The Buck Stops Here

    Admitting responsibility for our own actions can be difficult –
    particularly when they have resulted in tragedy. But one of the
    most powerful undercurrents in Lord Laming’s recommendations after
    the Victoria Climbie Inquiry was the desire to ensure that
    individuals could never again absolve themselves when things go
    wrong.
    It is a message that the government has taken on board. Under the
    Children Act 2004 every local authority in England and Wales must
    have a lead member for children’s services in place by 2008.(1)

    The lead member will be accountable at a political level for the
    same range of children’s services as the director of children’s
    services – the other key role introduced in the act – which is, at
    a minimum, delivery of education, social services and delegated
    health services for children. Statutory guidance is expected next
    March after consultation on the focus for the lead member including
    safeguarding children.(2)

    But elected councillors are a mixed bag. At best they can be
    idealistic champions of local democracy, at worst they can be
    ignorant and politically unscrupulous. The lead member for
    children’s services will have influence in a sensitive area. What
    guarantees are there that they will be up to the task? How will
    councils ensure that they know enough to make good decisions?

    James Kempton, lead member for children’s services in the London
    Borough of Islington, feels that, although he is still learning
    about the role, he is helped by his background as lead member for
    education, as a teacher and work with the Royal College of
    Paediatrics and Child Health.

    He is also vice-chair of the Local Government Association’s
    children and young people’s board. “Given my role at the LGA, I
    have as good an idea as anyone about what the role involves and no
    one would take it on without being aware of the enormous
    challenges. Trying to create integrated services built around the
    child is going to be difficult.”

    Kempton believes support is essential. “It’s important to have
    that accountability, but the reality in Islington is that decisions
    are made collectively,” he says.

    Islington has a corporate parenting board, comprising members,
    officers and other partners, as well as a new local strategic
    children’s board to lead integration. Including representatives
    from schools, the primary care trust, housing, police, Children’s
    Fund and SureStart, the children’s board met for the first time
    last week. In January the council will also launch a children’s
    commission – a group of independent experts who will advise on
    developing children’s services.

    For most lead members, training will be vital. Kempton has just
    returned from the first two-day residential course run by the
    Improvement and Development Agency (Idea). Its leadership academy
    is an umbrella programme for lead members, with a unit for lead
    members of children’s services. This involves the two-day course
    and a refresher day three months later.

    The Department for Education and Skills is backing the programme
    and Idea’s intention is for all lead members to attend over the
    next 18 months. It is billed as a national initiative with local
    tailoring. Sessions during the first two days include a whistlestop
    tour of the Children Act 2004, road-testing children’s trust
    models, listening to children and inspection. The refresher day
    focuses on how to resource children’s services.

    Kempton said the course identified the scale of changes and the
    importance of the role. He says: “For me it was about reflecting on
    how important it is to start from the outcomes of what we are
    trying to achieve for children, which is better universal services
    and better targeted services.”

    Idea also runs a half-day modern members course that is a more
    generic introduction to children’s services for the broader council
    membership. The significance of this is that, because education and
    social services are the two biggest departments in local
    authorities, children’s services will account for up to 70 per cent
    of the budget. Consequently, councillors must understand what rests
    on their budgetary decisions.

    Idea ran 10 regional forums specifically on children’s services
    for lead members and senior officers in the summer and 83 per cent
    of councils took part.

    Paul Roberts, strategic adviser for education and children’s
    services at the Idea, says: “It was a heartening and encouraging
    exercise because there was a commitment about the opportunity the
    Children Bill provided. I think members saw a new opportunity to
    shape local services and to do that in a way that related to what
    they were hearing from their constituents.”

    This was one of the downfalls of councillors in the London
    boroughs of Haringey and Brent, where Victoria ClimbiŽ was
    known to a number of professionals. In Laming’s view, councillors
    in both boroughs failed to budget adequately for children’s
    services, leading Roberts to conclude that they were not a council
    priority.

    Kempton says: “When we set the budget it’s important that every
    member understands the issues and therefore we can make sure that
    the right decisions are taken.”

    Bernard Pennington, chair of Salford Council’s children’s
    services scrutiny committee, says: “The Climbie inquiry
    concentrated people’s minds that they can’t cut corners when
    dealing with children’s lives.”

    A former chair of the council’s finance committee, he is aware
    of how budgets should be spent. He says: “We have already talked
    about the importance of budgets and members are aware that
    sufficient money has to be spent.”

    The scrutiny committee meets once a month to look at areas of
    prime importance; it considers how services are working, whether
    more money needs to be spent, or the service needs reorganising.
    Occasionally special meetings are called – there has been one
    recently on obesity and one is due soon on bullying.

    Committee members will receive specialist training. To enhance
    their knowledge on what is going on in the department, a social
    services officer will address every scrutiny committee about their
    particular field in children’s services.

    The committee works closely with the council’s lead member for
    children’s services. Although principal responsibility rests with
    the lead member, if something went wrong it would equally reflect
    on the work of the committee, says Pennington.

    It was Laming who set the ball rolling. Although introducing a
    lead member for children’s services was not one of his
    recommendations, on reflection he thinks the government’s decision
    is right. “The role gives the person authority and power. Power to
    ask the right questions and to ask other agencies about their
    contribution.

    “It has a real sense of purpose and clear line of responsibility
    so that people can’t say ‘I didn’t know and I couldn’t know’. That
    dissent is no longer possible.”

    For Laming, the lead member’s role is the most exciting – but
    also the most challenging – job in local government for an elected
    member “and because of that it’s a job that carries the greatest
    risk”. He adds: “In other words, if another child suffers the way
    Victoria suffered they will be held accountable for any failings in
    the organisation.”

    Although some might foresee a difficult relationship between
    lead member and director of children’s services, Laming visualises
    a complementary relationship between the two, with “close teamwork,
    different responsibilities but well defined ones”.

    And without these, it’s unlikely that we will avoid another
    Victoria Climbie.

    1. Government guidance on the Children Act is available from www.everychildmatters.gov.uk
    2. Consultation of draft statutory guidance on the role and
      responsibilities of the director of children’s services and the
      lead member for children’s services ends 18 February. Go to www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations

     

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