Children's Minister Edward Timpson outlines the important role local safeguarding children boards play in improving child protection.
Thank you David (Jones, association chair).
I’m delighted to join you all again today for your annual conference.
And, as ever, I’d like to start by saying a big thank you. Chairing an LSCB takes vast reserves of dedication, effort and time - as all of you here know only too well.
Safeguarding children is, and always will be, one of the most important jobs in any society.
And in that endeavour, the role of LSCBs is vital - and increasingly exposed. Which makes your role as chairs - it has to be said - more challenging than at any other time.
Alexis Jay’s report into the shocking abuse in Rotherham and Ann Coffey’s report in Greater Manchester have rightly sparked a wide-ranging debate about how we can improve child protection. LSCBs are at the heart of that, born of an understanding that effective child protection requires partnership, challenge and local accountability.
When we as a society say that child protection is the responsibility of ‘all of us’, LSCBs are - or should be - the embodiment of that approach. As chairs you should be exposed locally, not in a negative way but in a positive one - publicly known, recognised and accountable for the work that you do.
And it’s because we recognise the importance of the role that Ofsted has started reviewing the performance of LSCBs.
It’s fair to say that their first reports show a really mixed picture.
Let’s start with the good - they found some great examples of LSCBs which are doing fantastic work.
In Portsmouth, for example, the inspectorate found a strong use of data across agencies to scrutinise frontline performance, effective handling of serious case reviews, and the development of a good strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation, in which the Portsmouth Safeguarding Children Board played a crucial role.
Another good example is North Yorkshire, where they found strong partnership working and clear direction, effective handling of SCRs, and 2 strategic groups overseeing the work involved in identifying children at risk of sexual exploitation or going missing from home, care or school.
Those LSCBs are making a real difference to children’s lives and doing great work. And it’s why I’ve asked my officials to speak to LSCBs judged as ‘good’ to see whether there is any common thread we can identify.
Because we have to acknowledge that there are too many LSCBs which are inadequate. Too many which aren’t making the sort of difference they need or indeed would want to make. An overall picture from the Ofsted reviews so far says that LSCBs, as a whole, ‘must improve’. To date only 11 of the 33 reviewed have been judged ‘good’, and not 1 outstanding. That’s a challenge for those of you here today, and I hope you’ll meet it head on.
And in taking on that task, I hear again and again that it’s difficult for you to hold local authorities to account while being appointed by those same local authorities, and I’m prepared to look at this again if necessary. Because we can’t have the part of our child protection system charged with bringing everyone together and holding services up to rigorous scrutiny as the weakest link.
And so I’d like to talk today about 3 particular areas of challenge.
First, how we minimise the likelihood of the events in Rotherham, and the weakness of the response from local services happening elsewhere in the country.
Second, how we improve the quality of SCRs so that they become a more effective tool for learning in the local system and beyond.
Third, how we can drive innovation in LSCBs as we are doing in other areas of children’s social care services.
On the first - how we address the challenges of child sexual exploitation and of the failure of local services to understand the scale of the problem - the role of LSCBs is absolutely central. You’re the people tasked with bringing together and holding accountable the various services which collectively failed young people in areas such as Rotherham and Greater Manchester.
You should be in the lead in tackling this. How many of you are confident that you really understand the nature and level of that risk in your local area?
How many of you have looked at your local systems and analysed the practical and sometimes cultural barriers which might be leaving children unprotected by services when they are at risk of CSE?
Yes, this is tough and challenging work - but it’s also an opportunity. For chairs to take the lead and deliver decisive and necessary change. To help protect children from CSE in their local area and across the country.
To help achieve that, there are some specific questions I’d like to ask today:
- are you confident that you have the data which will give you the best chance of understanding the extent of child sexual exploitation locally?
- are you sure that each partner in your area has an effective plan to identify and tackle CSE - and has the skills to do so - and that collectively that knowledge is used to provide support to children and young people?
- and do the partners share information effectively?
- does each organisation have the right culture to win the trust of young people, to take their concerns seriously, to work with them to minimise the risk of CSE and to provide help when it occurs? What do schools know, for instance, about what to look for and where to go if they have concerns about a young person?
