Board talk

Would a different structure for social services have saved
Victoria Climbie? Would it save any of the other 80 or so children
who die each year at the hands of their carers?

Those questions should be foremost in the minds of health secretary
Alan Milburn and his civil servants working on the green paper
which will be the government’s response to Lord Laming’s inquiry
into Victoria’s death.

Lord Laming believes that Victoria was not only failed by
inadequate structures but by “a widespread organisational malaise”.
In his report he says: “It is not just structures that are the
problem, but the skills of the staff who work in themÉthe
greatest failure rests with the managers and senior members of the
authorities whose task it was to ensure that services for children,
like Victoria, were properly financed, staffed, and able to deliver
good quality support to children and families.”

It is surprising, then, that Laming recommends major structural
reform of child protection. At the top he wants to see the
establishment of a children and families board, chaired by a
cabinet minister and serviced by a national agency for children and
families and supported by regional offices. No one can dispute that
giving higher political priority to child protection is a good
idea. But as David Behan, president of the Association of Directors
of Social Services points out, a new national agency with a
regional framework would add another layer of bureaucracy.

Laming also recommends reform of local child protection. He wants a
children and families committee of elected members to be set up in
every local authority. He also wants area child protection
committees (ACPCs) to be replaced by management boards for services
to children and families. These would be chaired by the local
authority chief executive. Significantly, given speculation about
hiving off child protection into a separate nationally co-ordinated
agency, he believes that this should remain the responsibility of
individual councils (see panel).

Despite having reservations about the details, Behan believes there
are many positive aspects to Laming’s proposals. He says: “Seeing
child protection as part of mainstream services for children in
need and the recommendations for co-ordinating them at a local
level are positive. Looking to lodge accountability more clearly
and the joining up of national and local accountabilities is a
strong feature of the report. The principles behind what he is
recommending have the potential to transform the way we deliver our

Julia Ross, executive director for health and social care in the
London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, says Laming’s emphasis on
focusing accountability for individual casework up the line signals
a change in the way social work is managed.

“I’ve always felt I’m accountable for managing the framework,” she
says. “Laming is quite clear that social work managers should get
back in touch with the day-to-day work. I’ll be thinking about
getting closer to individual cases and having more of a feel of
what is happening on the front line. It’s more akin to the kind of
clinical overview which occurs in health.”

The recommendations lack detail and leave many questions
unanswered. Behan says having a new board with responsibility for
children and family services and lodging child protection within it
may be welcomed. But there will still be a need for groups to work
on specific tasks, such as child protection procedures and training
plans. It is hardly realistic to expect a local authority chief
executive to have much detailed knowledge of child protection. And,
in larger authorities with several health trusts, police divisions
and housing authorities, there will be problems with the
composition of management boards.

Laming does not make clear either whether responsibility for
co-ordinating child protection should be on a statutory footing as
has been canvassed by the Association of Directors of Social
Services, children’s charity NSPCC and the joint inspectorate
report Safeguarding Children published last autumn. The
argument runs that making ACPCs statutory bodies will mean partner
agencies give higher priority to child protection. At the moment
ACPCs’ authority comes from their member agencies and depends on
the level of seniority of the representatives. Too often they are
dominated by social services, and representatives from other
agencies are relatively junior.

NSPCC policy adviser Rhian Stone says it is vital that ACPCs – or
whatever succeeds them – are given teeth and resources. She says:
“Stronger mechanisms are needed to ensure that professionals work
together and are held accountable for their actions, whatever their
individual perspectives and priorities. The NSPCC believes this can
be done through powerful local bodies with workers on the ground
being brought together in multi-agency teams. At the moment ACPCs
are variable because they aren’t statutory and don’t have adequate

But no one must lose sight of the context in which social workers
operate. David Berridge, professor of child and family welfare at
Luton University, says: “You can’t look at events [like the death
of Victoria Climbie] without realising that social work is
chronically undervalued and underfunded and that the government
hardly ever speaks positively about social workers. The fundamental
point is not about structure but about the quality of staff

Eileen Munro, lecturer in social policy at the London School of
Economics, fears that restructuring will further undermine morale.
“Keeping staff is the key point,” she says. “We’ve been
re-organising social services since 1974. There’s no evidence that
it makes any substantial difference.”

She adds: “Audit Commission research shows that social workers will
start protecting children when they themselves feel protected. They
are not being helped with those aspects of the job that are really

Improving practice must start with supporting front-line staff. One
child protection worker from a north London team says: “Most of my
work is about writing reports for committees and telling people
that we can’t do anything to help them. I came into this job
because I wanted to do something to help vulnerable children. I
often ask myself whether I’m really doing that.”

Laming’s proposals

  • National children and families board chaired by a Cabinet
    member and serviced by a national children and families
  • Local authority chief executives  to chair new management
    boards for services to children and   families made up of chief or
    very senior officers from the police, health, education, housing,
    probation services and social services. The boards will undertake
    work now carried out by area child protection committees. 
  • Management boards will report to  local children and families
    committees of elected members. The committees will be responsible
    for ensuring inter-agency co-ordination of children’s
  • Management boards for children and families to appoint a
    director to take responsibility for ensuring effective inter-agency
    arrangements and for advising the management board on the
    development of services to meet local need.  
  • Each management board to establish ways of assessing the needs
    of children in their area, and in particular children who may be at
    risk of deliberate harm. 
  • The budget for supporting vulnerable children contributed by
    each of the key agencies to be identified by the management board
    so that staff and resources can be used flexibly and

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