Five years after the publication of Lord Laming’s report into the failures that contributed to the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, we look at progress on some of his key proposals. Sally Gillen reports
As with most child death inquiries, Laming concluded that the agencies charged with protecting children had failed Victoria Climbié partly because they did not share information effectively.
So he recommended that the government “actively explore the benefit to children of setting up and operating a national children’s database on all children” and its usefulness in strengthening safeguards for children.
Yet plans for a children’s database holding records on all 11 million children in England have proved controversial. It will provide the name, address, gender, date of birth and a unique identifying number for every child in England under 18, as well as the name and contact details for a child’s parent or carer and contact details for any services working with a child.
The theory is that it will aid multi-agency working by allowing practitioners to share information more easily. But commentators have raised concerns about breaches of civil liberties and about the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands.
As far back as February 2005, information commissioner Richard Thomas told a House of Commons education and skills committee inquiry into Every Child Matters that he had “serious concerns” about how the information would be kept up-to-date and accurate. Committee members expressed fears that the database would not improve the child protection system but would join a list of government databases that perform poorly and are expensive to run.
Nonetheless, the government is pressing ahead. ContactPoint, which will be accessible to 330,000 children’s services professionals, is scheduled to go live later this year in 17 local authorities in the North West and children’s charity Barnardo’s. The Children’s Society and NSPCC will have access to it early next year.
Government systems that rely on IT have often been prone to failure. The success of ContactPoint will rely not only on significant cash investment but on training for those who need to use it.
Child protection register
In his inquiry report, Laming said he doubted the usefulness of the child protection register and proposed that it should be replaced with a more effective system.
In Working Together to Safeguard Children, published in 2006, the government announced that child protection registers would be phased out by April 2008. From then, children who would have been placed on the register will instead be the subject of a child protection plan which will be held on the Integrated Children’s System, an electronic case management system that allows staff to log detailed case information about children receiving social services, which has been developed in response to historical information-sharing failures.
But opinion is divided on abolishing the register. Supporters include former co-chair of the now defunct Association of Directors of Social Services Andrew Webb, who believes the register had become a “crutch” for some professionals who would only respond to a child if they had a child protection label attached to them. But others, such as senior social work lecturer Liz Davies, fear that scrapping the register will result in children being less well protected.
Implementation of ICS has also been dogged by problems. It was due to be introduced in all councils by January 2007 but only a few met the deadline – which has now been extended to March 2008.
Where the system has been introduced, social workers are unhappy about its impact on practice, complaining that the recording of every engagement is undermining interaction with service users and making their work mechanistic.
Sound social work practice is about engaging with children and their families, so professionals’ complaints about the impact on practice of using ICS do not bode well for a system already dogged by problems and delays.
Laming was highly critical of professionals who tried to distance themselves from blame for Victoria’s death, arguing that the inquiry had “heard too much evidence of organisational confusion and ‘buck passing'”. He went on to say: “The single most important change in the future must be the clear line of accountability from top to bottom, without doubt or ambiguity, about who is responsible at every level for the well-being of vulnerable children.”
In the Children Act 2004 that followed, the government introduced a requirement for councils to appoint a director of children’s services and a lead member for children’s services who would be accountable for services provided to children. But fears have been raised that proposals to introduce GP-style social work practices could significantly undermine lines of accountability.
As autonomous organisations the practices will take on responsibility for a number of local looked-after children.
According to the white paper Care Matters: Time for Change, the contract between a local authority and practice would need to be constructed to ensure suitable arrangements are in place for keeping records on financial and performance issues and, ultimately, the council will be responsible and liable if something goes wrong in the service.
But local authorities will still be able to hold the social work practice to account, and many believe this could lead to the very blurred lines of accountability that Laming was so desperate to eradicate.
It is doubtful that introducing directors of children’s services has strengthened lines of accountability. Top-level managers remain unwilling to take responsibility for a child’s death, irrespective of who delivers the services.
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This article appeared in the 17 January issue under the headline “Laming: The verdict five years on”