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Child Safeguarding - Education Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 29-51)

DR MAGGIE ATKINSON, PROFESSOR FRANK FUREDI AND COLIN GREEN

15 SEPTEMBER 2010

  Q29 Chair: Good morning. Welcome to our Committee deliberations this morning. We have with us Professor Frank Furedi, Colin Green and Dr Maggie Atkinson. If you are comfortable with it, we will use first names. We are talking about that most serious of issues, child safeguarding. I know that you have all heard the evidence given already this morning. Given that Directors of Children's Services do not have powers over all the agencies that operate for children, is their role an impossible one? Have they been set up in a sense to fail, especially when the number of deaths at the hands of family members has been consistent, although variable, at around 50 children a year?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I was one, so if you want I can start and then pass to someone who still is. You will know that in my current role I come very largely from the point of view of what children tell me. We talk to hundreds of children a year who have experience of the systems right across the piece from schools to social care to health, to mental health, to youth justice and to others. It is, as Sharon explained, a very complex and broad-ranging job with a strong sense of a very wide span of control, even within the council. Children and young people tell me that they would rather have one door to go through, no matter which services they are then referred to if they have a need for additional help and additional support and service. Having a Director of Children's Services—and don't forget the political dimension of a lead member for everything to do with children in any local authority—is a job that is worth continuing to press on with, whether or not there is a legal requirement for a Children's Trust. I say that because former Councillor Mearns, who was deputy leader of Gateshead council when I was DCS there, will tell you that the structures which Sharon said that everybody needed under them, with strong expertise in social care, education, youth justice and health, within the council or able to be held to account by the council, are a means of getting in earlier with children who are in difficulty, answering their needs once and for all and helping them through to safeguarding or other services that they may need. People in a place feel that their endeavour is about the community in that place. What Sharon also indicated is that there are still difficulties in getting all partners—I come back to some of the other questions—to sit at the same table and decide together what is best for the children and young people in an area. That is where the hard work has to come. The role is difficult and is very big, but it is worth the candle.

  Q30 Chair: Can it be done? They don't have powers over health. They don't have powers over the police. In a London context, in particular, there are typically huge numbers of locum social workers. If you have somebody, like Sharon Shoesmith, who had a background in education and becomes the director, is it likely that they will succeed?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: Many, many do. Cases such as those of Peter Connelly, Khyra Ishaq, the two boys in Doncaster and others make the news not only because they are truly horrific, but because they are exceptional. There are 11.8 million children and young people in this country aged 0 to 19. You can add another million or so to that figure if you include those who have been in care, because they remain the responsibility of services for children and young people until the age of 21. In most cases, and in most lives, they are kept safe, well, properly educated and are prepared to be the citizens that they will become. Most of the children and young people who we meet at the Children's Commissioner's office are rounded and truly great human beings in the making. That is in no short measure due to the quality of most services for children and young people—I am sure that you, as constituency MPs, have seen great examples that you could quote—but, none the less, it is necessary to intervene in those exceptional cases that we have discussed. Such interventions should be robust, but should always be made with a view to improving those services. If you were to read the latest Ofsted reports on Haringey, you will discover that, even in a struggling borough, such improvements are under way.

  Q31 Chair: If you read the reports published before baby Peter's case, you might have thought that improvements were being made then, too.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: You would, and, as president of ADCS, I said so, because that inspection report was the only evidence that I had to go on. Sharon has mined deeply into what lay behind those inspection reports and the evidence files concerned. This Committee, or its predecessor, has questioned the inspection and regulation systems, and it has also questioned the practitioners.

  Q32 Chair: Colin, is it an impossible job?

  Colin Green: No, I would not be doing it if it were impossible. It is an exciting job, and in many respects it is the best job that I have had in my career in children's services. In addition to what Maggie has said, the job, like any large job, is a team effort. The job is made possible by the team you build around you in the local authority and in the partner agencies. The role's statutory basis, among other things, gives some leverage with the other partners. That leverage is not always easy to exercise, but it is significantly better than what we had before. You started at the top by talking about the small number of children who are murdered and might have been protected, and reducing that number will require the best quality universal services for all children. In a sense, the rationale for having a Director of Children's Services is the connection between providing universal services and providing additional or quite specialist services to those children who need them. In many ways, the job of a Director of Children's Services also covers young people and taking the lead for families in the local authority, which makes sense. All of those services must work together if we are to do better for those families who have the greatest difficulty. Prior to being a Director of Children's Services, my career was in social services—I was also a civil servant for a short time—and that hard end of children's social care was too often in a little ghetto of its own, where it was not sufficiently connected with all of the other services for children. That meant that the needs of those children, particularly looked-after children, were not well served, because, as they were with children's social care or social services, other people said, "They are being looked after," so such children became less of a priority for education or parts of the NHS. The rationale for the role remains as absolutely forceful as it was in 2003-04, when the role was developed. The job can be done, but only with a good team and political support.

