Rearrange the pieces

Inadequate structures were among the factors Lord Laming blamed for
the death of Victoria Climbi’. Sickened by a succession of senior
people all shrugging off responsibility for their agency’s failure,
one of his overarching recommendations was to clarify and
strengthen the trail of accountability from the top to the bottom.

With this in mind, he suggested wholesale structural reform of the
child protection system with a new children and families board at
the top, chaired by a cabinet minister and serviced by a national
children and families agency, supported by regional offices. He
also recommended that area child protection committees should be
replaced by management boards for services to children and
families.

The government has chosen to go down a different route. But you’d
be mistaken if you thought Laming was disappointed with the
decision to ignore his ideas.

“I’m not worried about the structures because they are there as a
means to an end. I’m not committed to a particular blueprint but I
am strongly committed to ensuring that the quality of service that
is delivered, whatever the structure, produces good outcomes for
children.

“If government goes down a different route, I’m happy as long as we
are all pretty rigorous in ensuring that the end result is
achieved.”

Laming has had time to give his proposals a lot of thought and
concedes that his idea for a Cabinet minister for children would
have involved creating a separate department for children and
families. “The downside to this, which I’ve always recognised, is
that a new department would give existing departments yet more
reason to believe that children’s matters belong to another
department.”

He thinks the government has come up with a “reasonable
arrangement” by creating a minister for children. Margaret Hodge’s
post lies within the Department for Education and Skills, which has
now taken over statutory responsibility for children’s social
services. This persuades Laming that the move “reinforces the
message that whether a child is seen by a teacher in school, a GP
in the surgery, or a health visitor in the home, everybody must
play their part in the safeguarding and well-being of
children”.

However, Hodge does not have the kind of machinery behind her that
Laming envisaged, namely a national body capable of driving
necessary improvements. Instead the government is going to
strengthen the inspection role. “Whether it’s better remains to be
seen,” he says. “As long as it’s clear that the minister isn’t
isolated at Whitehall, that she has the wherewithal to know what’s
happening to children at the front door, then it doesn’t matter
whether it’s achieved through one route or another.”

Laming feels other green paper proposals go with the grain of what
the Victoria Climbie Report was aiming to achieve – a line
of accountability from front-line worker to the most senior
position so that no one can pass the buck. For example, he is in
favour of a director of children’s services in every local
authority responsible for social services and education, and a lead
council member for children and local safeguarding children’s
boards with statutory powers to replace area child protection
committees.

Although Laming’s goals were commendable, many believed his
structural proposals were too complex and would add yet more
bureaucracy to the system. Janice Miles, policy manager at the NHS
Confederation, believes the green paper is an improvement on
Laming’s proposals, but “will hopefully have the outcomes he was
looking for in terms of accountability”.

The NHS Confederation, the Association of Directors of Social
Services and the Local Government Association set out their own
vision for children’s services post-Victoria Climbie in Serving
Children Well
, many of whose ideas featured in the green
paper.

“The one thing that was a bit of a surprise was the children’s
trusts being a requirement rather than a voluntary way forward,”
says Miles. “We would have preferred it to be a local decision. We
wouldn’t welcome structural change being forced on them.”

The shape, size and make-up of the 35 pathfinder trusts is
differing widely and no central model is emerging. Miles says until
people have a chance to see how they might work it is too ambitious
to say there should be one in each local authority by 2006.

Bob Hudson, senior associate at the University of Birmingham health
services management centre, thinks it strange that the evaluation
of the pathfinders will be completed a year after children’s trusts
are expected to be rolled out nationally. “Most of the pathfinders
are taking a modest approach to their trust’s formation. Few are
taking the radical whole-systems approach which is the government’s
preferred model. We will be whistling in the dark to know whether
they will work,” he says.

Serving Children Well had talked about the need for area
child protection committees to work to a common standard and be
beefed up, says Andrew Webb, county manager of children’s services
at Cheshire social services department. “In that sense we are happy
with the safeguarding boards,” he says. “What perhaps doesn’t fit
is the structural implications of establishing children’s directors
and integrated departments in local authorities for education and
social services.”

The issue, he says, is whether there will be a central prescription
of structure for local services. “Each local authority has a
different set of needs and circumstances and a different range of
players in the children’s system. How you impose a one-size-
fits-all structure I don’t know.”

And with structural change can come risk, he warns. “If you take
your eye off front-line service delivery during a transition period
it creates risk. We have to think carefully about long-term aims
without putting services at risk in the short term because we all
become obsessed with organisations and structures.

“We have to ask ourselves whether we want a common structure. Our
position is that we probably do not. We need to think about
outcomes for children that we want to achieve and look at how we
can get the best from what we already have, rather than going down
a new route.”

Although Webb can see the merit in having a single point of
accountability resting with the director of children’s services he
says such a move might result in a feeling that other departments
should have a single point of accountability too. “The domino
effect on top tier management is going to be considerable,” he
says. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but the unintended
consequences are probably nearly as many as the intended
ones.”

He is also concerned that if the focus is solely on children’s
structures, there is a danger that adult structures are ignored.
“Most children in need have problems because of issues with their
parents. If you only look at child-related services and don’t tie
in the adult service structures you end up dealing with the wrong
end of the problem.”

The link to adult services is missing from the green paper, agrees
Hudson. “By splitting children’s and adult services into different
organisations, will it make the transition even harder?”

What excites Laming about the green paper is the vision about “how
we value each child and their development being a responsibility of
us all”.

No doubt the consultation period will see development of the plans.
But as Hudson says: “The devil is in the detail. The green paper is
worryingly low on that.”

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