Fresh concerns about the government’s decision to extend controversial easements allowing local authorities to set aside fundamental rights for children in care during the Coronavirus pandemic, have been raised by members of the House of Lords in a new report.

The report, published on 21 April by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee – a House of Lords Select Committee which assesses the merits of laws and other types of secondary legislation subject to parliamentary procedure – criticised the Department for Education’s decision to extend the easements for a further six months.

“We are concerned about the length of this further extension, especially as children have now returned to school. We consider that a three-month extension may have been more appropriate, given the vulnerability of the children affected and the benefits of face-to-face contact, especially over the summer holidays,” the peers said.

“The House may wish to press the Minister for an assurance that the Department will make every effort to bring to an end the temporary measures and return to regular face-to-face visits and meetings at the earliest opportunity.”

While the majority of the easements in place during the pandemic expired in September 2020, a remaining number of regulations were extended until 31 March 2021, and have now been extended further by the government after allegedly consulting with stakeholders.

The decision to extend the relaxation of important rights for children in care for a further six months, until 30 September, follows a landmark case which found the government had broken the law by failing to consult the Children’s Commissioner and other child welfare bodies before amending rules and regulations which could significantly impact children’s welfare in the sector.

Judges in the Court of Appeal also laid out the reasons for a consultation, which they said was necessary to improve the quality of decision making; to ensure those affected were consulted; and that a consultation was part of a wider democratic process that needed to be followed.

The extended easements, enabled through the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/261) include;

  • Allowing social workers to make virtual visits to looked after children via video conference, telephone, or any other electronic means;
  • Virtual visits of residential family centres and virtual interviews with residents and staff to form an opinion on the standard of care provided; and
  • Virtual meetings of children and young people in children’s homes with their families, social workers and others.