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That’s great but...

Steven Allen welcomes the government’s decision to intorduce a Children’s Commissioner but questions whether they will be given the powers they need to make a real impact on children’s lives.

Every Child Matters. Of course they do, and so says the title of the government’s most recent consultation document looking at how to totally reform child protection structures throughout England. The review is an attempt at trying to make sure that no child is left unprotected in a world that seems ever more hostile to our youngest citizens.

The graphic, barbarous violence and murder of Victoria Climbié, and the parallel lack of anyone – anyone – to recognise the extent of it when it seemed to be staring everyone in the face, has made the government re-evaluate its approach towards protecting our children. The consultation document starts with this surprisingly frank admission about the failure to protect Victoria:

‘The death of Victoria Climbié exposed shameful failings in our ability to protect the most vulnerable children. On twelve occasions, over ten months, chances to save Victoria’s life were not taken. Social services, the police and the NHS failed, as Lord Laming’s report into Victoria’s death made clear, to do the basic things well to protect her.’

I personally find it chilling that we still can’t do the most basic things well to protect our most vulnerable children. But the very fact that the government is actually acknowledging this issue and is now seriously committing itself to major changes in the whole children’s sector gives us some new hope that things might actually change.

Of course a review of this scale is not unprecedented and we only have to look across the border with Wales to see that tragedy often comes before major change. Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s Report into the scandal of the abuse of children in care across the Gwynedd and Clwyd areas in Wales led to sweeping reforms across the country. He recommended major reforms to children’s services in Wales, the principal of which was that an independent and statutory Commissioner for Children in Wales to monitor all aspects of children’s services in Wales and to conduct reviews where the Commissioner feels appropriate. The subsequent Care Standards Act 2000 created the post officially with Peter Clark, ex-Director of ChildLine, stepping in to take the role.

One of the first acts of the Welsh Commissioner was to set up a review of complaints and representations procedures for all children in Wales. The Commissioner has already suggested a restructure of the complaints systems for children in Wales to create a one-stop-shop approach, recognising that the often confusing long road to making complaints about issues often means the child does not make them.

Back here in England, Every Child Matters has been published as a Green Paper but will take the unusual step of skipping the White Paper stage and going to the Bill stage, a move that seems to have been decided upon by decision-makers nervous to prevent any more tragedies occurring before they’ve had a chance to actually change things.

Many of the specific proposals in the paper have been welcomed by the major children’s charities, particularly the proposals to set up Children’s Trusts, the creation of a lead child professional role for children in each Local Authority and the development of a Children’s Workforce Unit which would help tackle the current problems with recruitment and retention in the children’s services sector at present.

Importantly, the government has finally recognised the central role that a Children’s Commissioner could play and has proposed to set up a Children’s Commissioner for England. The government has placed at the heart of the role of Commissioner a firm commitment to involving children and young people in its work, ensuring that their views are sought on issues which affect them.

However that’s where the proposals seems to dry up. The paper seems to indicate that the Commissioner will have a power of review but it is not at all clear what the strength of this power will be, what children the powers will cover, or what information seeking powers the Commissioner would have. It seems that the only firm proposal other than involving children is that the Commissioner shouldn’t review individual cases except in exceptional circumstances where the complaint may have a more broad implication for more than just that child.

So how is it that the government just haven’t thought about it up until now? Minister for Children, Margaret Hodge has publicly said that the proposal to create a Commissioner has been made purposefully brief because she needs to give it much more thought. But this does not seem to make sense. The Welsh Children’s Commissioner has now been established for three years and was given the powers of a High Court Judge in terms of requesting information right from the outset (even with the power of a High Court Judge to find a person or body in contempt of court if they did not comply), yet we haven’t learnt anything from that on this side of the border.

Of course it’s not that the government haven’t thought about it. The government set up the Children’s and Young People’s Unit in the DfES in 2001 and it was made clear to all who asked that the government were looking into the possibilities of setting up a Commissioner for Children. Every single time you asked them, they said they were looking at it, and reviewing the Welsh Commissioner’s progress. So after two years of looking, it seems that they haven’t seen that much.

The worrying thing about this is that the government are not going to put their proposals into a White Paper and that it will just go to the Bill stage. And their commitment to legislate for a Commissioner ‘at the earliest opportunity’ seems worrying given that they haven’t thought about what the Commissioner is actually going to do. Advocates for the setting up of a Commissioner are already worried that the powers will be too limited not allowing for the full potential that the post could offer. The campaign for a Children’s Commissioner is long-running but it is important that the campaign is not satisfied by such weak proposals.

This is not the only significant problem in the paper. In addition to this, the paper proposes setting up a new system of tracking and sharing information on child protection issues between services. The new scheme – named the Information, Referral and Tracking System, or IRT – will place all information on children’s issues in one place, allowing all professionals working with the child access to that information. While the cause is entirely justified – i.e. making sure that services work better together to ensure children’s protection – the means are highly questionable.

One of the things children involved with services constantly tell us is that they want things to change for them, but that they don’t want everyone knowing everything about them. Access to the information is not clear – the questions of who, when and how the information will be made available to professionals is unclear. No indication is given about the type of information that will be stored and how this might be used. What is clear is that neither children nor their parents will have any control over it. Already the paper commits to giving £1million to start 15 projects in Local Authorities and to gauge how successful these are by next year.

The government knows that the IRT scheme is against the right to privacy contained in the Human Rights Act, and also the provisions of the Data Protection Act. With this is mind, they have already said that they will amend both of these pieces of legislation to allow the scheme to go ahead. Again, the fact that the proposals will not be released in White Paper form mean that there is little time to influence this policy.

What is clear about this Green Paper is that the government have finally seen that child protection measures in the country are at completely inadequate. It is recognised that far too many children simply fall through the net because of the failure of the system. At a conference last week, I spoke to a professional in the children’s advocacy field who told me that far too often children themselves end up being blamed for problems that they face, simply because the services they use hate to admit mistakes they have made, even when these are of the most despicable level. This paper signals that this is no longer OK and that the focus of everyone must be on protecting, providing for, and involving our children.

However, we need to make sure that these important shifts in policy are not rushed through and end up creating more problems than solutions. The government is to be applauded for recognising that things must change and that this must happen quickly, but they must also be reminded that this can’t happen at the cost of good decisions being made. We just need to help them out a bit.