A better position

The warm welcome from the social care field for Margaret Hodge’s
appointment as minister for children isn’t just because, despite
widespread predictions, the post didn’t go to Paul Boateng, whose
negative comments about social services and social workers are

Nor is it just because the post is in the Department for Education
and Skills rather than the very different context of the Home
Office. However, these are both reasons for social care
professionals to be relieved.

There are positive reasons to welcome Hodge’s appointment in
itself. First, it is to be hoped that her long experience of local
government may signal a commitment to councils’ leadership at the
centre of the web of children’s services locally. And second, there
is evidence that she has a genuine passion for children’s services,
and will value all professional perspectives equally – indeed, she
and her boss, education secretary Charles Clarke, have been quick
to reassure social workers that their specific skills are

Of course, the creation of the post itself is more important than
personalities. It goes some way towards structuring central
government’s responsibilities around what actually makes sense to
children’s lives. It is also clearly a response to Lord Laming’s
call for clear accountability at government level, although it
stops short – unfortunately – of his recommendation for a
Cabinet-level post.

The unification of New Labour’s many initiatives under its “social
inclusion” banner – Sure Start, Connexions, the Children and Young
People’s Unit – with children’s social services is long overdue. It
is to be hoped that the forthcoming green paper will ensure that
this is mirrored locally with far greater autonomy for local
government in how the totality of funding for children is spent, to
ensure that the many different services work as a coherent whole.

At last children’s services can be seen as a spectrum from general
needs to acute need or risk. Is it too much to hope that in this
framework, genuine preventive services can flourish so that those
who are in need, perhaps too greatly in need for universal services
to suffice, but not at risk, can receive proper support? Only then
will the real lessons of the Victoria Climbi’ Inquiry – that we are
failing children who do not enter the child protection system – be

So there is much cause for optimism this week. But questions
remain. Now is the time to put those questions clearly, in the hope
that as the new structures settle down, some of them may still be

First of all, it is wrong that youth justice has been omitted from
the minister for children’s brief. It is time all children were
treated as children first. Furthermore, there would be obvious
benefits – particularly at local level – in bringing the network of
youth offending teams into the bigger picture, along with all other
provision for children.

Second, this post does not remove the need for a children’s

And third, because responsibility for services aimed at children
who are socially excluded, in need, or at risk now rests in the
same department as responsibility for schools, there is still a
danger – despite the obvious benefits of this arrangement – that
vulnerable children will be neglected in the government’s ardent
pursuit of its election pledges and targets. Like waiting lists in
the Department of Health and crime and punishment in the Home
Office, mainstream school achievement levels and accompanying
issues such as class sizes, are issues that can win or lose

If Margaret Hodge can ensure that educational attainment for the
many does not overwhelm the more complex needs of vulnerable
children, she will truly prove herself to social care

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