Unrealistic Vision

Redemption is an affirming human capacity which sometimes can
change the world. I had no faith in Margaret Hodge when she took
over as the first minister ever in this country to be in charge of
the rights and needs of children. As leader of the council in
Islington, London, she failed to protect children in care from
institutionalised abuse and then defended the indefensible. When
she was appointed to this job she cast aspersions on individuals
who had suffered at the time. Her behaviour reflected the arrogance
of New Labour perfectly.

I was not wrong to doubt her and I was not alone. Many others
were uneasy about Hodge’s ability to overcome her own ambitions and
to serve the public. But she has come back valiantly to confront
such sceptics. She appears to have taken up the cause with true
passion and has delivered, on paper at least, with the Children Act
2004. The horrors of the Victoria ClimbiŽ case demanded no
less than an overhaul of the legislative framework and here we have
it, the rights of the child established, stated and restated so the
nation understands and consents to what really is a profound change
of values. The law now expects integrated planning and inspections,
a statutory duty is placed on key agencies to co-operate and share
information – which might have saved Victoria’s life – and
arrangements are in place for better accountability with a
children’s commissioner to set up inquiries when there are breaches
and failures. (The post should be given much more power to
instigate investigations, but perhaps that will come as the limits
of the post show up.)

For the act to make a difference, much depends on local
authorities. The new provisions demand levels of professionalism
and knowledge which are probably beyond the means of most local
councillors and workers. There is to be a designated director of
social services committed to and answerable on children’s rights
and well-being. A member of the council is expected to become a
lead advocate for children in the borough and new statutory local
safeguarding children boards are to replace previous non-statutory
area child protection committees. Where are we going to find such

I can see in my mind’s eye the sort of person we need: dynamic,
super-bright and a motivator, with energy and zeal and an immovable
passion to make things dazzlingly better. Most such people avoid
applying to work in town halls, even if salaries are competitive
and the authorities make the kind of grand promises they
increasingly do in job adverts. There are some exceptional local
authority professionals but not nearly enough for the demands made
by the new act.

Large numbers of idealistic and able individuals prefer to go
into think-tanks where the pay is far lower but ideas soar, or
increasingly in the non-governmental sector which is fast becoming
savvy, modern and effective. I am sorry if this offends the
hard-working people who do decent service in housing and social
services departments. But I know enough of them to know how ground
down they feel and unmoved by any new bright wheezes that central
government comes up with.

Elected members reflect the same fatigue, except at election
time when it seems to matter a lot to them that they should be
re-elected. Perhaps I am being unfair; there must be local
councillors who genuinely want to take up this responsibility and
have the ability to do what is expected. Say they got themselves
selected, what then? Who gives them the training they will need to
understand the basics of the act itself and the complicated
business of child protection where there needs to be continuous
balancing between state intervention and parental freedom, between
disclosure and privacy?

For the director, the one solution might be to open up
recruitment and think beyond the usual suspects. A person who, for
example, has been demonstrably brilliant working for Oxfam abroad
could make an equally effective overseer of the new deal for
children. Members of the safeguarding children’s boards too need to
be wholly different from what we have come to expect – the great
and the good. Councils should search out individuals who run small
but effective children’s charities and institute new models of
collective influence and accountability – citizens’ juries for

There will, inevitably, be other horrendous and unavoidable
deaths of children in our society. But after this act there should
never be a death which local authorities could have prevented
happening. And that is a challenge I fear few of them can rise to
at present.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.