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Children and Families Bill 2013-14
Type of Bill:
The Bill was announced in the Queen's speech on 9 May 2012 and was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by four parliamentary committees prior to its publication. The Bill was announced by the education secretary, Michael Gove, in the House of Commons on the 4 February 2013, and published the following day.
It aims to improve provision for children with special educational needs, reform court processes involving children, strengthen the role of the Children's Commissioner and make parental leave more flexible.
The Bill will allow for:
- current special educational needs assessments to be replaced by a single, simpler 0-25 assessment, with full statutory protections
- personal budgets to be given directly to parents and young people, and local authorities and health services to jointly plan commission services
- delays in adoption proceedings to be reduced, by downgrading the priority given to finding an ethnic match between the child and his or her prospective adopters
- changes to family law that will see care cases completed within 6 months, the removal of unnecessary processes in family proceedings, and greater focus placed on ensuring children have a relationship with both their parents after family separation
- the introduction of flexible parental leave, which will allow parents to share caring responsibilities in a manner of their choice
- the Office of the Children's Commissioner to be granted greater powers to protect children's rights, and to become more independent from Ministers, with the power to carry out assessments on the impact of policies and legislation on children
The special educational needs element of the Bill were generally welcomed by stakeholders, although several, including the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Deaf Children's Society, suggested that the proposals would be weakened by the prevailing climate of local government budget cuts. The strengthening of the role of the Children's Commissioner was welcomed by the Children's Society. The National Union of Teachers warned against revoking the SEN Code of Practice.
The British Chambers of Commerce argued that the proposals to expand flexible working amongst all employees, rather than just those with children under the age of 17, "ignored the clear view from business that no additional regulation was necessary".
The Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom.
Schools minister, Lord Nash, introduced the second reading of the Children and Families Bill in the House of Lords on 2 July 2013. Peers discussed a wide range of elements of the Bill including adoption, special educational needs, education, health and care plans, the Office of the Children's Commissioner and provisions for young offenders.
Children and schools minister, Elizabeth Truss, was able to confirm that the government would be taking forward a number of key proposals: introducing early-years educator and early-years teacher qualifications; introducing tax-free child care; ensuring that more money for child care goes to the front line; increasing the supply of child-minders through the establishment of childminder agencies; and making it easier for schools to take two year olds in their nurseries.
In the House of Commons report stage, the government's controversial plans to introduce more flexible staff-to-child ratios failed to generate sufficient cross-party support and were not taken forward. An opposition amendment to include personal social and health education within the compulsory national curriculum was defeated by 303 votes to 219. The Bill was passed to the third reading stage and was subsequently sent to the House of Lords.
The House of Lords second reading for the Bill took place on 2 July 2013. After a short debate, the Bill was passed to a Grand Committee.
The Children and Families Bill had its first committee stage debate in the House of Lords on 9 October 2013. The government sought to amend the Bill in response to concerns raised in the House of Commons' committee stage on the duty to give preference to family or friends when considering adoption placements.
During the second day of committee stage in the House of Lords on 14 October 2013, amendments discussed were focused on support for children leaving care, including if children were returned home and the effectiveness of local authorities.
Amendments requiring the secretary of state to review the impact of the bedroom tax on foster carers were not moved by Peers during the third day of the committee stage of the Children and Families Bill. Other amendments not moved included the inclusion of the following new clauses - child trafficking guardians for children who may have been victims of human trafficking; regulations concerning privately fostered children; and greater support for family and friends carers when children are not looked after.
Amendments raising important issues around mediation of post divorce shared parenting cases were discussed alongside the emphasis the Bill put on ensuring that the welfare and development of a child were best protected by the involvement of both parents.
The fourth day of the committee stage debate on the Children and Families Bill was debated in the House of Lords on 21 October 2013. Amendments discussed focused on ensuring parental responsibility and child arrangement orders.
Amendments to Clause 13 related to the consideration of expert evidence in resolving court proceedings, including evidence provided by independent social workers and issues around the remuneration for independent social workers were debated by Peers, but not moved.
There were concerns expressed in amendments to Clause 14, which Labour argued would curtail effective interventions with children and their families in care proceedings that lasted longer than 26 weeks.
The Children and Families Bill was debated in committee day for the fifth day on 23 October 2013. Despite lengthy debate over a range of amendments, covering topics including placement arrangements for children in care, special educational needs provisions in schools, and on health services for children, the Bill proceeded without amendment.
In the sixth day of committee, a range of amendments dealing with the management and early identification of special educational needs, provision of online learning and blended learning and co-operation of local authorities were discussed, but were all withdrawn after debate.
