Edward Timpson speaks about child protection

Edward Timpson, Children’s Minister, speaks to the Association of Independent LSCB chairs about child protection.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Edward Timpson

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Child protection is barely out of the news at the moment. It seems hardly a week passes without children’s services splashed all over the papers and TV bulletins.

Now it might feel like media attention makes discussion of child protection impossible: that calm debate suffers under the intense glare of a media frenzy.

But some things remain the same.

The sober work of child protection goes on, regardless of the headlines.

The job of safeguarding children is no less critical.

And in fact, this increased scrutiny might even be an opportunity.

Maybe now we have a better chance than ever to explain how the system should work.

Surely, more interest in the child protection system means that it’s more important than ever to discuss, openly and publicly, how that system operates - where it’s working well, where it’s not - and be honest about how we make it better.

And if public attention has never been higher, maybe that’s a reminder to all of us that actually public views matter: that people need to have faith in the system, and trust it is capable of doing what it’s supposed to do - protecting children.

Importance of LSCB chairs

And in that context, the importance of the LSCB is unchanged.

And in particular - your role, the role of the chair - has never been more significant.

Now LSCBs are diverse bodies - that’s only right, so they can respond to different needs in different areas.

But across all of them, we can see that the best LSCB chairs have some things in common.

A good LSCB chair is well connected and well respected. You’re in a unique position to bring together a range of local institutions.

A good LSCB chair is resilient. It’s a job that demands good judgement and wise decisions on the most delicate subjects, often based on imperfect information.

A good LSCB chair is independent. And I mean truly independent: not just formally separate from other services, but clear in mind and spirit that they serve not local bureaucracies or vested interests or political powers - but children.

And a good LSCB chair is proactive.

Perhaps more than anything, that’s what matters. The best chairs are leaders, not spectators. They don’t sit passively, but want to use their position to achieve something - to improve the lives of children.

And they know it doesn’t take legal powers to achieve that goal.

If you want a comparison, look elsewhere in children’s services - at the Family Justice Board, say, or the Cabinet Committee on Care Leavers.

Neither has any direct statutory powers. But both show will and a desire to leave their communities and their society better than they found them.

The board is leading the improvement of the family justice system, while the committee has overseen new rights and funding for care leavers across Whitehall.

Where there is will, there is progress.

That’s what the best LSCB chairs recognise, and I know there are many in this room: who are connected, respected, resilient, independent, proactive, and are already using LSCBs’ unique position to make real improvements to child protection.

Importance of serious case reviews

That’s what we want to see. And if we think about the specific responsibilities of a chair, there’s one that’s particularly important.

Namely, serious case reviews.

Of course, we need to see SCRs in their proper perspective.

We shouldn’t confuse a good SCR with protecting children. They’re a sign something has gone wrong. We shouldn’t ever see them as adequate compensation for the children who suffered. They never can be.

But they still play a crucial role in understanding what’s happened, and working out if and how we can prevent it from happening again.

That’s really the minimum that the public can expect. When something goes wrong, the most natural reaction is to say - why?

SCRs are the formal mechanism for pursuing that basic human instinct to ask - what happened? Why did a child die? Why was a child abused?

Those are difficult questions. That’s exactly why they’re the right questions.

So if chairs are essential people, SCRs are an essential process.

Now they’ve already been around for years.

Yet time after time, it seems that their conclusions are placed on a shelf, tidied away, and barely looked at again - and nothing actually changes.

Again and again, we see the same patterns of failure - lack of leadership, poor information sharing between services, an acceptance of low standards.

So we should ask why we see repeat patterns in their results. Why are their findings so often ignored or left hanging in the air?

Why are lessons sometimes ignored?

It can’t be because so few are published, surely.

Ever since this government came to office, we’ve made it absolutely clear that we want every SCR to be published as a matter of course.

Unless there are really good reasons, they need to see the light of day. That’s the only way their findings can be shared.

And I’d like to thank you for your support on this issue. The association have been firm advocates for publication too, and that’s welcome. We’ve still got to be vigilant - but now, more reviews are published.

But still, we all know that lessons are not always learned. So could that be because SCRs are too hard to find?

Well, again, that’s changed. NSPCC now have an online library of SCRs. It’s easier than ever to browse SCRs in one place.

So it’s not lack of access to SCRs, or ability to compare them, that’s the problem.

So what is it?

Problem of quality

The real problem is a simple one.

Too many SCRs still not getting to the root of the problem.

