young people.

“It was not until our inquiry was established that the Government gave any thought to a comprehensive post-legislative review of the whole Act, eight years after it received Royal Assent. Eight years is a long time in the crucial early years of these children.

“Throughout our inquiry, we have sought to hear directly from children, young people and their families and we are grateful for their time and insight, as they shared with us the challenges they face and how they feel let down by the very systems designed to support them.

“The welfare of children and young people should be the Government’s paramount concern when developing policies in this area. We urge them not to allow another eight years to pass before they make the improvements which are so demonstrably necessary.” 

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