  Q33 Chair: Interagency working is important, but so is the ethos of the services provided through children's services. The interagency working seems, in some ways, to have been fine in the Khyra Ishaq case, and Maggie has remarked on the generally high standard. Certainly the schools attended by the children, who were starving to death, before some of them were taken out, were doing everything possible to raise the issue with social services. Social services simply batted it away. Once the children were withdrawn from school, social services seemed to think that it had no role in welfare, because of confusion caused by its lack of training and understanding. That was in Birmingham, which is one of the largest authorities in the country and which has a record of sustained underperformance in this area. How can we have confidence in social services?

  Colin Green: I'd like to add to that in a broader way, rather than talking about a neighbouring local authority. Clearly, because I work in Coventry, I know a fair amount about Birmingham. First, there are serious issues in the work force, and the key to improvement is about improving the work force. The work force, it is fair to say, has had decades of neglect in terms of the key profession, which is the social workers. Importantly, however, there are others involved in that. The guidance and legislative framework for child protection is sound, but it has become enormously cluttered and excessively elaborated. The work force weaknesses and that elaboration are connected, because work force weakness has been dealt with by trying to prescribe the system in excruciating detail. In this case, which obviously I have read something about, you can see that people were following the process, but they were not thinking. I think we have got too much process and not enough thinking.

  Q34 Chair: Social services did not follow the process, though—they did not even know the process. They thought that if a child was home educated, they did not have a welfare role. They thought that that welfare role was the home educated team's job, but it wasn't and it never was. It was quite clear in all the guidelines on home education and on children missing school, yet they were confused about the most basic functions of their role in protecting children. How was that possible?

  Colin Green: It was possible because people get into a tramline mindset in following the process. They thought, "Ah, this is home education, I have categorised it as that." They did not think about it in a broader sense, about understanding the meaning of what had happened to that family and to many of these other challenging families. Social services did not try to understand why things were going catastrophically wrong for these children who had been reasonably well cared for, up to a certain point. People were in their tramlines, and when you have that mindset and a service under enormous pressure, with—as we do currently—increased demand, increased complexity and high expectations, that is when things can go wrong.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: One of the things that I want to add to what Colin has said is that when you interview children who have had contact with the system, they are remarkably consistent with what Lord Laming had to say after the baby Peter case. Professionals need not only to work with each other, but to listen to what children are saying, listen between the words of what children are saying—sometimes there is a hidden disclosure going on—not to take the adult's word for what is being said, to be consistent and approachable, and ready to be accessed and to listen and to act on what a child says. Very often, a child has screwed up their courage to say what needs to be said about their home situation. Lord Laming discussed maintaining professional scepticism, going in with an eye for the child, not for what the adult is telling you and for probing beneath apparent compliance. There were many recommendations from that report. What children tell me as Children's Commissioner is exactly what Lord Laming told the country in that report. Children find it difficult to disclose and they find it difficult to put their parents in a situation where they would feel that they were betraying them. There is a need for the system to take the child's interests first and to always listen and look at what is going on. One of the things that the Birmingham report indicated was that they took the adult's word too easily. You have to get behind the adult and get to the child.

  Q35 Chair: A whole raft of children in that family starved to death and suffered malnutrition, with schools which were highlighting it. You didn't need to listen to the child; you just needed to see that they couldn't pay attention and that their trousers were falling off them, to use one of their teacher's phrases. Somehow nothing happened.

  Professor Frank Furedi: A couple of points from the outside. Some questions were raised about process. One of the problems with process is that it is not straightforward when it becomes a substitute for professional judgment. As a result, we have a situation where leadership is measured on the basis of how well you know the process, whereas the underlings are the ones who need the process interpreted to them. For example, a friend of mine who is a legal scholar called the helpline of the Criminal Records Bureau to find out what the law was and she had to wait an hour and a half before she was given any kind of answer, because the person at the other end had no idea what process should have been followed. You get conflicting interpretation. One of the problems that we have had in Haringey, apparently, and elsewhere is that the one-dimensional dependence on process leads to a lot of impression management—a lot of rituals of pretending to do things that are not actually happening. Children are let down because of that. Another issue that the review should consider is inter-agency co-operation. At the moment, that has become a form of outsourcing authority and responsibility to somebody else—somebody else will do it. We are seeing that although it is a very good idea in the abstract to co-operate and to have all these little committees where we sit together, it becomes a way of bypassing responsibility for whatever is going on. That issue needs to be confronted and it comes up time and again in almost all of these cases.

