The spotlight on the activities of the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, and current concerns about possible cover ups of establishment figures, must not distract us from our responsibility to ensure that today's child protection services function well.
Over the past forty years we have slowly developed our knowledge about how to better protect children from abuse. Inevitably this knowledge came mainly from those terrible occasions when things went wrong; children were hurt or worse, and inquiries were held to uncover the truth.
Inquiries such as the one held in the 1970s about Maria Colwell led to significant improvements in how to detect and support children who are physically abused. However our understanding of child sexual abuse did not really develop until the 1980s. Notwithstanding the number of inquiries we cannot totally eliminate all risks to children, despite the best efforts of professionals.
When the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced an inquiry into historical sexual abuse, she made a commitment that today's child protection system should be the best it could be. "I want it to look widely at the question of the protection of children. I want it to ensure that we can be confident that in future people will not look back to today and say, "If only they had introduced this measure or that measure.""
But we already know that the current system is far from perfect. Changes that have been made, or are planned, by this Government are likely to make it worse not better.
A good child protection system
In order to protect children there has to be wider awareness of the signs and symptoms of child abuse. Professionals, such as health visitors, early year's workers and teachers, must be trained to identify causes for concern, and in their responsibility to report them. Managers and head teachers must implement recruitment practices that identify those that may pose a risk to children. All institutions for children must have a culture of openness, with inspection an important part.
Good communication, trust and information sharing between professionals working in different agencies is a must. We know from numerous Serious Case Reviews how poor information sharing is one of the most common reasons for the failure to keep children safe.
The different children's services and agencies must be accountable. Partly by regulation and professional inspection, but also through the democratic process with elected politicians at local and national level taking responsibility.
But fundamental is the willingness to listen to children; to create an environment in which they have the confidence to speak up about any concerns. Crucially we need to understand that an institution that
encourages children to speak about their experiences is not incompatible with one that has good discipline and in the case of schools high academic achievement.
Recently the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group, which I chair, identified the current fragmented response to child sexual abuse as a problem. This fragmentation creates difficulties for proper co-ordination of strategy and policy, and presents problems in accountability. This situation is mirrored at local level and is set to get worse.
Local Safeguarding Children's Boards (LSCB) are charged with ensuring a robust child protection system in each area of the country. Previously the Local Education Authority was represented on the Board, taking responsibility for disseminating information to schools, and having oversight of the training of school staff and implementation of child protection procedures.
Now with the growth in the number of academies, free schools and trusts, many schools are independent from local authorities and the LSCB has to engage directly with them. Unbelievably, some schools have told LSCBs that they do not see child protection as central to their activity. They then do not comply with the requirements to report on their policies and procedures. The mechanisms in place to hold them to account are simply not robust enough to do so.
Ofsted is currently consulting on integrated inspections of those services for children in need of help and protection, and those in the care system. Agencies that will form part of this inspection system will include the local authority, health, the police, probation and custodial services. It is thus unclear just how the child protection element of schools will feature. Now that schools judged 'outstanding' may not be inspected for over 6 years, what reassurance can there be that they are adequately protecting children?
Outsourcing of children's services
The Government has also consulted on allowing local authorities to outsource all children's care services with the exception of adoption and reviews of children in care. This consultation was a rushed affair, only allowing six weeks for responses. It was launched on the Thursday afternoon immediately before the Good Friday bank holiday, and the six weeks included the Easter holiday, two May bank holidays and the local and European elections. So without the possibility of a proper consultation the regulations have been laid in parliament.
Despite this a significant level of public concern was generated, 70,000 people signed two petitions within five days. This was taken by Government to show that a longer consultation was not needed. An alternative explanation is that such a response showed a full consultation was required given the initial concern.
This initial outcry focused on the potential for profit to be gained from child protection. Unfortunately other more complex issues were not fully considered, such as the possibility that independent organisations could intrude into family life. These organisations could undertake child protection investigations, child assessments, and decide to seek court orders to remove children from families.
The Government then moved quickly to say that local authorities could only outsource this aspect of children's services to not-for-profit organisations. They talk about social enterprises, community interest companies and voluntary organisations. Yet the full implications of these changes for the most sensitive areas of work have not been fully explored.
I raised my concerns with Edward Timpson, Children's Minister, in a recent debate in parliament. In his response to me he stated that the local authority would retain overall accountability and that some local authorities are considering this already. However once a local authority delegated these functions to others it is difficult to see how they would retain sufficient experienced staff to effectively monitor the contract.
There are a number of unanswered questions. Once contracted out how would a local authority effectively manage differing and changing pressures in children's social work? Should concerns arise just how will a local authority enforce the contract?
The Chief Social Worker has set out her view in a recent article, "For local authorities the same legal duties will apply, the same regulations, the same quality standards and, importantly, they will be subject to precisely the same inspection regime whether or not they choose to delegate functions. That critical thread of accountability is unaffected by anything being proposed."
This does however miss the point. The local authority remains accountable but is restricted in its ability to act. How can it show democratic accountability for processes that intrude into the lives of children and families? Constituents often complain about the failure of an organisation that has a contract with the local authority. When a bin isn't emptied it's a problem, but it doesn't generally threaten the health and well-being of a child.
The Children's Minister points to the responsibilities of local authorities in managing contracts. Yet at the same time the Deregulation Bill currently before parliament removes the requirement of those providing social work services on behalf of local authorities to be registered, regulated or inspected. Again the reply is that this responsibility will be carried by the local authority.
A reliable system
So what should Government do? Firstly Ministers need to work more closely together to counter the fragmentation and ensure that child protection is never just an afterthought. This is not just about different departments. In the Department for Education the push for greater autonomy for schools needs to be coupled with a recognition of the impact on safeguarding policies and changes needed to ensure compliance across a greater number of individual autonomous bodies.
Secondly the implications of deregulation on the ability of local authorities to oversee child protection must be more fully debated and discussed. It is simply not acceptable for Ministers to wash their hands of responsibility and expect local authorities to manage the flaws in the system. Comprehensive inspections of safeguarding policies and procedures are also essential for all organisations working with children.
We do know a lot about how things go wrong when trying to protect children. Government should not be changing systems that will repeat those mistakes and put children at risk.