Hilton Dawson’s Blog
Hilton Dawson emerged from parliament on May 5th after
serving eight years as the MP for Lancaster & Wyre with the
avowed intention of resuming social work and taking part in the
transformation of children’s services on the ground.
Dawson, a former social worker, currently works for Voting for
Children – the Human Rights organisation which recognises that
adults have political
power and children have none. The body is for adults who want to
use their votes and ability to hold elected politicians to account
on behalf of children. He will also start his new job as chief
executive of Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa in August.
This is his blog from a daily life where social work and
politics are inextricably mixed as he picks his way through the new
world of children’s policy.
I spoke at the Secure Accomodation Network Conference last
It’s an irony, potentially a tragic irony that at a time
of so much promise in children’s services, yet when we need
to do so much to reduce the atrocious numbers of young people in
custody that this is a sector under so much threat.
As a social worker I had a good experience of working with staff
in secure accommodation. I regarded it as a repository of good
practice and sound planning for the most rejected sometimes the
most feared young people with whom we worked.
I still think it’s a sector which can play a big part in
developing a practical and ethical way out of the biggest child
care scandal of our time.
On Thursday September 15th Sam Elphick aged 17 died after being
found hanging in his cell at Hindley Young Offenders
Over the last 8 and a bit years of the Government which declares
that every child matters, every young person matters he was the
17th child to die in what passes for the care of the state.
Appallingly, Adam Rickwood, dead at 14 only last August is the
youngest child to die in prison in penal history.
Sometimes we might reflect that we haven’t come so
If we like children yet consider that there are a very small
number of young people from whom we need to be protected then we
should ensure that they are looked after according to all the
principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the
Children Act 1989, Children Act 2004 according to the standards
required for extremely troubled, neglected, abused children.
If we really cared about the neediest children in the land we
would ensure a better public understanding of the work that needs
to be done with them and target our resources so that those who do
the work were better trained, supported and regarded than they
If we were just like most other sensible, moderate, modern
European countries we would be looking forward to a Youth Justice
Bill which raised the age of criminal responsibility to at least 16
and dealt with children as children.
If we were really committed to ‘Every child matters’
we would certainly be working to provide alternatives to secure
accommodation to ensure a coherent approach to working with some
extremely troubled young people and keeping them safe rather than
being led by price and short term expediency.
I think that the way forward for the Secure Accomodation Network
is clear :
• Join the rest of the social work / children’s
profession in getting off our collective knees and being proud of
what we do.
• Seek out partnerships across the sector with colleagues and
organisations to work together, train and plan together.
• Develop new forms of services with seamless transitions
for young people across them.
• Ensure that we can evidence our claims of good
• Engage with employers, councillors, MPs , Ministers,
professional associations, trade unions, pressure groups to explain
why our current system of youth justice is both wildly inefficient
and utterly wrong.
• And above all use every opportunity to explain that if we
start to treat children as children whoever they are, whatever
they’ve done, if we halt the arbitrary classification of
children as victims and villains, the hopeless dichotomy of welfare
and justice ..if we actually just listen to the experience and heed
the skills of so many people in this
We all might begin to recognise that this form of social work
has a solution ..well …a much more effective approach to
problems which confound Government and much of our wealthy and
opportunity rich society.
It’s been a long time – but I’ve always known
that our esteemed website editor would return from her long,
languorous holidays in the sun and realise that Dawson hadn’t
done his blog for ages.
Now I’ve been thoroughly caught out I can offer barely an
excuse – only that life at Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa is
great and busy – and I promise I’ll keep up to date with
these missives in the future.
It does have a funny, old name and I hope we’ll get around
to encouraging the young people to find a different one before too
long. However, Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa is a very good place
to be – the people, especially the young people are lovely
and there’s a real air of innovation and ‘can do’
about the place. Of course there’s a great deal to do,
however, there’s a real solid thread of good practice running
through the organisation so I have a lot of hope for the
It’s true I’ve only been there for 6 weeks and some
people are inclined to talk about ‘honeymoon periods’
and ‘wait till you’ve been there six months’.
Nevertheless I think we’ll be o.k. We’ve set up a young
people’s innovation group and as long as everything is
constantly refreshed by their ideas and their energy I think
we’ve got a real chance.
More very soon – particularly about the whole future of local
authority secure children’s homes and why I think we’ve
got to have fundamental reform so that a very small group of the
most troubled young people in the country have the opportunity of
really skilled help rather than the churning and compounding of
I’ll do it over the weekend – promise Clare !
