[First published as part of a feature in CYP Now on 30th October 2019 along with pieces from Andy Elvin, Anna Feuchtwang, Ray Jones, June Thoburn and Carolyne Willow.]

At Children England the Anniversary of the Children Act 1989 has sent us looking back through our archives, as well as considering its fitness for the future.

Children England’s foundation back in 1942 enabled our members to have significant influence in the Children Act 1948, that created the first clear single duty for every local authority to be legally responsible for any child who could not live with their birth family. Far from seeing this new state duty as a threat or a ‘takeover’ of what charities had been doing for hundreds of years before, our members welcomed a government that made universal collectively-funded commitments to children. Far from seeing ourselves as competitors with each other, or with the state, our founding members pledged to help the state deliver well on its new duties, to share expertise, to commit to partnership with national and local government for the benefit of children.

We played a similar partnership role with the Department of Health to help create, consult on, pass and implement the Children Act 1989. The scope and complexity of the work was huge, attempting to bring coherence and child-centredness to the previous cats cradles of intersecting family laws and precedents, child protection and care provisions, and wildly varying practices from one area to the next in family support services. The work was led by the late, much respected civil servant Rupert Hughes, and the brilliant family lawyer, now Supreme Court Judge, Lady Hale. Children England (then the ‘National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations’) acted as a conduit between central government and the thousands of charities and voluntary groups that were – and still are – a vital and often innovative part of the sector that had to adopt and adapt to the new law.

Ten years after the Act was passed, Rupert Hughes wrote an essay in Children England’s Annual Review, that we hope to re-publish as part of our Anniversary celebrations. In a characteristically nuanced assessment of its successes and problems he refuted the idea that under-resourcing had been a significant problem – although we might wonder what he’d make today of the of more than 60% cuts to the councils who still carry all those important duties. He mused:

“Another reason sometimes advanced is the simultaneous implementation of community care… I think there is a modicum of truth in this, at least in the sense that managers may have found it easier to grapple with the concept of the purchaser/provider split than with the Act’s definition of children in need!”

The original intentions of the general duty under Section 17 - to provide support to all children and families ‘in need’ - were to promise all children that they and their family would be positively supported to live, love and grow together by offering a whole range of community services and supportive social care practices, only resorting, in extremis, to the child protection powers under Section 47 in the rare circumstances when a child needed to go into care. Section 17 was, in effect and intention, an early intervention duty, but it’s hard to see it having that effect today. The last decade of relentless cuts to benefits, councils, legal aid and more have torn new holes in the safety net and left too many families to fend for themselves without sufficient income, food, homes or practical help until their descent into family crisis triggers care proceedings. This risks turning the Children Act 1989 into a 'blue light' emergency intervention by the state, and that is the diametric opposite of its intended role as supporting all families to thrive and avert crises wherever possible.

As Children England continues our campaigning for a Children Act Funding Formula based on a true understanding of Section 17, and radical reform to the divisive, costly ‘marketplace’ for purchasing and providing care, we think Rupert was a man of great wisdom and foresight! Our challenge today is to collaborate again, to refresh and re-invest in achieving the vision and principles of the Act so that we can tackle the serious children’s services crisis created by cuts and costly marketisation.