New bill to strengthen children’s trusts

Proposed legislation is expected to represent a u-turn in the policy around children’s trusts. Amy Taylor finds out how welcome these changes would be

Just weeks after the April 2008 deadline passed for councils to set up children’s trusts, the secretary of state for children Ed Balls announced a raft of proposals to change their make-up.

The consultation on the plans closed this week, and a new bill to strengthen the trusts will be included in the next parliamentary session. All councils in England now have trusts, or their equivalent, but their levels of development vary. On launching the plans, Balls said he was keen to ensure good practice was implemented widely and there was now a “strong case” for strengthening the statutory base of trusts to make this happen.

The Children’s Inter-Agency Group – the lobbying group spanning all sectors involved in drawing up the consultation – backs change as long as it isn’t too prescriptive or hinders those further down the line, says member Caroline Abrahams.

Support policy

As the Local Government Association’s children and young people programme director, Abrahams says: “The consensus is that it’s helpful to take some measures that support policy. Councils are in quite different stages on all of this work which is not serious because the deadline passed only recently but, because of that, it’s sensible to do things to support trusts that are a bit behind without getting in the way of people doing a good job.”

Another member of the inter-agency group, Barbara Hearn, who is also deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, agrees that trusts have had long enough to bed in. “There’s enough in place to see where the gaps are and to go out and fill them,” she says.

The concept of children’s trusts was first raised in the Every Child Matters green paper in September 2003. The document, which was published by the government in response to Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, proposed running children’s social care, education and some health services together in trusts, alongside services such as youth offending teams.

Functions vary

Although the government has described trusts as its “preferred model” for achieving integrated services, no legal requirement was placed on councils to establish them. This means their name, membership, design and functions vary.

The proposed legislation would level out these variations and ensure trusts help all children and young people. The government sees the change as particularly necessary to ensure a narrowing of gaps in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers and that children who have additional needs to be helped quickly.

An alternative, also put forward by Balls, is for ministers to be granted reserve powers to be used when local arrangements are falling short of government ambitions. This is something many see as far too prescriptive and only to be used as a last resort.

Abrahams says clarifying the legal status of trusts and their membership is a positive move. “Children’s trust boards don’t have the same kind of status as, say, the safeguarding children board and some of the adult social care boards [because they are not set out in law],” she says. “A lot of people are puzzled about children’s trusts. It will be helpful in terms of giving people a shared understanding of what they are.”

Local solutions

With the inter-agency group and others having stressed the need for councils to be given space to come up with local solutions, Abrahams believes the bill is unlikely to go down the intervention route. “The government is more likely to be looking at something quite light touch,” she says.

When the Children Act 2004 made its way through parliament, the Local Government Association lobbied fiercely to have the duty to co-operate to promote children’s well-being placed on schools.

It failed, but the new plans feature a government u-turn by proposing placing schools under that duty. Ministers initially resisted on the grounds that the duty should be reserved for strategic bodies, such as primary care trusts, rather than frontline delivery services. But they now argue that it would make schools partners in children’s trusts, give them more influence over their strategic arrangements and ensure they were better supported by other partners.

Promoting well-being

John Chowcat, general secretary at the Association of Professionals in Education and Children’s Trusts (Aspect), welcomes the extension of the duty. He says that, although many schools are committed to joint working, this is not the case everywhere. “Some schools already play a full role in terms of building the Every Child Matters agenda and connecting with children’s trusts, but we haven’t got to the stage where all schools are doing this,” he says.

Draft guidance for schools, explaining in detail what is meant by “promoting well-being” and what support they should expect from their local authority and other partners in their children’s trust, was put out to consultation at the same time as the plans on trusts. Chowcat says the legislation is welcome, although this contains much practical help for schools. “Even then, though that’s been useful, it’s still helpful to have a legal duty to back that. It says to all schools that this [requirement] is here now,” he says.

Four years after the Children Act 2004, for Abrahams the situation has moved on to the bigger issue of health. Despite overall progress health and children’s services are still not working as hoped, she says.

“The policy framework for health is not very strong. Where you have very committed managers in a primary care trust who want to work with children’s services they do, but if you haven’t got someone who is personally committed it’s hard to get real progress,” she says.

The third part of the proposals involves extending to statutory partners a responsibility for creating and delivering children and young people’s plans and local visions on improving the lives of children. This could include requirements for plans to set out arrangements for early intervention and specify the spend of each partner on areas such as child health and youth offending.

Commitments on spending

Hearn says a specification on spending would help, particularly in terms of ensuring money came from health bodies. “It’s one thing to have health partners sit round a table and talk about working for children but it’s another thing to put their hands in their pockets and pay for it,” she says.

Children’s trusts backed up by pooled budgets represent the government’s ultimate goal for the framework. Chowcat argues that breakdowns in spending are necessary to achieve this but that it will still be difficult. “If the government is to meet the aim of pooled budgets there has to be that clarity,” he says. “But those proposals don’t take away from the fact that it’s hard work. Individual people are very protective of their budgets.”

Professionals could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu on reading the new proposals, as many raise issues that surfaced when the Children Act 2004 was drawn up, but Chowcat says the changes are worth it.

“There are no short cuts to building really effective partnerships. Some question whether it is worth doing all this legal stuff but that cultural change can take some time and it will help if we build more statutory duties around that.”

Legislative proposals

The proposals likely to be contained in a new children’s Bill in the next parliamentary session:

● Measures to strengthen children’s trusts by putting them on a statutory footing.

● Extending the duty to co-operate with councils and other agencies to promote children’s well-being to schools.

● Making all public agencies, not just councils, responsible for creating and delivering children and young people’s plans.

Links and resources

Delivering the Children’s Plan – Strengthening Children’s Trusts: legislative options

Expert guide to children’s services

Expert guide to the Children Act 2004

This article is published in the 25 September edition of Community Care under the headline A New Deal for Children’s Trusts

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.