Hilton Dawson 29/9/05
Friday August 12th.
My 5th day at Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa and in the way of
new, settling in experiences it already feels as if I’ve been
here a long time. Last Friday and leaving ChildLine already seems
ages ago. Parliament just over 3 months behind me was a different
world but one that is still very present in most of what I do.
First thing to say is that SHA is an absolutely lovely place to
be, people are delightful, warm and friendly. There is a commitment
to children and young people which runs through everything.
I’m going to like it here. There is good, in fact some great
work going on. There are some splendid ideas for development
Goodness but we do make life complicated for ourselves.
I don’t think that’s the mere reaction of the new
boy. I’ve always worked with people rather than nuclear
physics or the far reaches of bio-chemistry and it’s always
seemed to me that we surround ourselves with too much
‘stuff’. Somehow good work, real work gets done despite
the sometimes interesting, always distracting junk that gets in the
This is not a plea for social work over administration because
good admin and management are key to making sure that good social
work gets done. Nor is it confined to social work. There is nowhere
worse than Parliament for putting all sorts of useless rubbish in
the way of the basic task of representing people well.
There’s nothing about people work that should be so
complicated that we can’t measure it against asking the
people what it was like to have us working with them. And inquiring
of them and ourselves what outcomes we honestly achieved.
Would this be good enough for my own child ?
Perhaps all we really need is a few solid principles and a big,
Hilton Dawson 12/8/05
This is my last week at ChildLine before I begin my new job at
Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa next Monday.
It’s been an enjoyable 3 months, good people and a
pleasant place to work. My music collection expands almost daily
under the influence of nearby Spitalfields Market. More seriously
it’s been quite a revelation to discover the range and indeed
the quality of what ChildLine actually does.
The results of my labour are now with 14 local authorities
across the country. It’s an offer of partnership, a
systematic attempt to inform every child in one local authority
area about ChildLine. It aims to develop a corporate approach to
engaging effectively with children, to support participation and to
empower young people through peer support.
The project is based upon the premise that however good your
local authority it’s far more likely that a child with
problems will access a 24 hour service via their mobile than turn
up at the Social Services Duty Team. It’s founded upon the
idea that we could use local resources far more effectively to
encourage young people to talk through a medium which is accessible
and acceptable to them.
At the moment some 500 children from every local authority in
England contact ChildLine every year. This project should boost
those numbers but also ensure that information goes back to local
authorities about what children in general from their local areas
are saying about their lives.
It’s a pilot project, for a year and it will be undertaken
with only 4 local authorities in the first instance.
I’m biased but I think it is the first major effort to
reach out to every single child in a local authority and I firmly
believe that it could take some local authorities to places where
no-one has yet been.
I’ll have to stay in touch and check up on how it goes
Hilton Dawson (2/8/05)
July 19th 2005
Well it’s taken forever to be published but the
‘Youth Matters’ Green Paper has turned out to be
positive, helpful and consistent with Every Child Matters.
Presumably the delay has been over the long awaited u-turn
bringing Connexions back under the remit of local authorities.
Personally I welcomed the establishment of Connexions because I
wanted to see some the archaic structures of local government
bypassed and broken down. However, now that we have the prospect of
Trusts it is obviously essential that the commissioning of
information, advice and guidance for young people comes within the
same system as most other children’s services.
Much the most important part of the Green Paper is the move to
make services more responsive to the ‘spending’ power
of young people through ‘opportunity cards’ and an
‘opportunity fund’, where some public spending
decisions are made by young people themselves. Clearly there are a
hundred ways in which such initiatives could be manipulated by
adults but this is a real chance for progressive local government
to engage with issues identified by young people and replace all
sorts of worn out rubbish with something bold, exciting and
For once I actually approve of the Government’s emphasis
on responsibility. Of course it generally avoids the use of the
‘rights balanced by responsibilities’ mantra by
avoiding the use of the word ‘rights’ altogether.
However, there is an underlying sense of adolescence being a time
of developing responsibilities. There is a great deal of sense in
encouraging positive activities for young people, in emphasising
voluntary work and certainly in developing a minor system of awards
and encouragement for anyone who shows commitment.
