As chief secretary to the Treasury Paul Boateng puts the finishing
touches to the children at risk green paper – due out anytime –
anticipation about its contents mounts.
First announced in October as the government’s response to
Safeguarding Children – a report into the protection of children
published by eight independent inspectorates – the green paper is
now the source of hope and concern alike for social care sector
With the term “children at risk” estimated to cover at least a
fifth of all children, the paper is expected to be far-reaching.
Many directors of social services see this as necessary to ensure
that all levels of need are addressed. They argue that children
move between levels of need and in and out of being at risk, so
more than 20 per cent is not as large as it sounds.
“The reality is that it’s right to think about 20 per cent of
children but you are not thinking about 20 per cent all at the same
time,” says Andrew Christie, a member of the Association of
Directors of Social Services children and families committee and
assistant director of children’s services at Hammersmith &
Fulham Council. But the far-reaching nature of the paper should not
mean it loses its focus on those who are most critically in need,
Others are looking to the paper to provide clarity. “There is some
confusion about what the government means by children at risk,
children who are vulnerable and children in need, and if the paper
clarifies this then that will be helpful,” says Jane Held,
committee chairperson and director of social services at Camden
She explains that lack of clarification has caused problems, such
as section 17 of the Children Act, which relates to children in
need, being interpreted too narrowly so children in need are seen
solely as a social services responsibility. “There is a need for
the government to define more clearly the scope of children that
require targeted intervention by public services, and to adequately
cost that,” she adds.
The current fragmentation of children’s services and lack of
information-sharing leading to children constantly being reassessed
is also seen as an issue that needs to be addressed by the paper.
The ADSS envisages a simplified and shared assessment process
across children’s services as a way to combat this.
“When we talk to parents, the last thing they want to do is spend
an hour going through their children’s details when they did the
same last week,” says committee member and director of social
services and health at Cheshire Council, Andrew Webb.
Directors argue that a common approach to assessment would allow
professionals to build on information that has already been
provided rather than duplicating it.
They also believe that it doesn’t make sense to pin accountability
for one group of children onto one service when so many categories
overlap. However, they argue that there is a need for the
government to decide on one department to take the lead on
children’s services. “The ADSS wants clear identification and
respect for the range of professionals and others, and clear
understanding that children have to be seen in the round with
shared accountability and responsibility, but leadership from one
place,” says Held.
Children’s charity NCH believes there needs to be a children’s
services lead appointed in each locality, working to strategically
join up services. Caroline Abrahams, director of public policy at
the charity, says this could be developed within a range of
existing or emerging structures, such as children and young
people’s strategy partnerships or children’s trusts.
The charity also wants the green paper to outline plans for a
minister to take on specific responsibility for children, arguing
that the minister for young people Hilary Benn is overloaded, given
his Home Office responsibilities for prisons.
Meanwhile, children’s charity Barnardo’s is calling for the
government to propose an “overarching set of principles for all
areas of children’s services” to address the current situation, in
which they believe children in different groups of services are
being treated with different sets of values. Liz Garrett, head of
policy at the charity, says they hope the paper will outline the
need to ensure that “children are seen as children”, pointing out
that some young offenders currently receive tougher sentences than
She adds that, although there is clearly a need to ensure
specialist services are available, professionals must make sure
they are not working in isolation from each other.
Abrahams says NCH is also stressing the need for the paper not to
simply analyse the problems concerning children at risk but put
forward “concrete actions” with resources to back them up.
It remains unclear at this stage whether a national agency for
children, possibly in line with Lord Laming’s recommendations from
the Victoria Climbi’ Inquiry, will find its way into the paper.
There is plenty of uncertainty around the benefits of any such
Garrett says Barnardo’s is cautious about the creation of a new
national agency, when bodies such as the Children and Young
People’s Unit already exist. Barnardo’s would prefer improvements
to be made to agencies already in place. The charity is also
concerned that a national body could take away the necessary link
to local authorities, arguing that children need localised
Held says the ADSS would welcome a national agency for children
which had responsibility for setting national standards that relate
to all bodies on how they deliver services to children, but not
another provider body for children. “If a national agency is about
national standards then we welcome it. But there are already a
plethora of organisations that have responsibility for children,”
Directors at the ADSS Spring Seminar in Liverpool last month were
concerned that unless the green paper contains incentives to ensure
health and education play an active part in its implementation, it
could all be left down to social services.
Mike Leadbetter, immediate past president of the ADSS, says:
“Health executives have said to me: ‘I agree children’s welfare
should be the responsibility of all public services, but I’m not
going to lose my position for not doing my job on children’s
services whereas I am if I don’t meet our waiting list
Leadbetter adds that the situation is similar in education, with
targets for educational attainment often discouraging schools from
taking on those deemed as problem children, such as truants or
young offenders. He believes alternative incentives, such as
recognition in league tables when a school has taken on a high
level of excluded children, is needed to resolve this.
Directors are also looking to the green paper to resolve
confidentiality issues, given that this is essential for
identification, referral and tracking to work and is a large
barrier to joint working.
They cite current legislation as confusing and conflicting. “The
only way we can progress on information sharing is if the
government address the conflicts between the Data Protection Act,
confidentiality legislation and the Freedom of Information Act,”
says Held. Christie agrees: “It’s mad that we are all trying to
work this out for ourselves. There needs to be better national
guidance on what can and cannot be done.” Christie says he hopes to
see proposals for legislation within the green paper in order to
The speculation will soon be over. But whatever it contains, the
green paper is only one more step along the long path to improving
services for children at risk.