Today MPs in the Public Bill Committee clashed over the 'exemption clauses' of the Children and Social Work Bill. It's rewarding for all of us who've been briefing on and investigating the implications of these clauses to hear our concerns debated by elected representatives - despite the sense that if the government had involved parliamentarians, professionals and children and families themselves in drawing up the Bill, we might not be needing to have many of these arguments in the first place.

The Bill was launched suddenly and without warning last spring, and has made a precipitous journey through parliament since then. The proposals to open up what was then the whole of children's social care legislation to opt-outs by individual local authorities gave the children's sector pause for thought. Children England offered our members - and, increasingly, concerned professionals in the wider children's sector - a space to discuss what this would mean for children and their carers. In the sparkly rhetoric about 'innovation' there didn't seem to be much substantive information from the government on what the clauses would actually do to benefit children, whilst definitively putting into jeopardy some of the legal duties the sector has fought for and helped develop in order to protect them. 

It has been important for Children England to bring together and recognise the various views and priorities of children's organisations and expert professionals - as we hope it has been useful for them to hear each others' unique perspectives based on years of experience in fields from law to front line social work. The exemption clauses, whether you believe them necessary or not, would have far-reaching consequences that cannot go unexamined or misunderstood; yet plenty of professionals and the public, including parents and carers, would not have known about them unless the sector collaborated to raise awareness and invite comment. Together as a sector we've been able to challenge the government to be more transparent and more detailed about their plans to enable 'different ways of working' at local authority level. Our briefings as the Bill went through Lords helped them remove the exemption clauses entirely.

However, the government has re-instated them. Minister for Vulnerable Children Edward Timpson argued today that it isn't about what local authorities do: it's about how they do it - ie that the exemption clauses will allow social workers to continue observing their duties to children, but in more flexible ways, and that children's rights and protections will not be threatened. Why, then, ask opponents, do these clauses include in their scope primary legislation that is very much about what children are entitled to? Various of the government's examples of 'red tape' preventing good practice in children's social care concern fundamental protections that should be consistent across the country - not dispensed with as bureaucracy. Read any of the submissions to the Bill Committee that address the exemption clauses and you'll find examples of legislation children throughout England rely on and which by no definition can be considered red tape. NAGALRO's gives a particularly comprehensive list

As they arrive in the House of Commons, with additional safeguarding measures but essentially proposing the same mechanism for removing local duties to children, opinion on New Clauses 2 - 9 across the children's sector isn't homogenous. Children England doesn't represent the variety of our members' views on the clauses - their expertise and understanding has given them distinct positions that we know they're best placed to articulate themselves - so we've submitted evidence, quoted in today's debate, representing our own organisational opposition to the exemption clauses.

Bad legislation

These powers have been drafted and put before parliament too quickly and without any prior consultation with the public or the professionals who support children and families. They threaten the consistent nationwide application of other provisions in the very same Bill – for instance the Corporate Parenting Principles that have been welcomed by the sector and which many stakeholders are keen to help extend and reinforce. They are accompanied by very little detail as to why they are a necessary, proportionate response to a clearly stated problem; nor what specific ways of working local authorities are expecting or asking to ‘trial’ that would require using an exemption from primary law.

We are very concerned that the exemption clauses would represent an unprecedented constitutional challenge to the principle of universal application of primary legislation everywhere and at all times throughout the land, and an equally fundamental challenge to the primacy of parliament in democratically debating and deciding upon it. At most, an exemption would require an affirmative resolution in parliament, which is almost never opposed: historically parliament has passed 9,999 of 10,000 resolutions since 1965.

Read our full submission to the Public Bill Committee here.

Read the Public Bill Committee debate here.