Most of this will do for me. What we’ve all got to ensure
is that worthy ideas are really made to work at local level. We
must move on from isolated examples of good practice into
integrated systems which engage young people in every local
authority and which sustain and develop their empowerment.
That’s the real challenge. We should all get on with
An excellent example of how the H.M. Prison Service is unfit to
care for children appeared only this week.
It’s an advert for a job at Her Majesty’s Young
Offender Institution Wetherby. The Head of Offender Management
(Grade E) will have the job of ‘overseeing, developing and
managing the Resettlement, Custody and Psychology teams’ in
‘a male, juvenile establishment housing 360 young
What I then take to be the standard Prison Service advertisement
then goes on to intone, ‘As professionals we gain
satisfaction from our opportunity to work with difficult and
challenging trainees. Our people are realists, content to make an
impression on just one or two lives, improving them in any way
So that’s alright then, one or two children out of 360. Or
is that one or two a year? Or a Prison Service lifetime?
Erring on the side of generosity this is an invitation to a job
where you can give up on 99% of children in your charge.
This is a sort of ‘professionalism and realism’
which apparently requires no particular qualifications, which never
mentions the word ‘care’ and certainly doesn’t
acknowledge that the majority of your charges will be very troubled
and needy children .
This is an advert which is obviously trying in its own way to
indicate a progressive service but reveals its severe
This is a service where 13 children have died in the past 8
years and an advert which tells us that ‘you’ll need to
see trainees as people’.
Let’s close the whole lot down.
Thursday 7th July
Why are people so afraid of politics and
Or is it that lack of trust and cynicism means that they write
off what should be the major avenue of influence in a democratic
I think about this a lot of the time and I’m really
pleased to be taking on a new role on the Council of the Hansard
Society looking at the ways that children and young people can
influence and get involved in Parliament.
However social workers and the broad children’s workforce
are completely hopeless at engaging with politicians on
children’s issues. Most recently this came out at that
conference on Tuesday when I was reflecting on the new role of Lead
Member for Children’s services.
This is such an important development. This senior councillor
should embody the whole corporate approach to children and young
people and to parenting those who are looked after. How many of us
will even meet with them, let alone hold them to account ?
People sometimes moan to me that they are politically
disqualified or that their organisation has internal rules which
deter them from questioning policy. Frankly I regard this as just
an excuse. Whether as part of the local authority workforce or a
local voter there is nothing to stop any of us meeting,
communicating, challenging and holding responsible those who are
elected to such important posts.
What’s more I don’t think we’ll implement the
Children Act 2004 until we do.
Tuesday 5th July
I’ve been preparing to speak at a conference on the issues
and implementation of the Children Act 2004 over the weekend.
Most of all I’ve been looking at some of the vast storm of
documents, consultations, guidance, pathfinders, pilots,
evaluations coming out of Every Child Matters – Change for
Once you stop worrying about there just being so much of this
stuff it actually is good, mainly very readable and remarkably
consistent so while I’d prefer something much more concise
and portable this is only part of the problem
My issue is about engagement.
I’m particularly worried that if we don’t really
involve the vast range of people who work across the front line of
children’s services in what is after all a massive programme
of cultural change then it won’t happen
It seems to me that the Children Act 1989 was utterly undermined
because so few people read or were aware of the books of guidance
which came out with it
Despite a few failings the 2004 Act sets the scene for what could
be the radical transformation of children’s services and
children’s lives and there’s lots of really good
guidance and policy coming out alongside it and in fact
there’s much more being done on children’s
However, if you don’t engage staff, develop their
participation, encourage a challenging and critical approach, build
a shared commitment to the values of centring services around the
needs and voices of children rather than the clamour of adult
institutions then we are not going to through. Our moment of real
opportunity could be lost.
I’ll see how this goes down later today.
Monday 27 June 2005
Time was when a visit to London took on all the meaning of a
once in a lifetime event. I can vividly recall the utter excitement
as well as the noise, confusion and even the steam of Newcastle
Central Station as we set out on one of the great adventures of
Thanks to Mr Ford and Mr Mondeo the journey from east
Northumberland to east London is now part of my ordinary routine,
a regular occurrence accomplished in an evening. I don’t
ordinarily like driving very much but 300 miles is a proper journey
and there’s a real feel of the landscape slipping away
beneath you especially on a fine night on a quiet stretch of
It’s also a good time to think, and as the A19 merged into
the A1M and the M11 all down the eastern backbone of England I
couldn’t help reflecting on how we communicate and how the
great test of all of us is going to be how we share knowledge and
good practice and really make changes work.
