Saturday, 17 November 2012

Carlisle on Doncaster - a disappointment?

Lord Carlisle’s review of Doncaster Council’s handling of the Edlington Case has just been published.

For a brief summary see the Independent’s account.

I think I agree with some of his recommendations.

I like Recommendation 17, “… that further attention be given to developing a good national standard for school nurse provision.” However, I would have preferred him to say that he recommended the provision of a good national school nurse service. That would have been clearer.

I also liked Recommendation 16, “… that annual medical examinations at school be introduced for every child up to and including year 11”.

But I think it would have been better to have said that every child has a right to a good school medical service. However, an annual check-up at which a child is weighed and examined is part of that. 

Recommendation 3 says that “…the links between children’s services generally and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) should be developed to achieve the best potential effect of full assessments of conduct disorder and the use of available treatment.” 

That sounds OK, but I think the issue is primarily one of properly resourcing CAMHS.

I also found some of his recommendations puzzling and difficult to accept.

Recommendation 4 is one such. He writes:

“I recommend that Ministers and local authorities consider steps to ensure that the knowledge held by housing providers becomes a standard part of developing intelligent systems for dealing with casework and is recognised by other agencies as an important source of early warning information about families facing problems.”

What does that mean? Are housing associations going to be expected to routinely pass information to local authorities concerning some of their tenants who have children? How will they select which tenants and how can such ‘spying’ be reconciled with the Data Protection Act? 

At present anybody who believes a child is at risk of significant harm should alert the local authority (or the police or the NSPCC). That is clear and justifiable. But it is a lot less easy to identify reasonable ‘early warning information’ and to justify sharing it without permission. Indeed many people who have years of training and experience in childcare find identifying reliable early warning information difficult to do. This recommendation reminds me of the ‘cause for concern’ indicators in ContactPoint - for an excellent discussion of information sharing see Eileen Munro's article on the subject at

I think Carlisle's discussion here is naïve.

I found Recommendation 5 very difficult to understand. Carlisle says:

"I recommend that a radical look be taken at the way interventions are assessed and dealt with. For example, for cases where there have been three police reports of criminal behaviour (or comparable trigger events) on the part of a child in a given period, consideration should be given to placing the burden on the parents and the child’s legal representatives in any ensuing Court proceedings to show that the child’s welfare and best interests are served by leaving him/her in the family home."

This seems very confused to me. Does it mean that the three reports of crime (or ‘comparable trigger events’ – whatever they are) will result in care proceedings? I certainly hope not. But if there are otherwise good grounds for care proceedings, why reverse the burden of proof for a particular group? And why say ‘three police reports of criminal behaviour’? Why not two or four? And what if these are very minor? Or what about a child who has a single very serious conviction? Reports of crime are not convictions – a spiteful neighbour might have reported a child three or more times and the police have taken no action, because the reports are malicious. Surely that should have no impact on the burden of proof in care proceedings?

Clearly this proposal does not make much sense. And, I think, it is very dangerous to meddle with the basis of the Children Act 1989 unless you are absolutely clear about the effects of the meddling. As far as I can see this recommendation will result in some children coming into care who do not need to, taking resources from some who do need to be in care. As it stands it is a sloppy and dangerous proposal.

I wasn’t ecstatic about Recommendation 10 either. Carlisle recommends “… that steps be taken urgently to ensure that Doncaster councillors are given far more opportunity to understand and scrutinise those services”. 

I find it hard to believe that if services in Doncaster haven’t improved with the Department for Education and Ofsted heavily scrutinising what is going on, that giving some group of people who probably understand very little about children’s services, family law or child abuse and neglect the opportunity to take names and kick arse, will have any positive effect at all.  

There were some other recommendations that tried my patience, but I’m running out of energy at this point, so won’t go into detail. In short I was saddened to find so much in the report to argue with and I wasn’t impressed by what seemed to me to be a return to the ways of some of the bad old enquiry reports of the past – get in a QC (lawyer) and let him or her produce a list of unworkable or naïve recommendations which will do nothing to improve services and quite a lot to distract those at the front line who are just trying to do a decent job.