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
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

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

“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
  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


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.