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The voluntary sector is critical. I mentioned Home Start in the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. I recognise not only the flexible approach of the voluntary sector and the need for local government and so forth to consider how flexible they could be, but also the critical delivery role of the voluntary sector to enable us to ensure that all children are protected. I know that I do not need to say that to my noble friend because of her involvement in NCH Action for Children, but I am sure that is a critical part of the Green Paper.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister. As she said, every child matters. The protection of children is at the heart of all services. It worries me that in order to ensure that every child matters and that children are protected, a huge edifice of bureaucracy is being built. How are people on the ground in local government services likely to view this? Will they say that it is not their responsibility but that of the children's commissioner or someone in Whitehall? In setting up this huge edifice, will responsibility be pushed up and therefore not be on the ground where it matters?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, on looking carefully at the Laming report, the two key factors are those which the noble Baroness raisedthat is, the issues of bureaucracy and "not my responsibility". It is clear that within our legislative framework and the roll-out of the Green Paper, anyone working with children should recognise their responsibility to those children in an effective manner. They should manage that role as well as feeling that they have some responsibility still to children. We want to stop the sense of "it's not down to me" which was prevalent in all at which the noble Lord, Lord Laming, looked.
The bureaucracy occurred because so many different agencies operated in different ways. In the case of Victoria Climbie, if basic procedures had been followed she may not have died in such tragic circumstances. What is underlying that is precisely the opposite to that which the noble Baroness fears. We want to remove bureaucracy enabling people to work more closely, to operate in a way that gives them a framework, to recognise their responsibilities and to be clear about that. We want to give them clear lines, direction, training and support, while making it clear that somewhere in these layerswhich inevitably exist in any management structurebecause we are creating a director of children's services, in a sense the buck stops there.
That will make a big difference. When I chaired the health authority in Hertfordshire, my experience when creating children's schools and families was that people were enabled to think about the framework of children differently. The noble Baroness will know that many professionals have wanted that cultural change for a long time. It is as critical as anything that we can do as regards legislation and resources.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, last week I marked 40 years in social work. I began in children's departments, happening to be the director of social services in Brent when Jasmine Beckford died, and setting up Childline. For the past three days I have been at Windsor running a multi-disciplinary conference for the Sieff Foundation, looking at the new proposals. On that basis, I welcome the Green Paper. We could all look back and say that many of these things have happened before. But this is new and exciting. The message is that local councils, local workers, social workers, teachers, police and doctors are all ahead of the game. There are some extraordinarily exciting multi-disciplinary projects already moving forward that will show the way. The Government representative said that the Government are somehow behind the game, but this is a really good move forward.
However, there are some issues that I should like to mention. First, there is great difficulty in multi-disciplinary working, to which I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, alluded. If the boundaries that professionals have are eroded, the perspective which needs to be taken can be lost. That was clear in the Climbie inquiry. The police lost their investigative edge and thought that social services were conducting the investigation, which, clearly, was a criminal and not a social work investigation. In any training, it must be clear that people understand the nature of the boundaries of the work they undertake. If new breeds of people are to be developed, which I can foresee, they must be clear about when they should take action.
Secondly, I can look back on many inquiriesthe noble Lord, Lord Warner, headed onewhen the improvement of the lot and status of social workers was discussed. At the Sieff conference it was the belief of all disciplinesincluding, psychiatrists, police and doctorswho said time and again that social workers are key to caring for children and to promoting their welfare and protection. We should not go again on that roundabout of giving lip service but not actually taking any action. One of the keys is to change the model of practice. Social workers should not move into management and stop practising. They should move up the line. I have practised all my life. It has not always been the right thing to do, but I have always felt it appropriate to maintain skills.
It is terrific that there will be a commissioner for children in England, where it will need to be different. In many parts of the country there will be need to be some regional focus. Again, I should like reassurance
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments and pay tribute to the quality and quantity of work that she has undertaken over a number of years to support children and their families. The noble Baroness raised three points. I shall be brief. I agree that it is important to have the nature of the boundaries of the work that professionals are doing understood and recognised. I hope that with the duty to safeguard children, which will be a requirement on all professionals, that will be explored more fully and is seen as paramount in their work.
In the Green Paper, we talk about the kind of new career pathways available for social workers. As the noble Baroness said, that will enable people to remain on the front line and develop their careers in different ways. That includes moving sideways, which is within the gamut of different things one can do to support children, and should be offered on many more occasions. I did not answer the question earlier, but the commissioner will be entirely independent from government.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I shall confine myself to the interest that I have expressed frequently in the House. In talking about support for families and carers, will the Minister bear in mind that many of the mothers with whom I am concernedmothers of children who have been diagnosed with physical illnesseswho are accused of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, are vulnerable themselves? They are often single mothers who have not got a mother or granny or aunt around the corner to support them. They need sympathetic handling from social workers.
I am not attacking social workers. I have never attacked social workers. I have huge sympathy for them because I think that society expects too much from them. These mothers are more likely to ask for help. While I accept that there should be early intervention, it should not be too heavy. Over and over again I have been told how these mothers have been presented with a huge panel of people from all disciplines. I am all for multi-disciplinary working, but these mothers have never before encountered authority. They have never had to employ a lawyer or go to court. They are in a very difficult situation.
The noble Baroness did not mention at all the guardian ad litem system, which I understand has more or less collapsed. The guardian ad litem provided wonderful support for children. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned the need to listen to children. In a guardian ad litem, children have a truly independent guardian rather than one employed by the local authority. The guardian ad litem might be
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I thank the noble Countess for her comments. Munchausen's syndrome by proxy is a difficult matter for us to debate in the short time available. However, it might reassure the noble Countess that, in developing our strategy, we are looking to early intervention in order to prevent crises arising either for the family or for the child. By moving away from a system where many different professionals provide many different interventions to identifying a person with key responsibilities for a child, it will be much easier for the child, the family and the workers to understand the issues and thus deal with them effectively.
I turn to the point made by the noble Countess about the guardian ad litem system. That is something in which I believe the commissioner will be particularly interested and I shall certainly pass on her comments.
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