The new Children and Families Bill - which has just received royal assent - will mean changes to the law to give greater protection to vulnerable children, better support for children whose parents are separating, a new system to help children with special educational needs and disabilities, and help for parents to balance work and family life.
The act also ensures vital changes to the adoption system can be put into practice, meaning more children who need loving homes are placed faster. Reforms for children in care can be implemented including giving them the choice to stay with their foster families until their 21st birthday.
Edward Timpson, Children and Families Minister, said:"The Children and Families Act is all about reforming services for vulnerable children - reflecting this government's deep determination to give every child, whatever their start in life, an equal chance to make the best of themselves.
"Our adoption reforms will help the 6,000 children who need loving homes to be adopted. Our reforms to special educational needs will see a system introduced which is designed around the needs of children and will support them up to the age of 25.
"For children coming into the care, the new 26-week time limit for care proceedings will reduce unnecessary delays. Virtual school heads will champion their education; children in residential care will live in safer, better quality homes and care leavers will have the option to stay with their foster families until they turn 21.
"The act will also make it easier for families to access more flexible childcare, and give young carers' greater support."
The act includes a number of new measures to protect the welfare of children, including:
- changes to the law to give children in care the choice to stay with their foster families until they turn 21
- a new legal duty on schools to support children at school with medical conditions better
- making young carers' and parent carers' rights to support from councils much clearer
- reforms to children's residential care to make sure homes are safe and secure, and to improve the quality of care vulnerable children receive
- a requirement on all state-funded schools - including academies - to provide free school lunches on request for all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2
- amendments to the law to protect children in cars from the dangers of second-hand smoke
The act will also help people to better balance their work and home life with the following measures:
- from April 2015, mothers, fathers and adopters can opt to share parental leave around their child's birth or placement. This gives families more choice over taking leave in the first year - dads and mothers' partners can take up to a year, or parents can take several months at the same time
- from 1 October 2014, prospective fathers or a mother's partner can take time off to attend up to 2 antenatal appointments
- adoption leave and pay will reflect entitlements available to birth parents from April 2015 - no qualifying period for leave; enhanced pay to 90% of salary for the first 6 weeks; and time off to attend introductory appointments. Intended parents in surrogacy and ‘foster to adopt' arrangements will also qualify for adoption leave and pay
- extending the right to request flexible working to all employees from 30 June 2014
- replacing the current statutory procedure, through which employers consider flexible working requests, with a duty on employers to consider with requests in a ‘reasonable' manner
Jenny Willott, Employment Relations Minister, said; 'Current workplace arrangements have not kept up with the times. The Children and Families Act will bring the way new parents balance their working and home lives into the 21st century.
'By enabling any employee to request to work flexibly, we want to remove any cultural assumption that flexible working is only for women, or just for parents and carers. We want these reforms to bring about a culture change in Britain's workplaces, allowing everyone to better balance work with their personal life in the way that works for them.
'The new system is good for business as it will create a more motivated and flexible, talented workforce. Employers will be able to attract and retain women - from the boardroom to the shop floor - and prevent them from dropping out of the world of work once they start a family. Flexible working will also help widen the pool of talent in the labour market, helping to drive growth.'
The act will also create a more efficient and effective family justice system which improves the experiences of children and families who go to court.