They were designed to be the vehicle to move from a more narrow focus on child protection to a broader safeguarding agenda, drawing in a range of new partner agencies. But have local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) proved themselves to be the effective successors to area child protection committees?
The government’s verdict after visiting eight LSCBs and consulting statutory partners for its review was that “some are doing well and grasping their agenda” but others are making less progress on the prevention and promotional activity. The review says that statutory partners, such as the police, the local NHS and children’s services, are “generally represented on, and showing commitment to, their LSCBs”.
But some LSCBs are “finding it difficult to secure the full engagement of partners leading, in a few cases, to statutory partners not attending meetings”. Other partners, although present, have “limited understanding about their role”. And the report finds “little evidence” of strategic health authorities’ involvement at all – possibly as a result of their substantial restructuring.
The review team acknowledges that the resources available to LSCBs “varies substantially between and within regions”, and that too much time is spent agreeing budgets. Dr Vic Tuck, development officer for the Warwickshire safeguarding children board, says it would have been “helpful if the government had prepared a formula rather than leaving it to local negotiation”. He adds that without a formula, LSCBs have found it hard to encourage a financial commitment.
Barnet in north London was one of the first to set up its LSCB and claims a “longstanding record of success in gaining attendance from relevant partners across multi-agency partnerships at a level which is both senior and strategic”.
But one area of concern is its local primary care trust’s lack of a ring-fenced budget for children from which to draw for safeguarding. Emma Baatz, Barnet’s divisional manager for supporting families, says that, although the PCT has prioritised safeguarding, the spectre of health cuts could change that.
Health cuts are also an issue in Brighton and Hove. Children’s services director and LSCB chair David Hawker, complains that the local hospitals trust did not contribute last year because it was “in financial crisis”. While the police, the rest of the NHS and other key partners are providing funding, the probation service “doesn’t contribute much financially”, he adds.
Hawker says that, despite this, the LSCB is doing fine, has well attended meetings and a meaty agenda. “We don’t ask for very big contributions because, in effect, we fund its operations, doing the admin and servicing meetings. I have heard of councils that spend £100,000 on their safeguarding boards but they are probably spending money we spend in other ways. It is nice to produce glossy documents, but it is not necessary.”
The financial pressures on boards are likely to become more intense as they introduce the child death review process next year. But Tuck, who recently went to the US to look at how child fatality teams work there, warns: “If the government wants us to do these things then they must look at funding.”
Although involving partner agencies and attracting enough funding has been a key priority for LSCBs, Walsall’s head of safeguarding Kay Child says it is vital that boards should be “fit for purpose and not unwieldy”. Baatz agrees that it is important to have a manageable and relevant set of people. In Barnet, for example, the London fire brigade was brought in for consultation and training after a spate of arson attacks.
Most LSCBs are chaired by the director of children’s services or another senior local authority employee, but some have opted for independent chairs. The government review concludes that the critical issue appears to be having a chair with “the right skills and attributes”.
Child explains that, in Walsall, the recently-appointed children’s services director chairs the board partly so that he can become acquainted with its workings and the relations between it and various services. She adds that it is important that the chair has “authority, accountability and the relationship with partner agencies”, but suggests reciprocal arrangements between authorities, with children’s directors chairing neighbouring councils’ LSCBs, could also be an option.
Hawker is in no doubt that the chair of the LSCB should be the children’s services director because they have the statutory responsibility for safeguarding children in the area and have the authority to call partners to account. However, he concedes that some form of external scrutiny could be necessary where services are causing concern.
LSCBs do not yet appear to have used their power to refer concerns about the performance of an individual agency to the relevant government department. However, Hawker says he would not hesitate, if the police child protection team was not doing its job properly, to raise it with the home secretary.
Tuck believes that, although the power may not yet have been used, it has been formulated correctly. “That statutory duty to ensure effectiveness presents us with real challenges,” he says. “This is what makes the boards a very different animal from the area child protection committees.
“While we haven’t had cause to use this power, there is an issue for boards and partner agencies to work on. How do we say to each other, ‘you are not delivering’?”
LSCBs appear to welcome their additional powers and broader role. But for progress to gather pace, the government needs to implement recommendations from its own review (see panel) and back them with adequate resources.
Birmingham benefits from greater powers
With 250,000 children in Birmingham, the city’s safeguarding board established a clear message from the outset that “safeguarding was everybody’s business”.
Business co-ordinator Simon Cross says the board has carried out more serious case reviews than any other in the country and it has embraced the challenge implicit in the switch to safeguarding with some innovative inter-agency working.
He cites how the board highlighted how having crossing wardens and a police officer outside schools could help children feel safer by preventing them falling victim to road accidents, robberies and antisocial behaviour.
“This ticks lots of boxes and works because it is not a single, silo approach,” Cross explains. “The big difference between area child protection committees and local safeguarding children boards is the role we have now to evaluate the effectiveness of arrangements.”
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PROGRESS
● More clarity needed about the relationship between local safeguarding children boards and children’s trusts.
● The government should develop a formula for funding from agencies and children’s trusts for LSCB budgets.
● Examples of good business plans developed by LSCBs should be highlighted.
● Further guidelines for the implementation of serious case reviews should be put in place.
Government progress report on LSCBs
This article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “Who’s on track at the safeguarding boards?”