Wales has been encouraged by the UK government to bend the Children Act 2004 to meet its own specific needs, reflecting local needs. Derren Hayes gauges progress
Nowhere in Wales is the close working relationship between social services and other parts of the public sector better highlighted than in Blaenau Gwent. The council’s social services director Phil Hodgson explains why: “Just across the hall from me is the local health board office: not only are they co-located in the same building but on the same floor as us. It’s this sort of thing that encourages joint working.”
This Welsh spirit of collaboration seems to be one of the key factors behind the different approach taken to implementing the Children Act 2004 in the country. The act, introduced as a direct response to the death of Victoria Climbié, was aimed at addressing the failings in communication between different agencies working with children which were exposed by her case.
In England, this saw the dismantling of the traditional social services department made up of children’s and adults’ services that had dominated for more than 30 years. Instead, specific requirements were introduced to split up social services’ functions by joining children’s social services with education and forging closer ties between adults’ services, health and housing.
To further facilitate joint working between agencies, children’s trusts have been created to bring together services in both a practice and physical sense. Co-located teams made up of education, social services, health and justice staff work in schools and the community delivering services to a common assessment framework.
Along with the organisational change, most directors of social services also had to relinquish their statutory responsibility for children’s services. By 2008, all councils will have new children’s services directors in place – most drawn from an education background – responsible for the strategic and day-to-day running of a council’s children’s department.
While this fundamental change has been taking place in England, the journey to reform on the other side of Offa’s Dyke has taken a rather different route. Little of the organisational change seen in England has materialised in Wales, with the focus instead being on empowering agencies to shape their services around local needs.
Beverlea Frowen, social services policy director at the Welsh Local Government Association, says the “one size fits all” approach hasn’t been applied in Wales. “England has taken a more prescriptive approach but we didn’t want a mechanism imposed that didn’t take into account local planning arrangements. There will be different processes for different areas of the country. We have a long tradition of local is best: councils have good relationships with the assembly and work collaboratively. Central governments can set a direction but it is local government that makes it work.”
To reflect this, the government wrote a section of the Children Act that only applies to Wales and gives the Welsh assembly government the ability to influence how the act looks on the ground. It has used this flexibility to stick with a combined director of adults’ and children’s services.
Instead of a children’s services director, Welsh councils will appoint children’s services co-ordinators to oversee joint working arrangements and the implementation of the integrated children’s plan by 2008.
In 16 of Wales’ 22 councils the co-ordinator role has been taken by an education professional, but unlike in England, the role doesn’t hold statutory responsibilities for children’s social services – they remain with the social services director.
Frowen says the assembly’s approach has been welcomed by local government. “The new vision makes it clear there is a very important continuing role for social services directors and they will retain statutory powers for all social services functions.”
And Frowen rejects concerns some have that there could be confusion over the degree of influence children’s services co-ordinators hold over social services. She says: “There’s always potential for friction to arise between social services and education, but there’s clarity of the role and good partnership working at the local level.”
In fact at four councils, among them Cardiff and Powys (see Policies for Powys), it is the social services director that has taken on corporate responsibility for all children’s services, as well as associated powers over well-being, housing and leisure in some cases. Frowen says this is another example of the flexibility of the Welsh approach.
“We have an emerging model in some areas where the social services director is also the corporate lead for education. We need to keep the flexibility there because we need more evidence of the value of the different arrangements. Some will say it’s a fudge but flexibility is best when we’re not quite clear what works,” she adds.
Despite these differences, much of the guidance issued by Westminster to support implementation of the act in England also applies in Wales. “There are huge parallels,” says Hodgson, who is also spokesperson for children’s services at the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru. “We have devolution in Wales but that’s not to say there is total separation from what’s going on in England.
“We have requirements to co-operate and improve children’s well-being as there is in England. Local safeguarding children’s boards were introduced in October 2006 to replace area child protection committees. I’d hope to see a single children and young people’s plan come in from April 2008.”
Hodgson feels that the arrangements in Wales will help maintain the “social care agenda”, which is something that “people in England are concerned about”. However, he is conscious this could quickly change: “There are assembly elections in May and there could be a change in government and policy but my understanding is there is cross-party agreement in this approach. But I do believe if we don’t deliver then organisational change will be considered.”
Welsh Assembly, Fulfilled Lives, Supportive Communities, 2007
Policies for Powys (back)
Powys is one of the few councils in Wales to follow England’s lead by bringing education and children’s social services into one structure. However, its approach highlights the flexible way the Welsh assembly and councils are implementing the Children Act.
Following a poor joint review 18 months ago, the council has set up a people’s services division that combines social services and education functions with leisure, youth and culture services. It also plans to develop a number of locality-based centres of excellence – children’s trusts in all but name.
Paul Meredith, head of children’s services at Powys, says: “These centres would be based in locations across the authority and include social workers, education welfare officers, youth workers, health professionals and hopefully the voluntary sector. Some services could be based in the centres permanently with more specialist services holding outreach clinics from them. But I don’t expect to see anything on the ground for a couple of years.”
Meredith, who will oversee partnership across the division, takes responsibility for operational decisions across children’s social services and has an opposite number in the council’s education department.
The council’s social services director, Phil Robson, has statutory responsibility for education and is also its children’s services co-ordinator.
Geographically, Powys is the largest authority in Wales. At 100 miles north to south it is twice the size of Luxembourg but has a population of only 130,000 who are dispersed across a wide rural area. Meredith says these factors shaped the council’s approach.
“In a big geographical location like this some services aren’t viable unless you think of them in a multi-agency context,” he adds.
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This article appeared in the 8 March issue under the headline “The Welsh way”