Many of you will have seen the letter I wrote to Coventry LSCB following their review into the death of Daniel Pelka.

I thanked them for a swift review.

That in itself is important.

And I thanked them for publishing straight away.

That’s also important.

But I explained that the review also lacked a full analysis or attempt to explain what caused the starvation and murder of a four-year-old boy.

The SCR was clear about the facts of the case: about what people did and didn’t do - but it fell far short on asking why.

It’s not enough to note that information wasn’t shared between agencies. We need to know why.

It’s not enough to note that four separate assessments by children’s social care failed to identify the risk to Daniel. We need to know why.

It’s not enough to find that Daniel was ‘invisible’ to public services. We need to know why.

Coventry recognised, in response to my letter, that SCRs must have depth, and will make further investigations.

That’s welcome, because it’s the only way SCRs can be of use: if they really get to grips with what has gone wrong, if other LSCBs look at them - if other professionals access their findings, digest them, and apply them to their own practice.

SCRs have to give a meaningful account - to explain, not just to expose.

Central government support

Now of course, SCRs are one of your principal duties.

But you’re not alone in carrying them out: we want to support you.

That’s why we established the National Panel of independent experts on SCRs, for example, to give an extra level of advice.

When you make decisions about the process for SCRs, you will inform the panel. They may well challenge you if you plan not to initiate a SCR, or not to publish one - but will offer their views and comments when there are constraints or real doubts about the practicality of a SCR.

The panel is meeting regularly - including this morning - and I’m delighted that we have such experts offering their time and experience and we’ve already seen some useful exchanges of opinions since the panel was formed in June.

And that’s in a wider policy context based on 2 main principles.

First, that child protection is an absolute priority. We changed the reporting line for LSCB chairs, from Directors of Child Services to Chief Executives, for example - because child protection issues need to go straight to the top.

Second, our entire approach places faith in professionals.

That’s why our guidance on child protection is slimmed-down - because we don’t confuse length of guidance with clarity of guidance.

It’s why we haven’t imposed specific reporting methodologies, or particular governance arrangements, on LSCBs.

And it’s why we recently announced a new Innovation Programme, to identify and support new ideas from the profession that can radically improve the life chances of vulnerable young people - and I would encourage you to submit proposals.

Better accountability

Putting more trust in professionals, though, means that we need better accountability.

We’re less prescriptive about how you work - and we’re putting more trust in your experience to work that out - but, to balance that, we’re clearer and more open about measuring what you do. That’s the deal, and I think it’s a fair one.

I know that many of you will have seen Michael Wilshaw speak last month about a new regime that will be harder on underperforming local authorities.

He also called for the role and function of LSCBs to be reviewed. I can confirm that there will be no change in LSCBs’ functions for the immediate future, but that we remain committed to the OFSTED review coming in from November.

I’m glad that the association welcomed the intention to inspect LSCB effectiveness, and offered some constructive suggestions to improve how it could work.

An OFSTED review is a key part of accountability: it’s the necessary complement to giving you greater professional autonomy.

But I don’t want anyone here to obsess about the inspections regime.

Improving services isn’t just about inspectors storming in and whipping everyone in to shape.

Think about that ideal LSCB chair. They’ll see the introduction of the OFSTED review as a good thing: as a chance to show how their approach is working - and for a national inspectorate to take that good work and share its findings.

Now there’s a suggestion that some chairs of LSCBs will resign when the move to OFSTED reviews goes ahead.

I refuse to credit it with even the possibility of being true. Because it can only call into question why Chairs do the job. It surely implies motives less noble than wanting to protect children and I don’t believe that is an accurate picture.

I know that what really motivates LSCB chairs is the possibility of making things better.

You can challenge and inspire your local authorities, schools, hospitals, care homes, police and crime commissioners, counsellors, and more. You are the lynchpin of child protection. I believe that’s why you’re in it. And that’s what should drive you to improve services - not just because OFSTED are coming to town.

And this, more than anything else, is what I want you to understand: this government sees you as the critical individuals responsible for child protection, and wants you to be proactive.

I know that’s not an easy job. In an environment of media scrutiny, I understand it means pressure and attention.

But when LSCBs get it right, the real-world impact is immense.

And regardless of what’s on the front pages, you’re important.

For vulnerable children, you’re the frontline, relying on you to help keep them safe. So I want you to know that I see your success is crucial in making that happen, and your willingness and desire to achieve the best possible protection for your children will be met with my full support.

Published 12 November 2013