Time to commit

the first of a series focusing on child protection in the light of the Victoria
Climbie Inquiry, Ruth Winchester looks at factors that limit the effectiveness
of area child protection committees.

latest two seminars in the series set up by Lord Laming following the Victoria
Climbie Inquiry have asked searching questions about the role of area child
protection committees (ACPCs).

While there are undoubtedly many examples of
effective and influential ACPCs, there is also a widespread suspicion that many
others are not fulfilling their function. And as the evidence to the Victoria
Climbie Inquiry demonstrated, there is plenty of scope for these committees to
fail catastrophically.

Andrew Foster, head of the Audit Commission,
told the inquiry: "Evidence from joint reviews has shown that many ACPCs
are reactive and have unproven impact on the ground. They often have limited
commitment from agencies other than social services, and have insufficient
direct responsibilities in their current form as non-executive bodies."

Foster put his finger on some of the core
issues around ACPCs – lack of accountability, lack of "teeth", and
lack of commitment from participating agencies and individuals. ACPCs are
nominally accountable but in reality, although they are required to publish
business plans every year, nobody checks that they are working as they should
be. ACPCs were set up under the guidance attached to the Children Act 1989 and,
because they have no statutory basis, the decisions and policies they make also
have no real statutory weight behind them – member agencies can "take it
or leave it". And these committees have no direct funding to speak of –
they are resourced through the individual members, and the time and money
allocated varies widely from agency to agency and from area to area.

One of the most frequent criticisms is that
the agencies that should make up the core of these bodies are often not
sufficiently committed to the process. Meetings are often attended by junior
staff members rather than the senior ones necessary to make resource and policy
decisions, and some routinely fail to turn up to committee meetings at all.
Even less helpful is the situation reported by some at the Victoria Climbie
Inquiry that, rather than have an empty seat at the table, some agencies have
sent wholly inappropriate staff – a town planning lawyer rather than a child
care expert, for instance.

This lack of commitment is at times
understandable. Professionals are reluctant to waste precious hours in what
many feel is simply a "talking shop". And although the latest Working
guidance insists that child protection should be everybody’s
responsibility, observers suggest that within such a broad range of interests
and backgrounds, "everybody’s responsibility" becomes "nobody’s

This may be exacerbated by the convention
that social services take the lead role – the majority of ACPCs are chaired by
senior social services staff. In this atmosphere, some professionals might be
forgiven for thinking that they can safely absent themselves from proceedings
because social services are running with the baton. In other cases,
professionals who have doubts about social services’ actions or disagree with
the prevailing view may find it impossible to get their views taken seriously.

Roger Thompson is chairperson of the Suffolk
ACPC and is one of a growing number of independent heads. He is fully committed
to the idea of ACPCs and suggests that their role is likely to grow – possibly
towards responsibility for checking new national standards in child protection.
But he agrees that independent chairing could be a step forward for many
committees. "There’s been a tendency for ACPCs to be dominated by social
services, to have been seen as ‘their’ committee, and for all the other
services not to be fully committed. An independent chairperson means you can
avoid that, and it is a real advantage. ACPCs don’t have any executive powers
at all, but what you do have is enormous influence." That influence, he
says, is easier to use when you are seen as non-partisan.

GPs are one of the main targets for
criticisms about lack of commitment. But for their part, many argue that, in
order for them to partake, the meetings need to be held closer to their
surgeries and at times that are at least remotely possible – not on Monday
morning during the busiest surgery of the week, for instance. Others argue that
the cost of a locum to cover their absence should be met by the committee, not
by the surgery. This view is rejected by Tina Ambury, vice chairperson of the
Royal College of General Practitioners. She says: "Child protection is
core work for GPs, and it’s very much the position of the RCGP that GPs
shouldn’t be paid twice for doing things that are part and parcel of their

However, she adds: "ACPCs need to meet
GPs half way – they have a lot of conflicting demands. Yes, child protection is
important core work, but does it take precedence over dealing with someone who
turns up at the surgery in the process of having a heart attack?"

Rhian Stone is child protection policy
adviser for the NSPCC, which has representatives on more than 70 per cent of
all ACPCs. She has recently given evidence on behalf of the charity to the
Victoria Climbie Inquiry, calling for ACPCs to be given a far greater role,
more political and local clout, and to be properly funded. Stone says:
"ACPCs have an incredibly important strategic role in making sure that
child protection procedures are working, so it’s criminal not to have that
properly resourced."

The NSPCC argues that ACPCs should be put on
a statutory footing within a rewritten Children Act, which names the partner
agencies who should commit funding and staff time to them. Stone suggests that
this would mean that their policies would have the full force of statute behind
them – and would ensure that the right people were involved and had sufficient
scope and backing from their employer to do the job properly.

Stone suggests that ACPCs should be regularly
inspected and accountable, ultimately, to the secretary of state. And she wants
chief executives of local authorities – representing both social services and
education – to take responsibility for convening them and if necessary for
appointing an independent chairperson.

But will putting ACPCs on a statutory footing
really have that much impact when the agencies responsible are all struggling
with limited resources? Chris Hobbes, a community paediatrician in Leeds, vice
chairperson of Leeds ACPC and designated doctor for child protection in the
city, says: "The real issue is not about the structure of the system – you
could change the system and still end up with the same basic problem. There are
big issues at stake around resources, staffing shortages and the scale of the
problem that have to be addressed first."

1 See ACPC website for England and Wales at www.acpc.gov.uk

– The next Child Protection In Focus articles
will be in the issue of 23 May and will examine the role of the police in child

– If you work in the field of child
protection, do not miss our debate at Community Care Live – Child
Protection: Where now After Victoria Climbie? – where key figures in child
protection will explore how best to protect vulnerable children and improve the
system for everyone involved.

Community Care Live will take place at London’s Business
Design Centre on 22 and 23 May. Free tickets from 020 8652 4782/4839.

Area child protection committees

child protection committees are set up under the auspices of the Children Act
1989. Their role is to keep tabs on how inter-agency child protection work is
going, creating policies and procedures in relation to services, and picking up
any problems that might arise.

primarily the responsibility of local authorities, these committees should be
made up of members from each of the main agencies responsible for working
together to safeguard children. And those members’ "roles and seniority
should enable them to contribute to developing and maintaining strong and
effective inter-agency child protection procedures, and ensure that those
services are adequately resourced".1

members include education, social services, health services and the police,
along with the probation service, local child protection charities and any
local domestic violence forum. The committee is expected to meet at least
quarterly, and many choose to set up sub-groups, which look in more depth at
particular issues.

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