Special Report on the Children Bill

While the Children Bill – heralded as the biggest reform
of children’s services for three decades – has been
broadly welcomed across the social care sector, the government has
failed to tackle a number of key concerns in its proposed
legislation, writes Clare Jerrom.

The Association of London Government was not reassured by
children’s minister Margaret Hodge’s announcement that
the plans for children’s services directors had been watered
down with more than expected flexibility around the role.

Councillor Stephen Burke, chairperson of the ALG’s health
and social care panel said the Association was disappointed that
ministers “considered it necessary to prescribe the role of
children’s director and lead member”, rather than
leaving it to authorities to decide the best response locally. He
added he would be seeking to meet Hodge to discuss this

Andrew Cozens, president of the Association of Social Services
added: “It is vitally important that local councils are given
the flexibility to achieve the goals set by the bill by working out
for themselves the most appropriate way forward.”

But  Cozens believed that the decision to relax the timetable on
children’s trusts so that they do not have to be introduced until
2008, was “a big concession.”

“The original deadline of 2006 was a very tight timescale and we do
feel we have been listened to on this,” he said, but warned there
were still concerns over the issue of funding the new

“We are just not convinced by the notion put forward by government
that the required changes can be achieved within existing
resources,” he added.

Children’s charity NSPCC argued that the bill gave local
authorities too much flexibility in deciding how they will
safeguard children.

It urged the government to set minimum expectations of how
directors of children’s services should operate and deliver
results, and if the government failed to do so, the charity warned
it would “create a system of inconsistency and

Safe transition period

The NSPCC raised fears that the reforms to children’s
services were not being driven through quickly enough, as it could
be years before some local authorities reform their child
protection procedures. “Action needs to be taken now. Any
delay would allow more child abuse tragedies to happen,” said
Mary Marsh, NSPCC’s chief executive.

However, Cozens said it was vital that there was “a safe
and secure transition period” between current arrangements
for children and the new proposals in the Children Bill. He warned
that there was growing evidence of “considerable
turmoil” within local government as senior officers
contemplated the changes that the legislation would bring

“It is extremely important that the performance of social
care does not slip during this vital, transitional phase,”
said Cozens.

“Wasted opportunity”

Children’s charity NCH broadly welcomed the bill, but
Caroline Abrahams, director of policy warned that while the charity
supported the idea of Local Children’s Safeguarding Boards,
there was not enough in the bill to guarantee that these bodies
will be more effective than the existing Area Child Protection

The charity believed the government had wasted a “great
opportunity” to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement
which parents can use to justify smacking their children, and was
also concerned that the voluntary sector was not named explicitly
in the bill.

Education, education, education

NCH also expressed disappointment that the responsibility to
boost the educational achievement of children in care remained with
local authorities and would like to have seen the onus shared with

But David Behan, chief inspector of the new Commission for
Social Care Inspection raised concerns about schools being the
driving force in developing an integrated approach to
children’s services.

Many looked-after children felt alienated from the school
environment and the CSCI’s concern was that there was a
danger that this proposal “could lead to further social
exclusion”, he warned.

Sharing information

Alison King, chairperson of the Local Government Association’s
social affairs and health executive, said the Association had
concerns surrounding the sharing of information.
“A key worry is the issue of cross border communication,” she
said. “Without adequate access across agencies to vital
information held on databases it will be difficult to deliver the
required changes”.

But plans to share information on databases were slammed by
Action on Rights for Children as “profoundly dangerous and

The network of parents and young people committed to upholding
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child called on the
government to provide a “cast-iron guarantee” that
paedophiles would not be able to exploit the sensitive personal
information to be held on databases.

Equal powers?

Across the sector there were widespread fears that the powers
for a children’s commissioner in England were less
far-reaching than in Wales and Northern Ireland.

But Welsh commissioner Peter Clarke warned that the role of the
English commissioner could undermine his role. As some areas that
affect children’s lives in Wales were non-devolved, Clarke
warned that he would be unable to act as an advocate for Welsh
children over certain key issues.

Children’s charity Barnardo’s highlighted the fact
that the commissioner was the only person in the bill tasked with
talking to children, which was “not good enough”.

“Replacing one bureaucratic system with another, without
attention to high quality contact with children, will not protect
them any better, and is no substitute for good professional
practice and training and supervision of front line
workers,” concluded Chris Hanvey, director of childcare


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