  Q36 Lisa Nandy: I want briefly to follow up on the point that you raised, Maggie, about the voice of the child. Sometimes it is not just about listening to children, it is also about making sure that that voice is elevated to a level where it is heard and put at the heart of the intervention. We have seen time and again with these high-profile cases that the voice of the child has not been at the centre of the intervention and has not been heard, despite the fact that they were saying things that ought to have been listened to. Do you think that there is a particular role for the Children's Commissioner in highlighting that voice, particularly in areas where children's voices are not routinely heard, such as in custody and in immigration detention?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: There is a very central role for the Children's Commissioner. We are under review, but we will say that there continues to be a role in elevating that voice. One of our current roles is in helping Eileen Munro in her review by bringing children and young people into her research environment. We have not only been getting them to answer questions formally, but we have held several evidence sessions, where members of her research team have come to listen to children who have experience of the system. What those children are saying is, for me, a blueprint model for what the profession ought to look like. They are saying: "Make it consistent—do not chop and change;" "Do not assume that when you have solved the first problem, the family is healed and you can simply walk away;" "Do not close the case just because I no longer ticks your boxes;" "I need you to continue to be with me and to listen;" "I have had my case opened and closed enough times now;" "Stay with me, be consistent, make it happen for me;" "Broker my access to other agencies;" and "I'm a young carer, I'm looking after my mum, who has a mental health problem. Don't just walk away when you've looked at my mum—I need help as well." What we submit to the Munro review, which is heavily influenced by the voices of children who have had experience of the system, will be very much a blueprint for the profession. That is one concrete indicator of how the Children's Commissioner's office can influence what happens in professional development and training. We think that children who have experience of the system should be used in helping to define whether somebody who is entering social work training has the mindset to work with children and young people in the first place. We think that children and young people's voices from the youth justice system could and should be pushing the Youth Justice Board and others towards only ever employing people, in lock-up situations, who have declared themselves wishing to work with children, and not just as a prison officer. You know that we had influence on the situation for asylum seekers and the end of detention, because Damian Green has said so. Those are really important roles for the Commissioner. Children who are in difficulty, in danger, or at risk find it very difficult to lie about their personal circumstances, so their voices are very powerful. We quote them extensively in everything that we publish and send to MPs, so you are welcome to read what we do.

  Q37 Lisa Nandy: Thank you. I also want to touch on the issue about the social work profession, because how we empower social workers to do their jobs is particularly important. It has been established beyond doubt that the high-profile cases, in particular the baby Peter case, have had a really demoralising effect on the social work profession. I want to ask all of you on the panel whether you would accept that? On the issue of media coverage, what do you think the impact of it has been, and what could have been done differently that might have protected the social work profession from such effects in those cases?

  Colin Green: May I start on that? Certainly, it has had a big effect on the social work profession, which of course is far wider than children's services—there are thousands of social workers working with adults, people with learning disabilities and people with disabilities. It has had a big impact for children's services, as did the Victoria Climbie« case and as have a number of horrific cases over the past 30, 40 or more years. The response to that, of trying to rebuild the social work profession, and the work that Eileen Munro is doing, which there is considerable optimism about, are important steps in trying to put some of that right. In terms of the media, I have spent considerable time thinking about this. In Coventry, we have taken a number of initiatives in this area. Social workers have, because of what has happened, shied away from explaining what they do to the media and from allowing the media in, there needs to be more of that. You have to see the media as essentially like the weather—you probably can't do a lot about it, but at least you can be prepared for the kind of weather coming your way. So, there is something about being well prepared and understanding that perspective. But we need to be proactive in trying to explain what we do—there are real difficulties about that, but some of them can be overcome—and in trying to help the media present what we do with some balance, using those parts of the media who are open to that approach.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I would echo what Colin has said. I would come back to saying that the most powerful voices you have are the children and young people themselves, if they are properly guided and prepared, and if the media understand that they have a responsibility to reflect back to the nation how fantastic most of our children and young people are—how well parented, looked after, nurtured and brought up they are, how well schooled they are and what contributions they are already making to society as volunteers and in other ways. It is within that context that the media should look, when the light of heavy criticism needs to be shone. My issue with the media is that, in this country, it seems that good news is not news. That is a real issue, and no doubt it is one for you in your constituencies and in the roles you play. Good news isn't news; it's always the bad news that makes the front page. That is a real issue for children and young people as well, including those who are exposed to the system that we are talking about this morning, the safeguarding system. They get to the stage, as you know, in our work on transparency in the family courts, where they say, "Why would I want to tell my story if I am going to be portrayed as a broken child in a broken society from a broken family in a broken estate? I am not going to talk to anybody. I am not going to talk to my lawyer or my social worker, if you let the press at me." We have to work with the media to get them to the stage where not everything is tarred with the same brush. Of the social workers that I left in Gateshead at the end of February, I would say, because we spent a lot of time with them, because elected Members came to see them, because we supported them and because we celebrated what they did, as winners of awards in the council—we had some of the longest staying social workers in the country, including some who had been in Gateshead for 27 years and who wouldn't have wanted to go anywhere else—that they were fantastic. They were great because we celebrated them as, every now and again, so did the local press. The picture of a profession that is absolutely under the cosh, or living under a stone somewhere, is not universal. There are some real heroes, doing fantastic work every day, and we need to find a way of getting the media to say so.

