The Children and Families Bill – Queen’s speech 2012 / by Mark Weber

The Children and Families Bill was announced in this months Queen’s speech. Below is a summary of the main proposals including those affecting parental separation and shared care.

Content of the Bill

The Bill intends to make it easier for parents to share caring responsibilities; give families of children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities more choice and control; and support some of the most vulnerable children, including those in care or whose parents have separated.

One of the key aims of the Bill is to provide a much simpler system of education, health and social care for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

Recognising that parents of children with additional needs face many challenges when their child needs extra support in their education, and even more so when their child has social care and health needs. The proposed legislation would ensure that education; health and social care services are jointly planned and commissioned by local authorities and health services working together.

It would also include proposals for local authorities to set out a local offer of all services available to support children or young people who are disabled or who have SEN, and their families across education, health and social care.

The adoption clauses in the Bill would seek to reduce the time children have to wait for an adoptive placement and see more children placed with families with less delay and disruption.

The Bill says that new legislation would prevent local authorities from delaying an adoption by searching for a “perfect match” for a child, particularly a perfect or partial match based on the child’s ethnicity.

With regard to family law, although going to court to resolve disputes about children should be the last resort, the proposed legislative changes in this Bill make clear that parents should work together to reach agreements about their child’s care when they separate. It would also set out that, where it is safe and in the best interests of the child, both parents should be involved with their child’s upbringing as fully as possible.

The Government will be consulting 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.  The changes being planned on public law will mean a care proceedings system in which delay is no longer acceptable and where there is a much clearer focus on the child and their needs.

Through proposals on flexible parental leave the Bill seeks to give parents more choice and flexibility about how they share the care of their child in the first year, enabling both parents to retain a strong link with the labour market. By extending the right to request flexible working it is hoped that all employees will have the confidence to ask their employer for flexible working without fear of detrimental treatment.

John Dunford’s review of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner stated that there was a continuing need for an independent advocate for children and young people, but that the existing legislative framework was limiting the Commissioner from fulfilling that role effectively. Therefore it is proposed that there be a change to the function of the Children’s Commissioner to one of “promoting and protecting children’s rights”, enabling the UK to meet better its obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Timing

The Bill will be scheduled for introduction in the second session in the Commons, early in 2013. It would then be carried over into the third session for Royal Assent.

Consultation

All of the proposals in the Bill have already been informed by the views and experience of families and those who work with them.

Through the special educational needs and disability green paper, the consultation on theFamily Justice Reviewproposals and the Dunford Review.

There will be a full public consultation on the proposals on adoption, and calls for evidence as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process for the proposals in the Bill.