McTernan on politics

Lord Laming’s inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbie
identified a series of service failures. In the face of such
appalling events the temptation is always to tear up existing
structures and start again. Hence the clamour from some quarters
for the establishment of a national child protection agency.

The government’s rejection of such a reform in their green paper is
to be welcomed. There is no evidence that it would have been
possible for any such agency to operate effectively. Equally
importantly, ministers have rejected the argument that a choice has
to be made between universalism and targeted services. The title
says it well – Every Child Matters. The words are signs of
political intent and it should help to ensure that children’s
services are not ghettoised.

The green paper sets out the four pillars of the approach: support
for parents and carers; early intervention and protection;
accountability and integration; and workforce reform. Each is right
in itself, and should reinforce the other. The devil, as ever, is
in the detail. All parents know that they are ill-prepared for the
task they take on when they have children and good advice is
desperately needed but hard to find. However, a national helpline
seems like the last place people would go to for such advice –
personal contact is surely critical here. Additionally, if
professionals are to give real information to parents the
condescension of some will have to stop.

Early intervention is the Holy Grail of child protection. It is
right that where children are in multiple contact with public
agencies, professionals should be connected together – and it is a
fine aspiration to have one lead person responsible for a
particular child.

But the use of IT will never supersede the hard grind of
constructing effective relationships across professions. The
information generated by tracking 11 million children still has to
be assessed by real people whose time is already spoken for.
Greater accountability is key, but only if the poorest performing
departments are targeted and there is a light touch regime for the

The lurking danger is that the focus on integration will generate
its own child protection failures as precious organisational energy
is focused inwards on merging, not outwards on clients.

Finally, none of this will work if there are no staff. Here the
green paper is at its weakest. Better training and high profile
recruitment campaigns have all been tried before. Rather than more
intensive fishing of the traditional pool we need to find new
sources of talent drawing on the underemployed such as women with
caring responsibilities, men over 50 and refugees. Overall, the
government have made a good start – now, let the debate

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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