Queen's Speech: Children and families feature

image captionThe government says the Bill 'puts families at the front of national life'

Plans for more flexible parental leave, speedier adoptions and a radical shake-up of support for children with special educational needs are being announced in the Queen's Speech.

Measures which the government says will put families at the "front and centre of national life" are planned for the next session of Parliament.

Under the plans, mothers could share their maternity leave with fathers.

And there will be a new time limit for cases of children going in to care.

This provision - for England and Wales - will mean family courts should make a decision on whether a child should be taken from their parents and placed in care within six months.

The courts will have to take into account the impact of any delays on children.

This is part of the government's drive to speed up the adoption process. It believes too many children stay too long in care and miss out on the stability of a caring permanent home.

The measures are all in the Children and Families Bill outlined by the Queen to Parliament.

Special-needs overhaul

The plans for more flexible parental leave will allow women who want to return to work earlier after having a baby to do so, by transferring some of their maternity-leave entitlement to the baby's father.

The government is also pressing ahead with controversial plans aimed at strengthening the rights of divorced fathers to see their children.

The Queen's Speech said: "Ministers intend to strengthen the law to ensure children have a relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe, and in the child's best interests."

The government says it will consult shortly on how the legislation can be framed.

The plans have been welcomed by the campaign group Fathers for Justice, but some lawyers have questioned the need for legislation, saying it is unnecessary and could do more harm than good.

The government says the changes it is confirming for those with special educational needs (SEN) amount to the biggest overhaul of this area for 30 years.

According to the bill, the system of SEN statements and Learning Difficulty Assessments will be replaced in England from 2014 by a "single, simpler assessment process and (an) Education, Health and Care Plan".

The government says this will extend to young people up to the age of 25 in further education the statutory protections currently given to children aged up to 16.

The Children's Minister Sarah Teather said: "This Bill will mean that children and families get the support they need when they need it most - just after birth; if they have a disability or special educational need; when parents separate; or if they are in care, waiting for adoption."

The Bill will also give more powers to the children's commissioner for England to protect children's rights, taking over some responsibilities from England's schools' inspectorate, Ofsted.

Commissioner Maggie Atkinson will be given more independence from ministers and powers to carry out assessments of the impact of government policy on children.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, was critical of the planned changes to SEN assessment.

"The current SEN Code of Practice enshrines entitlements for children and young people and should not be revoked," she said.

"There has been no call for its withdrawal or revision from any quarter."

But the planned changes were welcomed by John Dickinson-Lilley, from the charity Sense.

"The current system is extraordinarily complex, leading to fraught experiences for deafblind and multi-sensory impaired children," he said.

"We welcome the commitment to have a single assessment and plan for health, education and social care for disabled young people, but this must be underpinned by clear statutory obligations on all education, health and social care agencies and settings including academies and free schools."


One key omission from the government's programme is a higher education bill for England, which had been expected until recently.

Professor Patrick McGhee, Vice Chancellor of the University of East London and Chairman of the million+ group of universities, said the loss of the bill meant a lost chance to regulate the university sector.

"While universities are increasingly restrained in terms of price and number controls, the private sector will now be allowed to expand without effective restraint, even though it is being backed by taxpayer funding," he said.

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