Whether the Children Bill represents the most significant change to
children’s services for 30 years will depend on how it is
Although substantial changes lie ahead, critics who have been
predicting the demise of children’s social services appear to
have spoken too soon. Rather than dismantling the Children Act
1989, the bill builds on and develops it.
Structural change is inevitable, though the extent is less certain.
The debate around the green paper proposals has encouraged greater
recognition locally and nationally of what children’s social
services are about. It has also highlighted the enormous risks
wholesale disruption could bring.
However, there are equivalent risks attached to the ADSS’
reactions to the bill. If the ADSS’ responses to the proposed
legislation are in any way “protectionist” or defensive
of professional territory, more rigid prescription is likely to
return and the organisation’s capacity to play a lead role
More flexibility introduced
On the main aspects of the bill, it legislates for the new
structures as the green paper anticipated. But it offers far more
flexibility than the fixed and prescribed model which, it is
understood, was overwhelmingly rejected in the consultation. There
are essentially two aspects to the new flexibility: time and
‘Next Steps’, published alongside the bill, advises that there is
an “expectation” most authorities will have a director
of children’s services by 2006, and all of them by 2008. This
is more leeway than expected, and may reflect the risks posed to
government by rigid prescription. More time may allow for the best
models to prove themselves. We cannot argue with the sense of that.
Nor can we ignore the ability of government to bring forward the
timetable if we are seen to be interpreting this as grounds for not
There is more ambiguity in the description of the function of the
director of children’s services. The bill says the director
will assume responsibility for the functions relating to children
currently conferred on the director of social services – in
other words, the fixed model many critics objected to.
Yet Next Steps allows for local determination around
organisational structures, delegation and line management
responsibilities.There is reference to the possibility of the role
encompassing adult social services alongside other responsibilities
and even to the potential, at least initially, for the local
authority’s chief executive to be the designated
These developments imply that the director could take on a
strategic lead for children’s services which would not
necessarily require existing social care structures to be
dismantled. This is paralleled by the refining of the
children’s trust model, which now appears to resemble more
closely the partnership commissioning model developed in ‘Serving
Children Well’, line managed within the local authority but
formally engaging external agencies.
So there appears more room for local manoeuvre than had been
expected and that has to be a positive. The challenge now has to be
how we can use that flexibility to develop effective local
solutions, but which also answer government’s unequivocal
demands for clear lines of accountability for children’s
Throughout Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria
Climbié, the ADSS supported calls for area child protection
committees (ACPCs) to be given more teeth to enforce better child
protection practice and co-operation. The government’s
response – replacing ACPCs with local safeguarding children
boards (LSCBs) – should be welcomed.
But we need to guard against assumptions that this is a simple
rebadging exercise. The bill gives more statutory authority to
LSCBs than their predecessors enjoyed, but some professionals are
disappointed that the bill has not gone further.
There are few surprises in the proposals for integrated
inspection through what will be joint area reviews with schools
watchdog Ofsted holding overall responsibility at least on an
organisational level. The devil will be in the detail which is why
the ADSS’s engagement with the inter-departmental working
party charged with the development of an integrated framework will
be so critical.
There have been mixed reports of pilot integrated inspections. Put
crudely, how will Ofsted give a steer when it is apparent that
services for children in need appear to be failing in an area where
there is strong mainstream education performance?
Sensitivities about information-sharing and its challenges remain
at a premium. There is a public and political perception that
professionals use legislative barriers as a convenient cover for
failing to communicate effectively with each other.
That view has probably been reinforced by the Bichard inquiry.
It is clear from the wording of the bill and some of the attached
briefings that the government is encountering the same regulatory
impediments which affect professionals’ day-to-day
That it has taken longer than expected even to agree on the unique
identifying number for each child is one simple measure of the
difficulties. Local experience suggests that aiming for a minimum
dataset which records only basic information for sharing (if
necessary without consent) is the right approach. The bill will
establish a regulatory framework – how that framework is
built will be the test.
We expect that the positive work taking place within authorities,
especially identification, referral and tracking trailblazers, will
provide the substance of the regulation throughout hard-fought
practical experience and innovation.
The Local Government Association and the ADSS, through the Youth
Crime Group, offered a robust response to ‘Youth Justice –
The Next Steps’ when it was published as a companion to the green
paper. That included a challenge about why young offenders were
being treated separately in this process. It is gratifying that the
key themes of that response are almost exactly reflected in this
Next Steps so, for example, courts will continue to be required to
have regard to the welfare of the child when sentencing.
We have to be realistic in acknowledging that youth justice
services and the Youth Justice Board remain outside the new
children, young people and families directorate and retain a narrow
remit for the prevention of youth offending.
Limits of children’s commissioner
Much of the media reaction to the publication of the bill
focused on disquiet in some quarters that the proposals for the
establishment of a children’s commissioner for England do not
go far enough. This particularly applies to the commissioner not
having a role in the investigation of individual cases. It remains
to be seen where this debate will lead and whether indeed the
post’s limitations inhibit its effectiveness.
On another level this concern seems almost churlish. Repeatedly,
the case has been made for a statutory role independent of the main
services and answerable to parliament to speak on behalf of
children. Its introduction should be welcomed. The debate about its
scope and remit will properly continue through the progress of the
bill and perhaps beyond. It is, however, a positive, if overdue,
The bill represents significant change, but it also reflects some
determined and informed argument on behalf of the ADSS and partners
to ensure that what may follow will improve outcomes for
Penny Thompson and John Coughlan are co-chairs, ADSS
children and families committee