  Q38 Lisa Nandy: Do you think that we could do more to promote that as well?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: Absolutely. Go and see the teams. Get yourself out on a day with a preventive worker, a youth offending worker or a social worker who is attached to a children's centre. Go and spend some time with such teams, who will value you, including just for having the name—"Such and such an MP is coming to see us." They will feel really supported.

  Professor Frank Furedi: There is a danger of missing the big picture by pointing a finger at the media. Of course, the media do horrific things as they did in the Haringey case and they are responsible for promoting all kinds of panic. But when you talk to social workers, especially the more creative, dynamic sort of social workers, you will find that what demoralises them is not the occasional media representation that they are uncomfortable with, but the very fact that they spend a phenomenal amount of their time not doing social work. So when Sharon Shoesmith was talking earlier about her being surprised by seeing all these people hanging around the offices, that is not unusual. You often find that, if you look at the amount of time a social worker spends out with real people, it tends to be less and less compared with the amount of paperwork you are doing, and the extent to which you are forced to cover your rear end rather than think creatively about the job you are engaged in. That is what is demoralising. I talk to my ex-students who went into social work, but who have subsequently left social work precisely for the reason that they got fed up with not being social workers, but being petty little pen-pushers.

  Q39 Tessa Munt: I am quite interested in your analogy of the weather and, if you can see the storm coming, how much of an impact that storm has on people's behaviour, and since 2008 and the Baby Peter case, looking at the reaction of the general public and of the services to the possibility of a storm coming? Have people changed their reactions, their reporting and their actions as a result? Do you get that sort of effect where stories happen? How do you balance out people's responsibility to report and react to circumstances they may be aware of, particularly the general public, but also the services concerned?

  Colin Green: It is quite hard to separate out some of the components, but certainly one of the responses is a very defensive response, a response that is about compliance. In a sense, it is hard to separate out some of the response that is about the media. It is also about the response of the Government and the regulators. The response of the regulator, Ofsted, is often about compliance and too much talk, in a sense, of "How did we get the process right" not "Did we get the result right?" The two are linked in the way they operate. While the media are more of a storm, the regulator is more a kind of thing that is with you all the time. It is about changing both, and the regulator, the impact of the regulator, and the wider comment in society are more of a constant feature. So it is important that both get adjusted or we make some change. We will have to have a more positive discussion about what it is we want from our safeguarding child protection system. What do we think should happen in families with the most serious difficulties and are really struggling to care for their children? How do we want to intervene? What risks are we willing to take around intervention, and so on?

  Q40 Tessa Munt: I was going to ask you about risk, in particular, and whether attitudes have changed to risk and whether they just change as a result of storm or whether it is consistent. Has there been a change of attitude to risk since 2008?

  Colin Green: I think it is quite hard to unpack it because there is some evidence that the rise in work load started actually before November 2008 and therefore other things were going on, some of which are about improved recognition of things that are harmful to children, in particular a much better appreciation of the impact of domestic violence. There has been a lot of attention on the long-term impact of neglect, still an issue we don't tackle as well as we might. Those are part of the picture, alongside possible impacts of the recession, possible impacts of our society becoming much more complex—certainly I would feel that in a major urban area in terms of how diverse the population is, how volatile it is in terms of people moving around. All those things are making a difference. I am not sure there is real evidence that we are necessarily notably more risk averse in that sense, but we are identifying more need and responding to that, perhaps more assertively.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I am on record in public as regretting some of the "cotton-woolling" that goes on of some of our children and young people. I am in my mid-50s and as a child, I used to disappear for a day at a time, climb trees, fall in water and all sorts of things with kids my parents did not know, and I was very pleased that they didn't know them. Twenty years ago, that was at the end of the street, and only with children you knew. Ten years ago, it was—maybe—a play area that your parents had sight of, and then only with a select group of children and young people. For some of our children these days, there are the twin pressures of having something to fill every minute—dance, horses, music and goodness only knows what else—and only being allowed to play in the garden if somebody can see you. We have to get to the stage where we as a society understand that childhood is childhood and needs to be allowed to be so. That's so whether you are vulnerable, poor, affluent, disabled, or terribly able-bodied and very bright—every child needs the right to be a child. You have to work out between you, as a family, what the length of the leash is on which children are allowed to play. In families that are dysfunctional and chaotic, or where children and parents are not bonded or attached, the leash can sometimes be far too long. That is the point at which children become out of sight, out of mind and not properly parented. It is also the point at which parents either abdicate their responsibilities or claim not to have them, and that happens not only in difficult, inner-urban estates but elsewhere as well. It seems to me we need a national conversation about what childhood is for. Who are the adults in this situation, and how do we keep our children safe without so locking them behind closed doors that nobody actually knows how safe they are and they are not taught risk as opposed to foolhardiness? We need an ongoing national conversation about those things, because it is about rearing, educating, health and everything in between.

