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
    people?

    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
    example.

    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
    broadcaster.

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