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Gavin Williamson must address Commons over concerns for vulnerable children

The Liberal Democrats are calling on Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, to address the House of Commons following controversial changes to safeguarding regulations made by the Department for Education last week.

The Liberal Democrats’ Education Spokesperson, Layla Moran, has written to Gavin Williamson asking him to give all MPs the chance to scrutinise the Government’s actions on safeguarding vulnerable children.

This follows a letter Layla Moran sent last week to both Williamson and Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, to express her concerns and those of many in the sector.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran said:

“The coronavirus crisis comes at a time when vulnerable children are in need of our protection more than ever. New data from the Children’s Commissioner shows the huge scale of this challenge, and the Government itself still hasn’t done anything to identify the children invisible to the system.
 
“I have deep concerns about this relaxation of regulations for children’s safety and wellbeing. Though nominally they are temporary, the Government can extend them. That is why I am seeking a commitment that the removal of these vital safeguards will not be permanent. Combined with alarmingly low school attendance for vulnerable children, despite some improvement in the last week, and a drop in the referral of kids to social services in many areas, this is an emergency.
 
“We need to hear what is being done systematically to keep vulnerable children safe in these exceptional circumstances. Instead, these safeguarding measures have been relaxed without a strategic plan for what is done instead. That’s utterly unacceptable, and the Education Secretary needs to come before the House without delay to explain the Government’s actions and lay out a comprehensive plan for tackling this.”

In response to a Parliamentary Question tabled by Layla, the Department for Education said that only approximately 14,000 of the 24,000 ‘vulnerable’ children who attended school on Friday 17 April were classed as ‘in need’.

Alarming statistics have emerged from local authorities showing a drop in referrals of children to social services of as much as 50% in some areas.

The letter sent to Gavin Williamson is as follows:

Dear Gavin, 

I hope you are well and able to stay safe at this time. 

Following my letter to you at the end of last week, I am writing to express my deep concern for the safety and wellbeing of looked-after children following the recent legislative changes made by the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, the low numbers of vulnerable children attending school and the drop in referrals of children to social services. 

It is imperative that you come before the House, at the earliest possible opportunity, to give all MPs the opportunity to scrutinise the decisions that have been made on keeping vulnerable children safe to date. This will also give you an opportunity to explain what proactive steps the Government is taking to safeguard vulnerable children, especially those in care, at this time, not just which safeguards are being relaxed due to the pandemic. 

Having spoken to a number of children’s charities in the last few days since these regulations were suddenly changed, it is very clear that they were not consulted at all about this move, and indeed many were taken by surprise that the regulations were being laid last week altogether, particularly for instance regarding the removal of the requirement for reviews for children in care to be done every 6 months. 

Worrying statistics from local authorities show an alarming drop in the referral of children to social services by as much as 50%, and a new breakdown of attendance statistics from your Department shows that in reality, of the 24,000 of ‘vulnerable’ children who attended school on Friday 17 April, only approximately 14,000 were those ‘in need’ compared to the estimated 6,000 with an EHCP plan. I was pleased to see that this has improved in the last week, however 10% attendance at most is still, I think you would agree, a figure that needs to be improved upon.  

At a time of crisis, when the safety and wellbeing of all children is surely paramount, these are unacceptable. 

It has also come to light that the changes made by your Department in last week’s statutory instrument relate to relaxations of some of the same statutory duties attempted by the Government in 2017 via the Children and Social Work Act; changes which were then scrapped due to widespread opposition from charities and others. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families seemed to suggest to the Education Committee last week that these changes could be made permanent. 

MPs need urgent reassurance that the Department for Education is not attempting changes to safeguarding regulation for children in care and adopted children in the long term, using a pandemic as a vehicle to achieve this.

The implications of this move, even for the next 6 months, are wide-ranging and concerning. Given their nature, and the lack of a strategy to mitigate the risks to go alongside them, I would urge you to come before the House and reassure MPs as soon as possible. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and I look forward to hearing from you shortly. 

Yours sincerely, 

Layla Moran MP 
Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon 

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