  Chair: Can we bring Frank in on this?

  Professor Frank Furedi: There is no doubt about the fact that we have become steadily more risk averse. When I wrote my study, "Paranoid Parenting", in 2001, there were many things that children could do that are now no-go areas. Every week, I get four or five e-mails from parents telling me that they have been reported to the headmaster, the police, or to somebody in local government, simply for trying to give their children independence—getting their kids to walk to school. The other day, I got an e-mail from somebody in Kent. She had been planning for months to get her daughter, a 13-year-old girl, to come up to London for the first time, with another 13-year-old girl. It was a big day for them, but they got into trouble because of that. It seems that we have an intensification of risk aversion, which hides something more profound, which is responsibility aversion. When we deny children the opportunity to engage with risk, we are saying "No, you cannot do it. Don't go outside. It's impossible to do it". It is much easier to say that and not take responsibility for our kids than to work out ways in which children can manage that risk for themselves, so that they live in a community where it is expected of all adults to be responsible for their welfare. Instead, we have created the situation where adults have become entirely estranged—physically estranged—from children. They are no longer allowed to go anywhere near kids. You literally need a licence to be near a child. As a result, perversely, children are far less secure. We have to remember that even if you have 1 or 2 million social workers, in the end, the safety and security of children depends on the quality of communities, and the responsibility that communities take for them. Risk aversion, which really means responsibility aversion, has the paradoxical consequence of compromising our children's existential life.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I think we are generalising from the specific very much in what has just been said. We cannot, as a society say at one minute, "They are locked away and never allowed to take risks", and the next minute, ask, "What are they doing outside my house playing football?" Are these the same children or are they not the same children? We need a balanced conversation about how to keep children safe without absolutely locking them down, and we need a balanced inter-generational conversation about how best to approach youngsters who are simply being children in our communities, not out to cause trouble because there's more than three of them. It is more subtle and complex than is being portrayed to my right.

  Professor Frank Furedi: I don't know about subtlety and complexity, but all I know is that if you now have mums who want to go into the playgrounds of their schools, and they are told that they cannot enter unless they are CRB checked, there is no subtle balance. If you talk to the headmaster about it and say, "Why are you not allowing this woman to go into the playground?" and he talks about process and everything else, and instead of being embarrassed, says, "I'm just being sensible about it" that is not subtle or complex. When you have a situation where children, who used to be able to bicycle or walk to school, are now regarded as eccentric if they do so, and their parents are regarded as irresponsible, that is not a subtle or complex situation. What we are doing is creating a world where children are forced into their digital bedroom more and more. At the same time, we have a small minority of children who are tremendously at risk, and who are also suffering from the fact that adults in their communities no longer keep an eye on them, because they think it's not their business any more.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: The generalisation I would point out is that there are 11.8 million of them. I got on the tube this morning, and it was full of children going to school on their own. I walk the streets around Southwark, where my office is, and there are children walking from school to home and from home to school all the time on their own. If there are 11.8 million of them, not all of them can be as has just been characterised—that is my issue.

  Q41 Damian Hinds: We would all recognise some aspects of the obsession with "credentialisation", process and so on. As a candidate, I remember visiting schools and being asked whether I was CRB checked, which I thought was absolutely ludicrous. I was more interested in what Maggie was saying about the need for a national conversation, and that we as a society need to talk about these things. In my experience, people are talking about them, and there is a national conversation going on. All sorts of sensible and normal people say that some of these things have got completely out of hand. As Children's Commissioner, what do you think should be done about that?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: Many of the changes that Roger Singleton steered through before he stepped down, particularly the vetting and barring scheme, were good developments. It is sensible to stand back from the vetting and barring scheme, as is happening now—as we speak—to look at what we actually need. But I would remind the Committee why the vetting and barring scheme was introduced in the first place. It was introduced after the murders of two little girls by their school caretaker. As a nation, we need to work out where between the two extremes of "lock them down" and "don't lock them down" we are actually going to sit. That is why the conversation that you have just characterised, which is ongoing, is important.

