Opposition MPs fail to overturn ‘disproportionate’ emergency Covid-19 child protection changes

MPs have voted to keep emergency coronavirus regulations linked to vulnerable youngsters despite warnings they introduced a “significant” relaxation of protections.

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey (pictured) said the Government’s changes, moved in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, are “disproportionate” and should be revoked with immediate effect.

But Labour’s bid to annul them was defeated by 123 votes to 260, majority 137.

The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 temporarily amend 10 sets of regulations relating to children’s social care, including relaxing administrative and procedural obligations.

These include relaxing the timescales under which representatives of a local authority must visit a child in care and allowing such visits via phone or other electronic means, giving local authorities more time to carry out reviews into complaints about services they provide, and removing the requirement for adoption panels.

Education minister Vicky Ford said protecting vulnerable children has been at the “heart” of the Government’s response to the pandemic.

She added that some of the changes allow local authorities to “divert from established timescales for a limited number of activities” or respond to staff absences and reduce personal contact if required.

Ms Ford added that the changes will expire on September 25, telling the Commons: “There is no plan to extend them. If there is a need for further flexibility, this will be on a case-by-case basis after discussions with stakeholders and subject to full parliamentary process.”

Opening the debate, Ms Long-Bailey said the regulations “relax to a significant degree the safeguarding responsibilities of local authorities” in relation to children in care.

She also told MPs: “These are not small changes and it is very easy to see how a whole generation of looked-after children could be adversely impacted upon within the six months these relaxed duties are in place, if the Government does indeed reverse them later this year.”

She added: “Any disruption to the care of these children could have a significant impact on the rest of their lives. It is clear therefore that these children are incredibly vulnerable and in the context of this pandemic they need more support, not less.”

Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck, a former social worker, said those who support the regulations are “culpable” for the “significant harm” that children will suffer under them.

Ms Lewell-Buck (South Shields) told MPs: “Any child protection strategy, whether we are in a pandemic or not, that requires the dispensation of the law to achieve it is counter-productive and downright dangerous.”

She added that the original legislation being temporarily revoked by the regulations “led to us having one of the safest child protection systems in the world” but that the Government has “removed that safety net”.

Ms Lewell-Buck said: “The fact that a child is in placement does not always mean that they are safe, that is why this legislation existed.

“Children have been harmed, even murdered, by their carers before. The consequences here of having no social worker oversight, of having no-one visiting them or speaking to them about their care could not be more serious.

“I would urge the minister to revoke this SI (statutory instrument) immediately before she and her colleagues who follow their whips on this vote are culpable for the significant harm that children may already be suffering and will certainly suffer in the future.”

Conservative former children’s minister Tim Loughton said there are “serious question marks” about the consultation that went in to the regulations as the Children’s Commissioner was not consulted.

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