Government drives forward with radical reform of children’s services

When the children’s green paper was published in September 2003,
its vision was described by prime minister Tony Blair as creating
“the most radical reform of children’s services in 30 years”.

Last week, this vision was taken one step further with the
publication of the Children Bill and its accompanying document
Every Child Matters: Next Steps, which set out legislative
and policy changes for children’s services.

Children’s commissioner

Under the bill, a children’s commissioner for England will be
appointed by the education secretary and be in post by next

The commissioner’s role will be to seek and represent the views of
under 18s on how far the five outcomes they identified as important
(being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a
positive contribution and economic well-being) are being met. The
commissioner will advise the secretary of state on the development
of policy or legislation.

England is the last of the UK nations to appoint a commissioner but
campaigners for the post are likely to hail its creation as only a
partial victory. Unlike its counterparts in Northern Ireland,
Scotland and Wales, the commissioner for England will be denied
power to initiate inquiries into individual cases. Only at the
direction of the education secretary will the commissioner be
allowed to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of a
particular child and then only when the case has national

Children’s minister Margaret Hodge insists the role will be
“completely independent” of the government and parliament but there
is a danger that the duty to make an annual report to parliament on
how well the government is meeting the five outcomes, and on
further areas for research, may be inhibited. The secretary of
state must lay the report, unchanged, before parliament.

Without the same powers as the other commissioners there is a
danger that whoever occupies the role will have insufficient
influence over the quality of services for children.

Information sharing
A file will be created on every child and stored on a database in
order to create a framework for information sharing between
professional groups.

Poor exchange of information was among the key weaknesses in
agencies’ handling of the Victoria Climbi’ case highlighted in Lord
Laming’s inquiry. It has also emerged as a serious failure in a
series of other child death inquiries and reports. Hodge believes
“the failure to share information is often at the heart of what
went wrong in too many children’s lives”.

But the government has yet to resolve some of the complex practical
issues around such a database, which will hold basic details
including the child’s name, address, date of birth, school and
their GP’s name.

Key issues, such as who will have access to the database, who can
add information, who will manage it and whether it will operate at
local, regional or national level, remain unanswered.

It will not allow professionals to record child protection concerns
in detail but they will be able to flag a child’s name to alert
other professionals to concerns.

The bill offers the freedom for local authorities or “another
specified body” to set up a database or databases. The government
is examining the experiences of the 10 trailblazer authorities
which have set up information, referral and tracking systems, and
advises councils not to invest in new IT “at this stage”.

Director of children’s services
Every council will be expected to appoint a director of children’s
services who will, at the very least, take responsibility for
children’s social services and education. This post is intended to
ensure a greater line of accountability. In his report into the
death of Victoria Climbi’, Lord Laming made a scathing attack on
the buck-passing culture that resulted in not one professional
feeling responsible for the failure to help her. A separate
director of adult social services will be appointed. A lead member
for children post, with a specific focus on child protection, will
also be created.

Children’s Trusts
The children’s trust model set out in the green paper has been
criticised as too prescriptive. Before the bill was published, it
was understood that the government would not compel councils to set
up a trust. But the bill makes it clear that the government still
expects councils to join together services for children, although
the original April 2006 deadline for establishing trusts has been
extended by two years to address concerns over the timescale.

The trusts will be formed through the pooling of budgets and
resources across, at least, education, children’s social services,
Connexions and some health services. Their primary purpose will be
to secure integrated joint commissioning, leading to integrated
service delivery. The bill does not make children’s trusts a
statutory body and says decisions on whether to co-locate staff
will be left to local discretion. There is no expectation that
children’s trusts will be created in Wales.

An integrated inspection regime will be introduced that allows the
government to judge how well services work together and how well
they are collectively meeting outcomes for children. The Commission
for Social Care Inspection, the Commission for Healthcare Audit and
Inspection, the Audit Commission and Ofsted will work together on
developing this integrated inspection framework.

Local safeguarding children’s boards
A new duty to promote the welfare of children and safeguard them
has been introduced, and local safeguarding children’s boards will
be established in each area on a statutory footing, replacing area
child protection committees (ACPCs).

The quality of ACPCs is notoriously patchy and there have long been
complaints that they are ineffective in dealing with child
protection concerns as they have “no teeth”.

Original plans within the green paper to require the director of
children’s services to chair the board have been watered down and
councils can now use an independent chairperson. This flexibility
will be welcomed. In recent years there has been a trend towards
appointing independent people to chair ACPCs because they have more
time to devote to the task than overstretched directors of social

A new duty toco-operate
A new duty will be placed on agencies to co-operate with each other
and establish partnership arrangements with representatives from
key groups, including local authorities, health, police, probation
service and Connexions partnerships. These arrangements could be
built on existing children and young people’s strategic

Workforce reform
A workforce unit has been established in the Department for
Education and Skills, which will draw up a pay and workforce
strategy, the first part of which will be completed by next

The government has acknowledged that more money will be needed to
implement the proposals and that savings will only come in the
longer term. As well as for work reforms and pay, extra money is
needed for information sharing, supporting parents and carers and
helping schools to become full-service schools offering on-site
health and social support as well as work reforms and pay.

Funding for the reforms will be tackled in the 2004 Spending
Review. Some £20m has been allocated for 2004-5 to meet
transitional costs, such as those incurred in setting up children’s
trusts, pooling budgets and governance arrangements. The government
will also establish a £200m Young People’s Fund financed by
the national lottery.

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