  Q42 Damian Hinds: I meant in terms of risk aversion in general. Even people who complain about children being outside their house are the same people who say, "We want the children to have a childhood." You are the voice of youth, so what can the public, government and local communities do to turn that conversation, which has a large consensus, into something that makes a difference for children?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: One of the great moments of opportunity is with us at the moment. If localities are having to make stringent cuts to things like how many public buildings they run, one of the things that is incumbent on them, and is entirely in line with what all three parties were talking about in terms of community development, is to bring the generations together in a properly structured way to talk about their communities and what is needed, which is what children and young people are asking me. How do we make it possible for youngsters to play football after dark without them being reported to the police 15 times by people who would rather have "No ball games" signs than "Children welcome here" signs? What children are asking for, particularly the teenagers, is to be helped to talk to the older generations in ways that frighten neither of them, in proper community settings, usually with a project in mind—"Can we turn this stretch of empty green space into a community allotment?" or, "Is there a way of us, as young people, helping you, as older people, to keep the war memorial up to date and clean and tidy?" or, "Can we work together on community programmes that are about learning about each other and learning together?" That is what they are asking for. We are in a moment of opportunity. If you cannot afford both a community centre and a youth club and a this and a that and the other, and you can only have one of those, you're all going to have to use it together, so how about we run some properly structured programmes? There are organisations that can help you do it—from the voluntary sector, from academia and from the schools in our communities—and who will help to bring those generations together. It is happening already in many parts of the country, and it does bear fruit. It is very important, because the two ends of the age scale characterise each other as not understanding each other. Actually, it is about bringing them into spaces where they learn to speak each other's language, and that is what children are consistently asking for.

  Professor Frank Furedi: Unfortunately, the generations will not come together as long as we believe that child protection is based upon the vetting, monitoring and surveying of adults. As long as adults feel that they are being viewed as potential criminals they will feel estranged, and in many cases will feel very awkward about physically coming near children. It is a very big problem, particularly for the older generation. When you talk to them they often feel very uncomfortable about being with children not because they do not want to be, but because they are worried about how their behaviour will be interpreted by other people. This is where politicians and people like ourselves have a very important role to play in encouraging some kind of cultural change so that the default position is that we think adults are responsible, decent people, rather than potential paedophiles. I think we need to establish that, and we need to act on that basis.

  Q43 Chair: The culture change that has taken us in that direction, about which there may or may not be a consensus that it is the wrong one, was based on a series of legislative and administrative process-based actions, which tipped things that way. I think Damian is trying to ask—rather than wishing a culture change, which I don't think we will effect from this room, however persuasively we talk—what actions need to be taken. It is like anything to do with health and safety, where people say, "Tell us the specific ones you want to withdraw, where you will accept the increased risk by removing them," when it sounds as if it is there to protect small children, for instance. You have to remove that and take it away, and accept it in order to change the culture. Is that true, and if so what should we do?

  Professor Frank Furedi: We should take away the vetting and barring scheme straight away, because it creates more problems than it solves. We need a sensible system for monitoring people who either work full-time with children—teachers, social workers and people of that sort—or who are consistently exposed to them in specific areas of volunteering. The inappropriate extension of the scheme into other areas, which has happened in recent years, is really where the problem is. We need very specific forms of monitoring where this is really explained. We also need to have somebody, either in social services or elsewhere, whose job it is to police the bureaucratic mechanisms that have been established and keep them from getting out of hand in the way that they have. Yesterday, for example, one local government wrote a letter to parents because they allowed their kids to walk to school. In that instance, it would be their job to reprimand that local authority for causing harm and creating difficulties for the individuals concerned. We need to bend the stick in the opposite direction.

  Colin Green: I am afraid—

  Chair: Colin, your body language is showing that you fiercely disagree with that. We must move on or we will not deal with other issues. I hate to cut you off, especially when you have so obviously been severely provoked.

  Q44 Nic Dakin: I was provoked as well, but I will move on. Is the publication of Serious Case Reviews the right thing to do? Does it in itself bring about the accountability that is desired, and how do we make sure in those cases that surviving children are not harmed by that publication?

  Colin Green: First of all, it is important that there is accountability, but I do not think that full publication of Serious Case Reviews will achieve accountability. The primary problem with this is that—I am just trying to make sure I state this clearly—what we have had, and the move towards publication means that the focus of the Serious Case Review will become on preparing a document for publication, or preparing a document that will get full marks from Ofsted. It will not be on learning, it will not be on organisational change and it will not be about what we really need to do differently in those cases. I feel that publication is a costly exercise that will not contribute either towards better accountability or towards keeping children safer.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I would add to that, and again I am on public record as having already said this. If it becomes an extremely process-driven and document-driven and get-the-ticks-in-the-boxes-driven exercise, how is it supposed to continue to help to keep children safe, whether they are surviving siblings or not? For me as Commissioner, the big issue—because we see all of them—is the quality, honesty, robustness and detail in the executive summaries of Serious Case Reviews. To come back to an issue raised earlier in this conversation, there are partner agencies whose members would, I think, stand back from even allowing their documentation to be used as part of a Serious Case Review if the Damocles sword of potential publication and pillory in the press was held over their heads. It is not an aid to co-operation between agencies. The biggest insult as far as children and young people who are surviving siblings and have talked to us as an agency are concerned is, "You are about to publish this, but you have not talked to me about it. When were you going to ask my opinion as a 13-year-old surviving sibling in a desperately awful case? If you're not going to ask for my opinion, how do I respect you as professionals in the system? Why would I want to? All right then, I won't tell my story." How safe are they if they are not going to tell their story because of their fear of publication? If you are child B and child A was the subject of a Serious Case Review and you live in a tiny village in the back end of a dale in north Yorkshire, everybody at your school is going to know that you are child B even if your material is redacted. It's not a means of keeping children safe and it won't be a means of entirely assuring the system that it will learn. If you want to make them trials, then call them trials; Serious Case Reviews are supposed to be learning exercises.

