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Children Act 1989

The child protection system in England is grounded in the Children Act 1989, as amended. Statutory guidance published by the government, Working Together to Safeguard Children, which was updated in December 2023 following a consultation, provides detailed information on the core legal requirements.

The Children Act 1989 establishes several key principles, including

  • The concept of parental responsibility.
  • That a child’s welfare is the main consideration when the court is considering a question about a child’s upbringing.
  • That children are best looked after by their family unless intervention in family life is essential.

The Act places a general duty on local authorities to promote and safeguard the welfare of children in need in their area by providing a range of services appropriate to those children’s needs (section 17). It additionally sets out what a local authority must do when it has reasonable cause to suspect that a child in its area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm (section 47).

Section 31 of the Act sets out the circumstances under which a court may make an order placing a child in local authority care (a care order). The Act also sets out the functions of local authorities in relation to looked after children, including a duty under section 22(3) to safeguard and promote their welfare.

Children Act 2004

Under the Children Act 2004, a range of agencies, including local authorities, the police and health services, are under a duty to ensure they consider the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children when carrying out their functions (section 11). A similar duty is placed on other agencies (for example, schools) by other legislation.

Children and Social Work Act 2017

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 amended the Children Act 2004 to establish new local arrangements for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.

A central feature of the revised arrangements is that three safeguarding partners – the local authority, NHS Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) and police forces – are responsible for determining how safeguarding arrangements should work in their area for them and relevant agencies.

Government reform proposals

In February 2023, the government published an implementation strategy and consultation on reforming children’s social care in England: Stable Homes, Built on Love.

Over the next two years, the government plans to invest £200 million “addressing urgent issues facing children and families now, laying the foundations for whole system reform and setting national direction for change.”

Among other things, £45 million is being used for a ‘Families First for Children Pathfinder’ programme in up to 12 local areas in England. The pathfinders will test several things, including:

  • A new Family Help service that will remove the distinction between early help and children in need services
  • Changes to front-line child protection practice, including some child protection functions, such as section 47 enquiries and oversight of child protection plans, being led by a group of multi-agency staff from local authorities, police and health working as a team on a day-to-day basis.

The first wave of pathfinders, in Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton, launched in July 2023. A second wave in a further seven local authorities, were announced in April 2023.

Further information is provided in the Library briefing: Reform of children’s social care in England.

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