Thirty years later, is it time to revisit the guiding principles of the Children Act?

Posted by / Wednesday 20 November 2019 / Children's rights

Thirty years ago this month a critical piece of legislation received Royal Assent. The Children Act 1989 changed our approach to the way children in the UK are cared for and protected by making the welfare of the child paramount.


Children’s views and wishes must now be taken into account in any decision. Fundamentally, the Act viewed that children are best cared for in their own families, but it also put in place a system to protect children when at risk of harm. At the time, this marked a significant change of approach: children as simply needing protection, to individuals with their own rights.


This was a change that Action for Children welcomed. We provide many early help services supporting families to build healthy relationships and individual resilience, and we see the difference that this type of support can make in preventing issues from becoming more serious.

But while we should celebrate the achievements of the Act, we should also acknowledge that we have much further to go to fully realise the Act’s vision. Legislation is always implemented in a context; the context of the last decade has made achieving the original aims of the Act particularly challenging.

Under section 17, the Act states that local authorities should promote the welfare of any children whose development is at risk. This recognised in law the importance of services that support children, young people and families to promote long term wellbeing.

Over the last decade, available funding for local authority children’s services in England has decreased by £3 billion (29 per cent). Demand for children’s social care has increased, with significantly more children now on child protection plans and being taken into care. Intense pressures on local authorities have inevitably led them to prioritise more intensive statutory services, with early help support bearing the brunt of cuts. Social workers have said that their decisions are now being influenced by the lack of resources, meaning that some cases that would have previously received support under section 17 are less likely to.

This means that thirty years on, a key intention of the Children Act, to promote the welfare of children when there are early signs of a problem and to support families to help keep them together, is still not a reality. In effect, we are rationing the help we give some of our most vulnerable children.


Our ‘Revolving Door’ reports found that as many as 36,000 children who were referred to children’s social care in 2013/14 and did not receive it, were then referred again the following year. 23,000 were then found to be in need, suggesting early opportunities to provide help were missed. We also found that only one in four children who were assessed by social services as ‘no further action’ in 2015/16 were referred onto early help, leaving 140,000 without support. Without early help, problems go unresolved, and vulnerable children are left to suffer until crisis point is reached.

Thirty years on, we are therefore calling on the government to revisit the guiding principles of the Children Act and to rebalance the focus of policy around early intervention and prevention. To make the Act’s vision a reality, the next government must ensure local authorities have the resources to invest in high quality, evidence based early help. They must also introduce a statutory duty on local partners to provide early help, to ensure all children, young people and families get the timely support they need.