During day seven of the committee stage of the Children and Families Bill, no amendments were agreed but peers debated the need to keep education and care provision under review. The issue of consistency and accuracy of local offers was a theme of the debate, and peers discussed the merits of introducing a set of minimum standards - something the government worried would be overly prescriptive.
Clarity was also provided on the right of children and young people with education healthcare plans to attend mainstream schools, and grounds for when this may not be appropriate.
The government expressed support for amendment 139, stating that a power to require attendance at assessment meetings, with a corresponding sanction, was necessary during the eight day of committee.
After consulting the pathfinders, the government was of the view that existing safeguarding legislation was the best route for any issues caused by parents not presenting their children for assessment, where there were welfare concerns. An amendment was tabled calling on the government to legislate for a statutory register of blind or partially sighted young people within a local authority, which, the government said, was already provided for in other legislation.
The government reassured the committee on educational healthcare (EHC) plans and a number of probing amendments were withdrawn, which presented concerns of the committee. A group of opposition amendments regarding the registration of schools with an EHC plan were withdrawn after debate. Peers discussed a probing amendment concerning the entitlement for schools or colleges to make representations to a local authority when considering direct payments to a child or a parent, which was also withdrawn after discussion.
In the ninth day of committee on the Children and Families Bill, peers debated the appeals process, mediation and apprenticeships for those with special educational needs (SEN). Government amendments were passed clarifying the requirements for the independence of a mediator from a local authority.
Peers also discussed amendments relating to special educational needs assessments in prisons and the youth justice system, which were withdrawn in light of the evidence of existing programmes.
Similarly, an amendment that would require Ofsted to inspect specialist SEN support services, and an amendment requiring local authorities to ensure that families with deaf children had access to communication courses on communicating with their children, were both withdrawn in light of current practices.
Amendments requiring the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) to be a qualified teacher and to complete mandatory training on SEN and the imposition of mandatory training in special educational needs and specific learning difficulties for all new teachers were debated by peers but not agreed.
An amendment calling for a plain English version of the code of practice was also considered by peers, but not moved.
During the tenth day of debate at committee stage of the Children and Families Bill peers voiced strong support for government proposals on young carers.
Despite strong support on the floor of the House amendments to require schools to state what they provided in relation to their policies, pastoral care, ethos, and curriculum; to place PSHE in the curriculum at all four key stages; and to require the secretary of state to update the guidance the department issued to schools on SRE, to take into account modern developments such as the dangers posed to young people online, did not receive government backing and were withdrawn.
A debate was held on supporting child asylum-seekers in adulthood once they had left care, with the government reassuring the House there was already provision to do this. A series of technical government amendments were passed following a debate on clause 75 and the setting up of childminder agencies. The government felt it was the best way to achieve its objectives on increasing the number of staff, their quality and reduce costs.
In the penultimate day of committee stage of the Children and Families Bill Lords debated the role of English local authorities in securing early-years provision free of charge for young children and about sufficient childcare. An amendment was agreed which placed a duty on local authorities to make arrangements for supporting pupils at schools with medical conditions.
Amendments seeking to introduce a birth registration pilot scheme within children's centres were welcomed by the government but the need for legislating for the proposals was argued against. Additional amendments seeking to protect children who were believed to be possessed by evil spirits and amendments offering protection for children against physical violence and amendments on part-time schools were also considered but not moved.
Although not passed, amendments on strengthening of the role of Children's Commissioner were discussed during the debate. A debate on tobacco control and smoking in cars was adjourned before its conclusion.
The final day of consideration in committee of the Children and Families Bill (20 November 2013) resumed on amendment 263, which had been moved, on standardized packaging which was withdrawn.
Amendments concerning shared parental leave were also debated but withdrawn. Amendments concerning rights of carers for time off were debated but the government assured peers provision already existed in the legislation. The minister promised that concre proposal would shortly be forthcoming on issuing guidance and leave for the bereavement of a child and a review of flexible working was called for, which the government would do within seven years of implementation.
In the first day of report stage (9 December 2013) in the Lords amendments were debated on the access to intermediary services for the descendants of adopted people and there was a long discussion about the repeal of the requirement to give due consideration to ethnicity of a child in the adoption process. Amendments were approved which would turn directions relating to all local authorities into an order requiring the agreement of both Houses through the affirmative procedure.
Peers withdrew amendments on better support for looked after children relating to biological family contact after the government said new guidance would soon be coming into place. The government also confirmed they would be tabling an amendment at third reading to allow those in care to stay with their foster families until their 21st birthday if they wished.
An amendment on the creation of a 'child trafficking guardian' was defeated on a division; 145 votes to 130.