While everyone’s watching the Brexit court battle, Theresa May’s been trampling over democracy somewhere else

Steve Topple

While everyone’s watching the goverment’s Supreme Court Brexit battle, the Conservatives have just trampled over democracy elsewhere. The House of Lords recently voted down a controversial piece of legislation which could see more privatisation-by-stealth. But it is now passing through the House of Commons. And the government seems determined to force the bill into law, with the privatisation sections back in place.

A ‘bonfire’ of children’s services

Originally, the children and social work bill would have seen child social care and protection services opened up for private companies to run. But the bill would also have allowed councils in England to sweep aside over 80 years of child protection laws. Critics called it a “bonfire” of children’s rights.

As it stands, laws apply to every child in England, via local authorities. But the government’s bill wanted to change this. It would have allowed councils to opt out from national law for up to six years. If implemented, this would have meant social care laws would no longer apply to all children. Some elements of the bill would also have applied in Wales.

The bill would have affected nearly all local authority-run children’s social care services. These include child protection, fostering and adoption, family support, the care system and support for caregivers, and services for disabled children. Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson said that local authorities opting out of national law would:

Allow great social workers to try out new approaches and be freed from limiting bureaucracy. All in the interests of achieving more for children.

Yet another postcode lottery

But critics disagreed and expressed far-reaching concerns, saying that it would mean a “postcode lottery” of children’s services. Carolyne Willow, Director of campaign group Article 39, said it would lead to the “fragmentation of child welfare law for the first time” ever. Willow also said the bill would mean “children in neighbouring towns and cities will have different rights”. She added that “siblings placed apart could be subject to different legal protection”.

And crucially, the bill would have allowed local authorities to give children’s services to private companies. This was because of their exemption from national law. Ministers denied this was the case. But as The Canary previously reported, the same thing has happened with the education system in the UK over the past two decades. And the end result has been the start of the “academisation” process.

The Conservative government: trampling over democracy

On 8 November, the Lords voted to remove the so-called ‘innovation’ clauses, which allowed exemption from national law, from the bill. Not to be put off, though, the Tories just put in their own amendments to the bill. And these, once again, include reinstating the controversial sections which could lead to privatisation of services.

Timpson said:

I have heard the concerns raised over the clauses on the power to innovate. In response to these concerns… we plan to introduce a much altered and improved set of clauses for consideration by parliament. These powers will give local authorities an opportunity to try different ways of delivering better services to children, while maintaining their fundamental rights and ensuring they still receive the services they need.

The government has reintroduced the ‘innovation’ clauses, by putting ‘safeguards’ in place. Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb said in parliament on 5 December:

As [MPs] know, the other place [the House of Lords] was unhappy about the clauses that were included in the bill… But the provisions are too important just to let them drop. I emphasise that this is a grassroots power, empowering local authorities to test new and better ways of working in the best interests of children.

Privatisation by stealth

But Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner, called on the government not to reintroduce these clauses. She said:

Once already in the other place [the House of Lords], the government’s plans for the outsourcing and privatisation of our children’s services, dressed up as “innovation”, were defeated. Most people who work in the profession [social work] believe that privatisation is absolutely the wrong answer… In fact, the best way of helping would be to restore the investment in our community and local services that the government have cut over the last few years.

The Conservative attitude towards the Lords’ voting out of the ‘innovation’ clauses encapsulates England’s ‘democratic deficit‘. The government’s amendments amount to little more than lip service to the concerns of Lords and campaigners. And now, the government will be able to push the bill through parliament with little opposition. This is because it falls under English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), meaning that the Conservatives have an automatic majority.

In essence, the whole passage through the House of Lords was a pointless exercise. And the implications for English democracy are concerning. But what’s more worrying is the future of children’s services. If the Conservatives have their way, these will go the same way as the NHS, rail and education. Privatised, by stealth.

Get Involved

– If you or someone you know need to talk, call Childline on 0800 1111.

Support Article 39.

Sign the petition against the children and social work bill.

Write to your MP, urging them to oppose the bill.

Featured image via Flickr

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