Friday, 30 April 2010

My Election Manifesto

With the NSPCC condemning the political parties for their collective silence on child protection issues during the election campaign (Children and Young People Now, 28th April 2010) now seems to be a good time to publish my personal child protection manifesto.   

One of the first things I would do is abolish ContactPoint and eCAF. There is no evidence that these electronic databases make children any safer and there are lots of reasons to suppose that they are far from secure. They consume scarce resources, especially in terms of maintaining data, without any proven benefit.

I would also replace ICS (the Integrated Children's System) with a simple and logical case management system which would be fit for its purpose in supporting (not interfering with) the work of child protection social workers. Effective child protection requires good data, but ICS (which attempts to impose unrealistic deadlines and unachievable working practices) does not provide it.

In place of ContactPoint I would establish a National Child Protection Register Database to cover all four UK countries. This would include simple identification data of all children subject to a child protection plan. It would be available to key staff in all Children's Departments, police forces and selected health service locations, such as Accident and Emergency departments. Keeping it simple and secure would be my primary aim. Together with the small numbers of data subjects involved, this means that the cost would be very low.

I would remove responsibility of inspection of child protection and safeguarding from Ofsted and establish a new UK wide inspectorate focused primarily on children’s social care. This would have a statutory duty to be independent and objective and so be free from ministerial interference. I would make this body responsible for conducting and publishing an annual survey of the incidence and prevalence of child abuse and for disseminating an annual report on good child protection practice.

I would also abolish SCRs in their present form and discontinue public enquiries chaired by the great and the good. In their place I would establish a small independent unit charged with investigating child protection disasters in much the same way as the Air Accident Investigation Branch currently investigates air accidents. It would be required to publish all its reports, suitably redacted. Again legislation would ensure independence and objectivity.

With respect to dangerous adults, I would scale down the Independent Safeguarding Authority and require checks only on those who have regular unsupervised access to children as part of their work or volunteering.

I would make more funds available for Childline, sufficient to ensure that all calls can be answered quickly and fully, regardless of demand. And I would introduce a national 0800 number, operated by suitably trained staff, to which any one (child, young person or adult) could make a child protection referral or discuss a concern.

I would resist the temptation to introduce major legislation. However, I do think that there is scope for rationalising the present arrangements for emergency action to protect a child at risk. I favour giving local authorities the equivalent of police protection powers, but reducing the time limit to 48 hours (for both local authority and police protection).This could be extended to 8 days on application to a court.

I am also in favour of introducing a new type of supervision order which can be made where a child has been made subject to a child protection plan and the parents have failed to co-operate. A court order of this type would name the parents as well as the children concerned and, in addition to requiring reasonable access by the local authority, might also require regular medical examination, for example in cases of failure to thrive. 

My main priority would be to encourage an evolution in child protection services, away from the bureaucratic local authority tradition, towards properly resourced professional services, which can respond flexibly and effectively to the needs of abused and neglected children. I say "an evolution" because I do not think there is currently one clear way of doing this, and past experience (e.g. Every Child Matters) teaches us that it is all too easy to introduce elaborate but ill-conceived reforms. Making current services leaner by reducing bureaucracy is a good place to start, but I believe there also needs to be much more flexibility in the configuration of child protection services to meet demand. As a start I would like to see local authorities working together in metropolitan areas such as London to provide services which are not constrained by local authority boundaries. And I would like to see central government do its part by rapidly abandoning the plethora of one-dimensional and distracting performance indicators and substituting sensible goals such as having in place reliable mechanisms for meeting demand and improving the quality of service.