Mixed reception for Children and Families Bill


The Queen's Speech has unveiled new measures which the Government says will streamline support for children with special educational needs, parental leave, care proceedings and adoption processes and strengthen the concept of shared parenting.

Family Law

Ministers say the provisions of the Children and Families Bill, which will come into force over the next parliamentary session, will ensure the most deserving children and families will receive support when they need it.

Plans for more flexible parental leave will allow a mother to return to work sooner after giving birth. This will be done by partially transferring maternity-leave entitlement to the baby's father.

Since the Government believes that many children currently remain in care for too long and are denied the stability of a permanent home, another provision of the Bill is designed to make adoption processes faster.

A new time limit of 6 months for the completion of cases concerning children entering care will be implemented in England and Wales. Emma Hopkins, specialist Family and Matrimonial Law Solicitor with Simpson Millar says that;

“This is alarming to us as lawyers working within the system. Whilst current delays are unacceptable, better outcomes for children are not going to be achieved solely by legislation imposing an arbitrary time limit.”

“The reality is that many months are lost in court proceedings due to a lack of court time and poor planning at the outset of proceedings, in particular the failure of Local Authorities to set up assessments in parallel with or ahead of initiating proceedings. What is needed are more resources.”

The Government says it will also consult over controversial plans designed to strengthen the rights of separated fathers to see their children, enabling maintenance of relationships with both parents after separation. The report of the Family Justice Review had cautioned against any change in this area which might risk creating a presumption that a child should spend 50% of their time with each parent and could have the effect of putting the wishes of the parents ahead of the best interests of the children. However, the Government rejected these concerns and is committed to a change to the statutory language.

For children with special educational needs (SEN) the shakeup of the current law is the most comprehensive in 3 decades, according to Ministers.

Under the Bill's terms, a single assessment process and plans to cover education, health and care needs will replace the current system of SEN statements and Learning Difficulty Assessments.

This will extend the statutory protection currently given only to children aged 16 or below to young adults of up to 25 who are in further education.

The plans for changes to SEN assessment have been cautiously welcomed by campaigners for people with multi-sensory impairments.

"The current system is extraordinarily complex, leading to fraught experiences for deafblind and multi-sensory impaired children," said John Dickinson-Lilley of the charity Sense.

"We welcome the commitment to have a single assessment and plan for health, education and social care for disabled young people, but this must be underpinned by clear statutory obligations on all education, health and social care agencies and settings including academies and free schools."

However, the planned changes were criticised by the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

"The current SEN Code of Practice enshrines entitlements for children and young people and should not be revoked," said the NUT general secretary Christine Blower. "There has been no call for its withdrawal or revision from any quarter."

Commending the Bill overall, Children's Minister Sarah Teather said its provisions will give children and families the support they need when they need it most: "Just after birth, if they have a disability or special educational need, when parents separate, or if they are in care waiting for adoption."

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