  Colin Green: I would just add that in terms of the issue of learning, the biennial reviews, where research teams looked at all this, have been a very powerful learning tool. That is the way to get the learning out to a wider community in a systematic way that has been synthesised and can give people a focus on what they need to understand has gone wrong and what we need to do differently.

  Q45 Nic Dakin: Moving on from Serious Case Reviews, has the abolition of the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit, which Laming asked for, been a loss to the promotion of good practice? You might want to take that first, Colin.

  Colin Green: I would say yes, because all the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit did was bring together the civil servants from across government who had leads on safeguarding. I worked as a civil servant on safeguarding for three years in the then DfES, and one of the perennial issues was ensuring that government departments worked together on safeguarding, particularly the Home Office and the Department of Health, but not just them. The Safeguarding Delivery Unit brought those people together and co-located them with some clarity of common leadership. I thought that was potentially really beneficial. It didn't add anything to cost and it wasn't a quango—it was simply about bringing people together so they could do their policy work more effectively.

  Q46 Nic Dakin: What should replace ContactPoint?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: In my last job in Gateshead, we were a pilot area for ContactPoint and we saw that it made a difference. Let's just be clear what ContactPoint is not: it is not a database full of case records, case conference minutes or whatever. For most children in this country, what ContactPoint did was tell you who they were, when they were born, where they lived, their GP reference number and where they went to school. For most children, it was simply one simple, central national record of where they were. For those children who needed additional services, it enabled me as, for example, an Educational Welfare Officer, to get into the system with three or four passwords to work out who else had contact with that child. Children and young people tell me, "I'm sick of telling my story five times over. I need all these extra services, and I need to tell my story once. Whoever's doing it then needs to work out who else needs to work in the team around me." If we are going to have a database only for the vulnerable, I would like somebody somewhere to sit me down and define "the vulnerable." Do you mean all four million in poverty? Do you mean all 1 million with a disability? Do you mean all however many with a special need? Do you mean anybody who comes home from work and suddenly their dad's not got a job and they're about to be thrown out of their house? Do you mean somebody whose family has suddenly broken up? Define me "the vulnerable" and where one is not and one is vulnerable and I'll tell you that we can only have a database for the vulnerable. It is really important that we have something simple, clear and fast.

  Q47 Nic Dakin: Are you essentially saying that ContactPoint was that something, or were people right to be critical of it and do we need something else?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: For us in Gateshead, it was that something and I could show you concrete proof of finding a child who had gone missing in another borough, because they came in to us and we knew what their national health number was and we found them within 48 hours. And they were in danger.

  Colin Green: I was more sceptical about whether ContactPoint would ever work quite in the way that Maggie has described. I am more sceptical about whether we can construct something else that is somewhere between the list of children who have a child protection plan and all children, for the reasons Maggie has very briefly outlined. It is also for me, in what are going to be hard times, about the opportunity cost of trying to create yet another technical system. My concern with ContactPoint is and always was that it was yet another technical fix for what I see as essentially a human problem, which is about people recognising they have information that needs to be shared and that they need to go and talk to other people to whom that might be useful, and vice versa. That really is my concern. The effort needs to go into the training and development of the work force, so that they understand who they need to talk to and do that in a proactive way.

  Professor Frank Furedi: In addition, from a sociological point of view, there are a number of other reasons why it is a really horrible idea. One is that it tends to fossilise identity and leads to a situation where what is on the screen is the child, rather than the living creature that is out there. That often tells us that random databases are a very illusory way of dealing with child protection, or for any social problem for that matter. It is a lazy way of going about the whole process.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: Chair, I have to come back.

  Professor Frank Furedi: Secondly, there is a tendency, when you have databases, to invite more information and other people's suspicions, and notes also get on it. So databases very rarely stay still. They tend to expand with the passing of time until you get to the point where, especially when you come to more subtle nuance issues, they become a little bit unreliable. That seems to me to be a danger. From a non-sociological point of view, it is a civil liberty issue. A society that has to put all the children on a database is basically saying that we are a sick society—that this is the only way we can proceed. That is a form of self-condemnation that I am really surprised that enlightened practitioners are comfortable living with.