Despite all the depredations of people driving all over it this
is still a beautiful country and England in particular is actually
very small. I don’t think the future will be very forgiving
if we mess up ‘change for children’ when we have the
Hilton Dawson (27/6/05)
June 22nd 2005
It’s a funny sort of time.
No I don’t mean the cricket or Wimbledon or even the
It’s a funny sort of time for me, waiting to start a new job,
raring to go but not yet in a position to do very much.
I start my new job as chief executive of Shaftesbury Homes and
Arethusa on August 8th. Until then I’ve had arranged a
programme of visits and introductory meetings for me across various
evenings. Tonight is my first visit to a children’s home in
I’m really looking forward to it. I hope there’ll be
young people around especially as I’m doing that usual social
work trick of arriving at a meal time. I hope there’ll be
plenty of staff too.
Everything I’ve heard and so far seen of SHA has stressed
the commitment to staff training, the accumulation of NVQ 3’s
and 4’s, the way that some people have really developed their
careers within the organisation. It all sounds really good and of
course I’ll want to look around.
However, most of all I want to meet the young people. I’m
happy to be weighed up and I want to find out about them. If
I’m asked or if I get the time I’ll tell them what I
want to do – ground it all in children’s rights and
participation, ask everyone to judge every action every word
against what would be good for our own children, ask them to join
in and help to make this the best children’s organisation in
Teamwork, individual responsibility but above all starting from
where the young people are.
Perhaps I’ll just have a chat and a cup of tea.
One day I might write down how we all got on.
Monday 20th June
Came back from holiday to discover that Maxine Wrigley of A
National Voice has been awarded an MBE in the Queens Birthday
Usually I couldn’t give two hoots about this sort of stuff
but for once this sort of recognition is richly deserved. To her
enormous credit Maxine has led A National Voice the national
organisation for looked after children and young people through
some very difficult times. Working without pay for several months
at one stage Maxine has established the organisation on the
national map and ensured that it is a really authentic voice for
children and young people in Care.
Led by young people, staffed by care-experienced people, ANV has
campaigned magnificently and successfully to effect change in areas
that are particularly important to young people themselves. The
fact that local authorities are now directed not to make any more
inquiries about the families of friends offering
‘sleepovers’ than any ordinary parent is largely down
to ANV’s work.. In particular ANV’s campaigning is
creative and interesting. Who else would have thought of exposing
those authorities and workers who still allow children to move
around the care system carrying all their belongings in rubbish
bags by holding a ‘bin bag fashion show’?
Maxine’s ability to engage the fashion and music
industries in support of looked after children has been
enthralling.I suppose the best part of this honour is that she
herself can now be seen as a role model and an example of how care
leavers can succeed at the highest levels.
Well done Maxine, all we need now is for government, local
authorities and the rest of the voluntary sector to ensure that ANV
are properly funded so that they can spread their influence across
every part of the country !
June 9th 2005
Newly appointed as chief executive of Shaftesbury Homes and
Arethusa and not in post until August I nevertheless made my first
visit to headquarters in Wandsworth yesterday.
SHA have been around since 1843, they have an extraordinary
past, some really excellent work in residential care & leaving
care with a strong emphasis on education and health and I’m
sure will have a great future in the new world of children’s
A children’s rights culture, engaging every single member
of staff in pursuing quality and great partnerships across the
range of integrating children’s services will set us up
I can’t wait to get started. However, I’m going to
have a little holiday in the sun later today so you won’t
hear from me for a week or so.
Bye for now
Tuesday 7 June
Questions on local government re-organisation.
Which local authority has incorporated its Children’s
Services into its Educational and Cultural Services Directorate
How can a Director of Children’s Services for one of the
largest local authorities in England ensure that ‘every child
matters’ while also managing the Museum service, the Library
service, Adult learning, the Arts Unit and Adult learning ?
Isn’t this supposed to be a child centred service ?
What will the inspectors do ?
Thursday 2 June
I’ve been spending a lot of time around Childline lately;
which may be one reason for the intermittent appearance of this
It’s an impressive organisation and I think it’s
really tapped into something important – the power of
children and young people.
