The government has been defeated in the House of Lords over plans to grant councils exemptions from statutory duties to children.
An amendment by cross-bench peer Lord Ramsbotham to remove clause 29 from the Children and Social Work Bill was passed last night by 245 votes to 215.
The clause would have granted ministers the power to over-ride primary children’s social care legislation for an initial three years, in a move designed to encourage new ways of working by removing what the government described as the overregulation of social work practice.
During the debate, education minister Lord Nash said: “Too often legislation not only sets out what local authorities need to do to protect children but gives a significant level of detail about how they should do it.
“We believe that changes to legislation should be built on evidence of what works in practice, but at present we do not have the ability to trial some of the new ideas local authorities tell us about.”
Lord Ramsbotham described the clause as a “subversion of the rule of law” that is “not only wrong but unnecessary” as innovation can take place within existing arrangements.
He said the clause would result in courts being unable to enforce the rights of children and their families if councils had been granted an exemption from acting in accordance with the law.
Lord Ramsbotham also cited concern expressed by the Local Government Association that clause 29 would give the education secretary the power to impose new ways of working on councils that are subject to intervention without democratic scrutiny.
The government had sought to allay fears clause 29 could lead to the privatisation of child protection by tabling an amendment ruling out any change to current restrictions which prevent profit-making in children’s social care.
The bill will now return to the House of Commons where the amendment could be overturned by MPs.
Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has previously told LGC that the clause was a “constitutional issue”, adding the government may in the future seek to focus on flexibilities to regulations under secondary rather than primary legislation.