30 years of the Children Act

The Children Act 1989 was a landmark piece of legislation and a watershed in childrenā€™s rights in England and Wales.  Perhaps its most significant achievement was the dramatic change in perspective it brought to children and their rights in the law.  Historically, parents were first in view and were seen to have rights over their children ā€“ being a parent seemed to be based more on authority than responsibility. The Act turned this on its head and put children and their rights front and center: it is the duty of parents and the law to protect childrenā€™s rights.  Children were to be given a voice in law and the guiding principle of the legislation was and remains that the welfare of the child is paramount in all circumstances.

The Act remains highly respected and central to children law in England and Wales – quite an achievement considering all the societal changes that have taken place over 30 years. But it has been interesting to read views from a variety of those whose lives the Act has influenced, either at work or at home. There seems to be a consensus that the legislation itself was a work of great intention and achievement, and which retains its value in a legal sense.   However, even the best legislation can find its effect constrained. Severe lack of funding on the ground significantly curbs the ability to put principles into practice. Beyond that, even with all the resources in the world, perhaps we have to recognise there are limits to how far the law itself can go in resolving difficulties within families.

The act was seen at the time to be a major step forward in promoting the best interests of children.

It exposed the need for vulnerable children to be protected and heralded the development of the principles for the safeguarding of children that we now take for granted. But although legislation is critically important in setting benchmarks, fine words can be so easily hijacked by cuts in resources. Today, there is a lack of political and public will to put the needs of children, and especially their rights, at the heart of policy and practice.

The stark reality is that the outcomes overall for our children across health, social care, education, justice and poverty are some of the worst in the developed world - and, after ten years of austerity, are getting worse. There is increasing poverty and inequality alongside devastating cuts to public services. Why are so many children being failed on such a grand scale?'

Al Aynsley-Green, ChildrenĀ’s commissioner for England, 2005-09