I suppose it’s about having a very direct line to
children’s voices. Not just through the helpline but also via
the Peer Support which the organisation is increasingly offering to
schools. On the one hand we have children accessing help from
adults on their own terms because they don’t have to identify
themselves at all. On the other hand we have children being able to
access help from other children, not just speaking to their mates,
which I suppose is a first recourse for many people, but being able
to talk to other young people, trained and supported for the
We often bandy the prospect of ‘cultural change’
about. If we systematically embraced listening to all children and
engaged them with others we really would have a change.
Children know far more than adults about what it’s like to
be them now, given the chance they have thoroughly reasonable and
often very innovative ideas , if we engage them in issues we give
ourselves a much better chance of reaching solutions to our
allegedly intractable problems.
When will we stop being afraid of children and start using their
Hilton Dawson (2/6/05)
Friday 27th May
Visiting a children’s home yesterday I was impressed to be
greeted and welcomed by one of the young people as soon as
I’d entered the gate. Things got even better when I saw what
an excellent rapport he had with staff and when I heard some very
dedicated people talking about their work.
Residential work is a really great milieu for good social work
practice and it was a pleasure to see it in action.
However, I was surprised to see that this home was carrying a
couple of vacancies and later in the day got worried when I read
the dread word ‘overcapacity’.
‘Overcapacity’ has nothing to do with the needs of
children or the ability of any particular organisation to meet
them. It’s a polite fiction to be used when arbitrary and
inadequate local authority budgets rub up against the pricing
policies of private and voluntary organisations and the problem is
that young people are caught in the middle.
Nothing will convince me that the local authority wherein this
children’s home lies have improved children’s lives so
much that they need less space in the local children’s home.
There’s also little to persuade me that a policy of
‘spot purchasing’ places in residential care has much
to do with a long term strategy for responding to children’s
needs or with good care planning for individual children and young
Hopefully the local authority will revise their stance as they
develop their children’s services plan, hopefully the
provider will be well engaged with that process. Both of them would
benefit from hearing from the young chap I met and the people who
were working with him when I called and are no doubt continuing to
do so across this Bank Holiday weekend.
Hilton (27 May 2005)
Tuesday May 24th
Went to Glasgow yesterday as part of a project I’m doing
to link part of the voluntary sector better to local authorities
and Children’s Trusts in the new world of children’s
Felt ever more keenly that Scotland is another country with the
greater autonomy of local councils so much a source of obvious
Not better, just different, I thought. If greater independence
leads to a worse deal for children then to my mind it’s not
worth happening. In England we should be able to have the best of
both worlds with high standards driven from the centre but a
developing sense that local communities should find their own ways
to improving outcomes.
For me the greatest test will be over the ability to listen to
children. Despite all the demeaning rubbish in the national press
there are a lot of efforts going on.
However, much of what we seem to have at the moment is piecemeal
and temporary with the odd whiff of tokenism about some pet
There will have to be a prize for the first local authority
north or south of the border to show that it is really embedding
the participation of children and young people in all that it does,
going out to those who won’t come near anything with a whiff
of authority and above all learning from the whole experience.
Wednesday 18 May 2005
Off to Community Care Live, of course, to speak as part of
the General Social Care Council’s presentation on
‘Registered Social Workers: exploring your new professional
I’d be better able to speak about this if my CRB clearance
was through ! However what I mainly want to say is that I’m
very comfortable with being RSW rather than MP and I think that now
is a really important time for social workers to stand up for the
profession and more particularly for the people with whom we
Social work is an inherently noble and radical activity, it
demonstrates unconditional positive regard for individuals whom
nobody else cares about and it stands up for their rights and helps
them be heard. Precisely because it does listen and seeks to
understand people in their whole context social work has a lot to
give to any organisation seeking to bring about positive change in
In the new fast-changing world of children’s services, I
don’t think it matters what people’s job titles are
but the professional title of social worker should mean that here
is someone with the values and with the skills to ensure that all
work listens to children, is centred upon children’s needs
and best interests and empowers children.
Far from being nervous about integrated services and the
development of the children’s workforce I think that social
workers should be promoting the sort of change that a real belief
that ‘every child matters’ requires and working really
well with children, families and all sorts of colleagues to ensure
that it happens.
That’s what I’ll tell them anyway !
Monday 16 May
“The prime minister’s new concern for ‘respect’
has been heavily trailed in advance of the Queens Speech on
Tuesday. Over the weekend we’ve had Hazel Blears floating the
idea that young people performing community service might be
required to don disti