The government will overhaul the special educational needs (SEN) system and reduce delays in the family justice and adoption systems, under new legislation announced in today’s Queen’s speech.
The planned Children and Families Bill would deliver better support for families - legislating to break down barriers, bureaucracy and delays which stop vulnerable children getting the provision and help they need.
The bill would introduce a single, simpler assessment process for children with SEN or disabilities, backed up by neweducation, health and care plans - part of the biggest reforms to SEN provision in 30 years.
It would speed up care proceedings in family courts so children do not face long and unnecessary hold ups in finding permanent, loving and stable homes - with the introduction of a new six-month time limit on cases and other reforms. Children currently wait an average of 55 weeks for court decisions.
It would include legislation to stop damaging delays by social workers in matching parents to ethnic minority children - black children already take 50 per cent longer to be adopted than white children or those of other ethnicities.
It would strengthen the law so children have a relationship with both parents if families break up - if that is in their best interest. Ministers will consult shortly on the legal options about how this would work.
And it would strengthen the powers of the children’s commissioner - to champion children’s rights and hold government to account for legislation and policy.
The bill is expected to be introduced early in 2013.
The main elements of the forthcoming bill include:
Special education needs (SEN)
The key measures are:
- Replacing SEN statements and learning difficulty assessments (for 16- to 25-year-olds) with a single, simpler 0-25 assessment process and education, health and care plan from 2014.
- Providing statutory protections comparable to those currently associated with a statement of SEN to up to 25 in further education - instead of it being cut off at 16.
- Requiring local authorities to publish a local offer showing the support available to disabled children and young people and those with SEN, and their families.
- Giving parents or young people with education, health and care plans the right to a personal budget for their support.
- Introducing mediation for disputes and trialling giving children the right to appeal if they are unhappy with their support.
The legislation would draw on evidence from 20 local pathfinders set up in September 2011. The interim evaluation reports are due in summer and late autumn 2012, with a final report in 2013.
Ministers have committed to making all the necessary legal changes to put in place reforms proposed in the ‘Support and aspiration’ green paper.
The green paper was published for consultation in March 2011 - and next week, ministers will set out their detailed response and reform timetable.
The key measure is:
- Stopping local authorities delaying an adoption to find the perfect match if there are suitable adopters available. The ethnicity of a child and prospective adopters will come second, in most cases, to the speed of placing a child in a permanent home.
The proposal was set out in the Adoption Action Plan published in March 2012 - part of wider reforms to speed up and overhaul the system for prospective adoptive parents and children.
The key measures are:
- Creating a time limit of six months by which care cases must be completed.
- Making it explicit that case management decisions should be made only after impacts on the child, their needs and timetable have been considered.
- Focusing the court on those issues which are essential to deciding whether to make a care order.
- Getting rid of unnecessary processes in family proceedings by removing the requirement for interim care and supervision orders to be renewed every month by the judge and instead allowing the judge to set the length and renewal requirements of interim orders for a period which he or she considers appropriate, up to the expected time limit.
- Requiring courts to have regard to the impact of delay on the child when commissioning expert evidence and whether the court can obtain information from parties already involved.
- Requiring parents in dispute to consider mediation as a means of settling that dispute rather than litigation by making attendance at a mediation information and assessment meeting a statutory prerequisite to starting court proceedings.
- Freeing up judicial time by allowing legal advisers to process uncontested divorce applications.
It follows the government’s response in February 2012 to the final report of the independent Family Justice Review published in November 2011.
Ministers intend to strengthen the law to ensure children have a relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe and in the child’s best interests.
The government believes that this will encourage more separated parents to resolve their disputes out of court and agree care arrangements that fully involve both parents.
The government will consult shortly on how the legislation can be framed to ensure that a meaningful relationship is not about an equal division of time but the quality of time that a child spends with each parent.
This was announced as part of the government’s response to the independent Family Justice Review in February 2012. The review published its final report in November 2011.
Office of the Children’s Commissioner
The key measures are:
- Strengthening the commissioner’s remit - with new overall function to “promote and protect children’s rights” as set out in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child.
- Widening the Commissoner’s remit to include the functions of the Children’s Rights Director in Ofsted.
- Granting new powers to carry out assessments of the impact of new policies and legislation on children’s rights and underline existing duties on government and public services to publish formal responses to commissioner’s reports.
- Giving more independence from ministers and report directly to parliament - with parliament playing a stronger role in scrutinising the commissioner’s performance.
- Granting future commissioners a single six-year term of office.
It follows Dr John Dunford’s independent review of the Office for Children’s Commissioner which reported in December 2010.
Notes to editors
The Children and Families Bill is expected to be introduced early in 2013 and carry over into the third session of this parliament for royal assent.
Here follows more background detail on each element of the proposed legislation:
Special educational needs
The biggest SEN reforms for 30 years were set out in the ‘Support and Aspiration’ green paper, published and consulted in March 2011.
The government is piloting the reforms in 20 pathfinders, covering 31 local authorities. It announced the details in September 2011.
The interim evaluation will be published in autumn 2012 and final evaluation in 2013. The work of the pathfinders will continue to inform the changes we make to legislation through the Bill.
Ministers intend to publish the formal response to the green paper consultation next week.
The bill’s SEN provisions will apply to England.
Ministers published the Action Plan for Adoption.
The bill’s adoption provisions would apply to England. The government will discuss with the Welsh ministers whether it would be extended to Wales.
The government published its response to the independent Family Justice Review..
The final report of the Family Justice Review was published in November 2011.
The bill’s private and public family law provisions would apply to England and Wales.
Flexible parental leave and flexible leave
The government published a consultation on Modern workplaces in May 2011.
The consultation on implementing the recommendations of Imelda Walsh’s 2008 independent review - Amending and extending the right to request flexible working to parents of older children and previous government’s response.
The bill’s flexible parental leave provisions would apply to the whole of Great Britain. Flexible Working provisions would apply to England, Wales and Scotland - but is devolved to Northern Ireland.
Office of the Children’s Commissioner
Dr John Dunford published an independent review of Children’s commissioner’s work in December 2010.
The Children Act 2004 - established the current Office of the Children’s Commissioner. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 transferred the post of the Children’s Rights Director to Ofsted - the role was originally established under the Care Standards Act 2000.
The bill’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner reforms would apply primarily to England. The devolved administrations have their own children’s commissioners.