Which path?

Rachel Downey taps
into Whitehall thinking on the future of protection services and finds sources
of discord over the likely recommendations of the Laming inquiry,
and uncertainty between government departments themselves.

It has been the most
extensive inquiry into the child protection system, dwarfing even Cleveland,
with 30,000 pages of documents, 262 witness statements, and 121 verbal
contributions and approximately 400 in writing from experts. To date, the
Victoria Climbié Inquiry has lasted 10 months. The report will not be published
until the end of the year and may slip into 2003. The estimated cost runs to
millions of pounds.

What have we learned?
The general consensus is that the existing child protection policies and
procedures appear to be working – it is their implementation that is at fault.
That is clearly the view of the social services world.

Experts from a range
of agencies informed the inquiry that any structural change that would include
a new central agency to run services would be counterproductive. They argued
strongly that it would lead to severe disruption and the demoralisation of
staff. June Thoburn, professor of social work at the University of East Anglia,
pointed out the negative impact such a reorganisation would have on the
recruitment of child protection staff, already facing severe difficulties and
even crisis in London. “People do not leave [social work] because they are
underpaid or overworked. They leave because they keep being moved around, they
keep losing their relationships.”

So will Lord Laming
heed the clear message from the field? It is widely presumed that he will opt
for a retention of the current system rather than a radical overhaul. It is
believed he will focus on measures to improve the management grip on child
protection services. The evidence to the inquiry showed clearly that
professional standards were not adhered to. A strengthening of the role of area
child protection committees looks likely – probably by placing them on a
statutory footing.

However, decisions on
the future of child protection services do not rest with Lord Laming but the
government. Even if he argues for retaining the status quo, ministers do not
have to accept his recommendation. There is no doubt that pressure is building
to do something. No change is not an option. The only thing in doubt is what
form that change will take.

Rumours abound as to
what thinking is going on within government. Take your pick: health secretary
Alan Milburn is pushing hard for a new child protection agency but his
colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office are
wary of creating new boundaries when joint working is essential to protect
children, and a broader children’s services agency could be the answer. The No
10 policy unit is already working on a model for a new agency as is the

children and young
people’s unit. Tony Blair is said to be backing a single agency and is
involving Lord Birt. A children’s care trust model is understood to be under

The rumour mill is
running on overtime because the government’s response to Lord Laming’s report
could mean the end of the provision of children’s services as we know it. It is
clear that a new national agency of some sort is on the cards. There are two
options: the first, which it is understood No. 10 favours, is to pull together
all children’s services into a new agency. The second option is a national
agency to solely run child protection services, possibly along the lines of the
Youth Justice Board.

A children’s services
agency would mean the departure of the bulk of children’s services – and the
substantial resources which accompany them – from local authority social
services departments. The remaining services could move into new merged
departments with education – a route a growing number of authorities are going
down. This would completely change the face of local councils. Therefore the
battle becomes not just one about defending social services departments but
defending local government. One of the key combatants is the health secretary
Alan Milburn, known for his love of a centralised command and control
structure, and his dislike of arguments about local accountability.

There is also a
debate under way within government about which department would have
responsibility for a children’s services agency. The simmering conflict between
the Department of Health and the Home Office over responsibility for and
control of children’s services would come to a head. The Home Office is
believed to be pushing for this but the Department of Health, which would lose
any control over children’s services, is opposing it strongly.

While there is disquiet
over the possibility of a new children’s services agency, there is trepidation
about a child protection agency. It would mean separating child protection from
family support. Only the small group of children who need protection from harm
or neglect would be covered by such an agency. The group who move from being
defined as “at risk” to “in need” would lose out. The flexibility of the
current system in which children can move on and off the register would be lost
and such an agency would work against any attempts to improve joint working.

The plan in both
scenarios is that the Department for Education and Skills would pick up family
support via Sure Start and Children’s Fund projects and the commissioning of
residential child care would move into primary care trusts. But many experts
point out these initiatives are still finding their feet and have shown little
expertise at joining up with each other or existing services.

Social services
leaders are adamant that such a shake-up – whatever the model – would be a
disaster. “The more specialist you make it – the more you hive it off and move
it away from everywhere else – the more barriers,” says Jane Held,
co-chairperson of the Association of Directors of Social Services children and
families committee.

