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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Working together to Safeguard Children

Monday, April 15, 2013

Westminster Briefing invited Meg to speak to child safety professionals at their conference. Meg is Chair of the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group, and before becoming an MP was involved in child safety for over twenty years her contribution follows.

I am pleased to be asked to participate on a topic that is important to me personally.

My background, before becoming an MP, was in social work, and before standing for parliament, I was Assistant Director of Children’s Services at City of York Council.   

But this topic is not just important to me because I was a social worker it is important to me as a politician, and is an issue that goes to the heart of much that I believe in a society where our children and young people matter where they are protected, nurtured, and developed so they can achieve their full potential in an environment free from abuse, poverty, and neglect.

What are the issues?

Social workers are too often seen, and reported in the press, as the problem in child protection.  High profile cases provoke, naturally enough, a strong reaction, which often focuses on professional error again predominately of the social work profession - without looking at the underlying causes of why mistakes have occurred.

Local Authorities are accused of failing to meet acceptable standards for child safeguarding.  Bureaucracy, a lack of transparency, and failure to share information are cited as causes of confusion which lead to greater risk for children of abuse and neglect.  And we know that time and time again reviews in child deaths have cited failure to work together by professionals hence the title for the guidance on safeguarding.

Social workers feel there is too much bureaucracy and that gets in the way of the time they have to spend with children, young people and families.  This was also one of the key findings of the Munro report.

Local communities often believe and I understand why it is easier to do this that the danger of abuse to a child or young person comes from a stranger, not from the family. 

Yet we know that the statistics tell a different story. In England and Wales every 10 days a child is killed at the hands of their parent; 65% of child deaths see the parent or step parent as the principal suspect; 1 in 10 young adults were neglected at some point in their lives; and 1 in 20 children under 11 are neglected.

We also do not listen to children enough. The recent report on Young People’s views on advocacy produced by the Children’s Rights Director for England highlights that children who are known to the system and try to complain often feel they are not listened to and are not given feedback on action taken as a result of their complaint.  

What do we do?

With so much at stake we have to cut through the rhetoric and move away from a  culture of blame to one where we politicians, professionals, local and national bodies - work together to find solutions to protect our children.

Professor Eileen Munro’s report recommended a child centred system, which values and develops professional expertise, and I support that.  I support a system that has a very clear national framework set out by parliament. But one that allows effective multi-agency working at every level national, regional and local. 

Last week saw the publication of the long awaited revision of “Working Together to Safeguard Children” and I am glad to see that it accepts that a child centred approach is vital to building an effective safeguarding system. 

Developing local solutions to deliver improved outcomes. 

The revised guidance makes it clear that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility everyone who works with children.  That has to be right but to ensure we are working together there has to be a real understanding that action to support vulnerable children is a shared responsibility. 

Clearly the local authority is the lead agency and the Head of Children Services has a statutory duty, but it is vitally important that all partners are engaged in the development of common and shared assessments. The emphasis of the guidance on developing effective local protocols is also welcome. My experience was always that safeguarding was most effective where local professionals across agencies knew and trusted each other and were supported by an agreed local framework.

Importantly in the increasingly diverse environment of commissioning of services and health reforms we also have to ensure that partners are not simply the usual suspects but include all those who deal, however infrequently, with child protection issues. 

But we must ensure that we are not building in greater bureaucracy; lack of transparency; and confusion.  The sharing of information and local knowledge of a child at risk must be passed on quickly and effectively so action can be taken.  Lines of communication, and clarity of roles and responsibilities, are vital, particularly around decisions on which agency the lead professional comes from. 

In my early days of social work professionals were a lot less wary of sharing information, and it was relatively easy to conduct the early gathering of information which forms the basis of any child protection enquiry. We all agree that fears about sharing information cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the need to promote the welfare and protect the safety of children, so it is vital effective systems for sharing are developed.  Government must provide clarity on how information can flow between agencies without falling foul of the Data Protection Act. If necessary there should be a legislative amendment to ensure no agency can hide behind an inability to pass on information which could save a child from neglect or abuse.

I also very much welcome the Munro recommendation - which I am pleased to see the Secretary of State for Education has endorsed - that we develop social work expertise in this area and do more to support effective social work practice. I firmly believe that much of the need to develop ever more detailed guidance arose out of the failure to trust professionals. In turn the guidance then further undermined the confidence of professionals. I therefore welcome the reduction in guidance within a more flexible framework.

Local Safeguarding Children Boards: the challenges of leadership and accountability

Of course one of the key issues facing local authorities is the current level of spending cuts. Not only are these increasing the pressures on vulnerable families, but they also mean a reduced level of services from preventative and universal services to specialist workers. Over the past few years a welcome trend of providing more experienced social work staff near the front line may be threatened as they are more expensive to employ.

