Jury still out on Bill as doubts overchildren’s commissioner role linger

The Children Bill set out by education secretary Charles Clarke
last week has been broadly welcomed across the social care sector,
although concerns remain around a number of its key

The bill and its accompanying document Every Child
: Next Steps take on the proposals outlined in
September’s green paper, setting out how children’s services will
be transformed to “maximise opportunity and minimise risk for every
child and young person”.

However, questions have been raised about some of the central
reforms, including the new children’s commissioner for England, the
development of children’s trusts, and the creation of the role of
director of children’s services.

Despite reassurances from Clarke that the children’s commissioner
would be “entirely independent of government”, many are unhappy
that the post-holder will only be able to investigate individual
cases if directed to by the Department for Education and Skills and
will have to report annually to parliament via the education

“While we welcome the establishment of the children’s commissioner,
we have concerns over his or her independence and whether the role
will have the necessary investigative powers,” said Martin
Hazlehurst, national care leaving advisory service manager for
young people’s charity Rainer. “The commissioner needs not only to
consult with children and young people – as stated in the bill –
but also to champion their rights.”

In response to earlier concerns that plans for children’s trusts
and the director of children’s services post were too prescriptive,
the government has made some concessions, including an extension of
the deadline for both from 2006 to 2008.

The bill also allows flexibility in the way councils construct the
new director role and the organisational structure beneath it,
providing it covers at least the functions relating to children and
young people that currently fall to chief education officers and
directors of social services.

Children’s trusts will not be enshrined in legislation, but are
encouraged through new powers to allow the pooling of budgets and
resources across the local education authority, children’s social
services, Connexions, certain health services and, where agreed
locally, youth offending teams. Although children’s minister
Margaret Hodge insisted children’s trusts were not optional, the
Next Steps document states they need not require
structural change or the transfer of staff.

Welcoming the concessions, president of the Association of
Directors of Social Services Andrew Cozens said: “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.”

However, he was concerned about expectations that the required
changes could be achieved within existing resources, and warned
that it would be a “tragedy” if the underfunding of the Children
Act 1989 was repeated again 15 years later.

The Association of London Government was unconvinced by the
government’s new flexibility. Health and social care panel
chairperson Stephen Burke said the ALG was disappointed 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 plans to meet Hodge to discuss
this further.

Other key proposals 

  • A new duty on agencies to co-operate with local partners to
    improve the well-being of children. 
  • A new duty on key statutory agencies to safeguard and promote
    the welfare of children. 
  • The creation of local safeguarding children boards to replace
    non-statutory area child protection committees. 
  • A lead council member role, with a particular focus on child
  • A new integrated inspection framework.  
  • New intervention powers in relation to children’s social
    services to bring them in line with interventions in education
  • The creation of databases containing basic information on every
  • A new duty on local authorities to promote educational
    achievement of looked-after children. 
  • Simplified registration procedures for child care
  • A £25m parenting fund.  
  • A common assessment framework to identify children’s needs and
    avoid duplication. 
  • A lead professional role. 
  • A £20m fund to support change.

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