  Q48 Nic Dakin: May I move on to one last area, which is the Munro review? There has been review upon review upon review in this area. Do we need another review and, if we do, has this got the right remit?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: We do need another review and this builds on what Moira Gibb's Social Work Taskforce did in such sterling fashion, but what Moira and her team were looking at was the structure of the profession. The really positive thing that Eileen has been asked to look at is the nature of front-line practice. What that then enables you to do is to listen to the voice of the client of that front-line practice. That enables you to then re-shape the front-line practice to tackle exactly what Frank raised, which is too much time away from the client transforming into better time with the client—staff who do not know what the profile of a social worker should look like being told from the horse's mouth of the client's experience what a social worker should look like. Eileen has been asked to do it in a very short period of time. She has been asked to give concrete recommendations on how the profession ought to move into the 21st century. This is the finishing point of the work that Moira Gibb did leading up to this.

  Colin Green: I would agree with all of that. It is a very wide remit, so there are some concerns about whether there is the time to cover such an enormous scope. I feel that it is more practice-focused. Also, given the direction she comes from with her academic research and interest, we know it will be focused on practice and be a systematic and human look at what actually happens and why things go wrong. We will not get 100 recommendations about process and procedure.

  Professor Frank Furedi: She is unusually sensible for an academic, so I completely agree with the two comments.

  Q49 Chair: Are the current levels of safeguarding activity—as we know, it has gone up a great deal since 2008, for whatever reason—sustainable, given what we know about local authority budgets? Is it reasonable for us to expect that funding for preventive and early intervention services might suffer as a result of the expected reductions?

  Colin Green: To put it another way round, the activity is there; the question is, can local government and the partners sustainably respond to that level of activity? The answer at the moment is that it is proving very challenging to respond to that level of activity and do it to a reasonable standard. That is really the crux, because a lot of the issue is that where things get into serious difficulties, there are often problems about the sheer capacity of the system and of people to do the work, and to do the work well. If you're looking at social worker case loads, health visitor work loads or work loads in police public protection units, all those are up, and that leads to compromises on quality. One of the quality issues, of course, is about the quality of recording. Although I agree that people spend too much time at their desks, this is an area that requires very careful recording. These are children's lives. There may be critical decisions made, on the basis of records, on whether children may be separated from parents, and so on. It's a real concern. I think it is quite possible we will be in a scenario where preventive services will go, because of the need to maintain the child protection services and services to look after the children who are already in our care. Once you have a child in your care, you have got to provide a service. That is a very costly service, and it may well squeeze out other services for children and young people.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: My warning to the system has been consistent since I took up office: be careful what you wish for when you start to cut preventive and early intervention services. The very services Colin has just carefully and eloquently described will then be even more swamped than they are now, because there is no diversion or dilution of behaviours and no early intervention in families who, if you got in early enough, would recover. I recognise that every public service, my own organisation included, is having to face some very tough decisions about what we spend and how we spend it. If you simply take the easy way of cutting the discretionary and the universal, you will live to regret the day you did it.

  Q50 Ian Mearns: I have often been made aware of the tension between the levels of need driving the service and the resources available. We've been through some very difficult times recently in children's services—Sharon's still sitting there listening to all this. We have heard about the recent history of demands on services and the breadth of the role of Director of Children's Services within a local authority—I think it was John Bangs from the NUT who described it as "undoable" in evidence to this Committee in its previous life. Given all these tensions between resources and needs and the times that we're in, is it going to become more difficult to recruit people who are capable of fulfilling the duty of a Director of Children's Services into the future? Are you finding any sort of wastage in the system where people are bailing out because of the demands on them as individuals?

  Colin Green: There has certainly been, I would say in the last year, a change in about 40 local authorities in Directors of Children's Services. That was a full mix of retirements, people moving between authorities and so on, so it is quite a high rate of churn. To be frank, I don't know how hard it is to recruit. I certainly know a number of authorities have had to look pretty hard, and maybe go out a couple of times, so I think the demands of the job are reflected in that way, but the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, or whatever it's now called, is doing a lot of work to try to ensure that there are people coming through who have been prepared for the role.

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I'd add to that that there is certainly a breadth and depth of talent in the system. It is about the current generation of directors not portraying the sense of hero leadership. I come back to what Colin said earlier: this is a team effort. You can't keep the whole of the job in your head. Somebody else has to step up in very senior roles and have exposure to elected members, partners and other things, so that they are ready to take it on and can see it as a possible next step. There is a vast array of talent out there, and I come back to what I said earlier. That's why most children's services departments are extremely good.

  Q51 Ian Mearns: Given the collegiate approach that is necessary, and the requirement to fulfil the role and provide the services adequately, you would need different agencies to work together. Given all of that, do you think it's therefore reasonable that a Director of Children's Services is ultimately accountable for everything that happens on their patch?

  Dr Maggie Atkinson: I'd say an unequivocal yes. I always saw myself as being absolutely where the buck stopped.

  Chair: I think we will bring this session to a close. Thank you all very much for giving evidence to us this morning.






 
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