Local Safeguarding Children Boards need to be strong and effective to ensure true integration takes place.  They need to have in place clear lines of accountability - I am not saying this is easy. But to move from a blame culture, to a proactive child protection system at local level clear lines have to be in place and accepted by all the agencies.

Local Boards have a vital role to play in ensuring the training of all those involved with children and those working specifically in safeguarding. The emphasis on local protocols in the new Working Together will require building strong and transparent communication systems, clear and robust processes for different types of assessment and services to be commissioned and taking down barriers between agencies.  Boards have statutory responsibilities, including the commissioning of serious case reviews and I believe they also have a role to play in supporting the implementation of the Munro review. 

Many social workers feel nothing has changed since the report in 2011 so it is perhaps an opportune time for the leadership of Local Safeguarding Children Boards to look at the systems in place, to look at the measures of compliance social workers face daily and ensure the Munro recommendations are implemented.

The Secretary of State for Education has said that the membership of Local Boards is made up of the very organisations who have made mistakes in child protection and whose errors need exposing in serious case reviews. He went on to say that the Chair “the principal watchdog” - is appointed by the Director of Children’s Services and that, he believes, is a conflict of interest. 

I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy view of child protection that is sometimes exhibited which seems to believe that people are intent on covering up mistakes. I worry much more about the level of competence that leads to mistakes in the first place.  However neither do I have a problem with the revised Working Together saying that chairs should be independent and appointed, not just by the Director of Children’s services, but by Council Leaders and Chief Executives.  The key is strong leadership, an acceptance of accountability, transparency; and energetic action to protect children.

The Secretary of State must also show leadership to keep the safeguarding agenda centre stage; ensuring he and the Children’s Minister see through the changes Eileen Munro recommended and which were in the vast majority of cases accepted by Government.  Hard pressed social workers need to see change; need to see strong leadership from Government as well as Local Safeguarding Children Boards; need to see us genuinely working together to protect our children and young people.  They need to see us stripping out the red tape so time can be spent with children, young people and families.

Improvement through inspection: the New Framework

We are expecting the arrangements for the new inspections to be published in April 2013 but already have a good idea what they will look like.  As with multi agency working, I believe multi inspectorate working is a good thing.  

This approach should help to break down the blame culture by looking at child protection in the round.  There is, of course, an onus on leaders representing their agency on the Local Safeguard Children Board to ensure processes and procedures are aired at that level and discussed thereby creating a joint ownership of the process. 

There should also be a joint ownership of inspection results contained within a single report.  A report which looks at early identification by front line staff of children at risk of harm domestic abuse, metal health, substance abuse.  A report which looks at the effective and efficient transfer of information, and the contribution of police forces to the dynamic assessment of the risk of harm that children face.

We know that early intervention and positive cross agency working has a positive effect on improving children’s life chances.  The idea of tracking the experiences of individual children and young people through the system is a good one and will show clearly how well we have succeeded.  It will show if we are making our services accessible to all and ensure there is an equality of opportunity and protection for all our children and young people.

The inspectorate team will be seeking the views of children and young people, and will be looking at how the agencies ensure their voices and experiences inform practice.  In my experience obtaining the views of young people is always worthwhile and there should never be an excuse for not doing it but we have to ensure we are listening and do not dismiss, or give less weight to their views.

One controversial area will be the unannounced nature of the inspections. However just as schools have learnt to adjust for Ofsted inspections I am sure that agencies involved in safeguarding will recognise that it is the effectiveness of the system all the time that matters not just at the time of an inspection.

Conclusion

The new arrangements are designed to improve our child protection systems. Focusing on the identification of those at risk; the effectiveness of the assessments made; outcomes for children; the quality of inter-agency working; the effectiveness of decision making; the effectiveness of the Local Safeguarding Children Board; and how lessons are learnt from serious case reviews are all vital.

I am however concerned that the guidance in Working Together while improving the response to child protection concerns, may not improve the focus on those who don’t meet the threshold for significant intervention. This is an issue that local authorities have struggled with over many years and with tightening resources there is the potential for this group of children to go without the assistance and support they need. The campaign being run by Action for Children on neglected children identifies the harm done by the failure to intervene early enough.

This is a complex area and one which we can perhaps explore more in the discussion.

Child protection is an issue that we have to get right, that we have to work together on.  We owe it to the next generation.  A local approach is one we need to make work, but it has to be one set in the context of a national framework and there have to be links across regions and across the UK people move. 

I would like to thank Westminster Briefing for putting on the event today we have to keep the issue of safeguarding our children and young people on the agenda and today helps to do that.

 


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