Held argues that the
government’s guidance Working Together To Safeguard Children exists to bring
agencies together so there is no need for a national agency to do so. “Working
Together should be made mandatory for all agencies. Child protection must be managed
in a framework of expectations.” For her, a national children’s agency is
simply not feasible. “Children exist in communities and that is where solutions
are found. They are not found by children being separated out. We are never
going to have an impact on poverty and deprivation at a national level if we do

Barnardo’s chief
executive Roger Singleton says that although structural change can give a
semblance of difference and an assumption of it carrying improvement, he has
reservations about a national child protection agency that is split from the
wide range of family support and intervening services such as foster care and
adoption. “I’m not saying it couldn’t work but a single agency assumes that
child protection sits in its own little box. Some families need family support
over a sustained period of time and sometimes additional child protection
involvement. Families cannot be chopped up in the way that public services can
be. If you take the focus away from families that need different services at
different times, we have to be absolutely sure that the way we break it up is
going to deliver.”

But this means little
to politicians who like to be seen to be doing something. The death of
eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in such an appalling manner after months of
abuse and neglect has shocked and angered the public. They want action, not
talk of improvements to service management. They want individual staff and
agencies to be publicly blamed and punished and one way to punish agencies is
to remove their  responsibilities. The
concept of a new agency to run child protection services is very tempting for
the government.

The Victoria Climbié
Inquiry heard evidence of serious communication difficulties between agencies.
Notes from various professionals were misunderstood; professionals made
assumptions about other agencies; crucial meetings bringing together different
professionals, with varying knowledge and insights about Victoria, were not
held; and relationships between some professionals had completely broken down.
It is tempting to believe that one agency covering all child protection
professional groups would solve the problem.

So is there any hope
that such a radical, destabilising move can be halted? It is unlikely, although
work is beginning behind the scenes to pre-empt the findings of the inquiry. It
is just possible that the government will itself pre-empt Lord Laming’s
findings and produce a plan for a new structure for children’s services. If we
do not see an announcement before Lord Laming reports and he, as expected,
argues for an improvement in the management of the current system without
structural change, then the government will be under pressure to hold off. Of
course it can ignore the main recommendation but it would prefer to be in
synchronisation with the inquiry it established.

If all the
professional groups working with children band together to fight off such a
change, there is more chance of pressurising the government away from setting
up a new agency. But there is little sign of a concerted front. What we are
seeing is more movement on the ground, such as the new strategic child
protection committee for London, and new joint teams in a couple of
departments. But these moves are unlikely to keep the government at bay.

There is the option
of a “third way”, for which there appeared widespread agreement during the
second phase of the Victoria Climbié Inquiry. It is a national
standards-setting agency for child protection services, as proposed by John
Ransford, head of education and social policy at the Local Government
Association. He told the inquiry that all agencies involved in child protection
would have to contract with the new body so they could be held responsible for
delivering the necessary resources to ensure the standards were met. The NSPCC
proposed its own version, calling it a child safeguarding board.

The children’s
charity also proposed new multi-disciplinary child protection teams as a means
of overcoming the communication difficulties between existing agencies. The
charity’s director of children’s services Jennifer Bernard says how such teams
were employed or managed could mirror youth offending teams, which are widely
regarded as successfully bringing distinct professionals together.

These proposals might
win over Lord Laming but are unlikely to have the impact needed to sway
ministers from a more radical solution. The government has the power and
capacity to set up new bodies and quickly. A new child protection agency or
children’s services agency would require primary legislation, which could be
pushed through within 18 months. The disruption would last for about three to
four years – the government might believe this is a price worth paying.

The question is
whether such a radical change would really improve child protection services?
It is impossible to ensure that no more tragedies like Victoria Climbié’s take
place, but it is possible to improve the system so that the opportunities to
intervene in her life would not be missed in a similar case.

The government’s
apparent obsession with radical change misses the point. Improving the child
protection service requires a different focus – a focus on quality staff,
well-managed and properly supervised in all agencies. For Jennifer Bernard, no
framework protects a child – it is the people implementing it that do this –
“it all comes down to staff”.  

The Victoria Climbié
Inquiry showed that a wide range of staff and managers failed to demonstrate
appropriate skills or competences. What are needed are professionals on the
front line with the knowledge and skill to make difficult decisions about the
lives of children, managed by confident, competent managers.

As Roger Singleton
warns: “What protects children is an intelligent police officer and social
worker working together – not whether someone is on the health authority or
care trust or national agency. If these front-line issues are not addressed, we
are fiddling while Rome burns.”

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