- and what are the indicators - hard and soft - which tell you about the health of the system and how it’s changing? For example, how does neglect present as part of CSE? How many young people have low school attendance rates or go missing?
I want everyone here to take these questions away with them and consider them seriously, and be honest about what their response would be. And if we do that, we’ll have a better baseline of knowledge on which to build up the most effective response.
The second issue I want to talk about today is improving the quality and effectiveness of SCRs.
I know that Elizabeth Clarke and Peter Wanless from the national panel joined you for a useful discussion yesterday afternoon.
It’s great that the panel report shows that only a handful of serious case reviews are now not being published.
But I’m still concerned about cases where SCRs are not even being commissioned. About times when debates over semantics get in the way of finding out what went wrong.
This may not happen that often, but it happens often enough for me and the panel to be concerned.
So, following the panel’s recommendation, we’re planning further clarification of ‘Working together to safeguard children’, so it will now include guidance about what ‘serious harm’ actually means in the context of making decisions on whether or not to commission an SCR.
And to help you with information sharing, we’re planning to clarify in Working Together the need for local authorities to notify serious incidents.
That will help ensure that LSCBs are always notified of serious incidents as well as Ofsted.
The panel also understandably questioned the quality of SCRs - too many of them are overlong, muddled, full of jargon and acronyms, and missing key pieces of information or analysis - not asking the basic questions well enough: why did this happen?
This might include an analysis, for instance, of staffing levels in the period in question. Why was that junior social worker left holding that case that week? How many decisions had that paediatrician already taken that day about vulnerable children? Why didn’t the police respond to that particular call? We know that these things impact heavily on practice and yet this basic information is absent from many SCRs.
And so we are going to trial the central commissioning of SCRs in some areas, in certain cases, with the permission of selected LSCBs. You’ve asked us what a ‘good’ SCR looks like and it’s a fair challenge. So we’ll try to show you.
I’m also pleased to announce today that we’re going to revive the biennial review arrangements - also as recommended by the national panel - so we can continue to gather national learning from individual SCRs and make it accessible to many more professionals across the whole system, across the whole country. And I’ll let you know shortly the format that these reviews will take.
I can also confirm that we’ll also publish in the next few days our response to the other recommendations made by the national panel. I’ve found their advice and scrutiny very helpful over the past 15 months and I hope that you have too.
The third point I want to talk about today is driving innovation across children’s social care services.
Because what we’ve seen in other areas of children’s social care is that the key to generating real improvements is stepping out from ‘the way it’s always been done’ and moving towards ‘how can we do it better?’.
A year ago we challenged local councils and other groups to bid for money from our new Innovation Programme - coming to us with ideas for how to transform the work they do.
We’ve had a staggering response - nearly 300 bids from right across England.
And their ideas for how to improve the way children’s services are delivered are imaginative and radical.
I’m delighted that 4 bids - No Wrong Door in North Yorkshire, Signs of Safety, Pause and Triborough - have made it past the final hurdle and been given the go-ahead. Six more were approved by the Innovation Programme Board last week and we’ll announce them in due course. These are real systemic changes with some of these projects wholly redesigning the operation of children’s social care.
Others are inspiring and groundbreaking projects tackling entrenched and difficult issues - such as Pause, based in Hackney and now expanding to other LAs, that’s helping women who’ve had successive children taken into care to turn their lives around by helping them out of the destructive cycle.
I strongly believe that innovation like this is the key to getting our whole system into a better, stronger place.
There’s already up to £100 million going to organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors. All of them will be working with or benefiting local authorities - and some bids are already working with LSCBs as partners.
But I’m concerned that there’s scope for LSCBs to go so much further and to do so much more.
So I want all of you to embrace this opportunity too. I want you to rethink the way you do things, fundamentally, and ask ‘how could I do this better?’.
Now I recognise the real challenge for LSCBs - simultaneously to forge partnerships and to hold those partners to account. How do you exert authority over local services to get really effective thresholds in your area? Each of you should have an answer to that.
It may be that working in a different structure would help forge that independence you need. Or a partnership with other LSCBs in the region might help you to tackle particular issues collectively. Perhaps you need some external challenge - a partnership with an unusual suspect?
Good innovation requires creativity and robust leadership - a relentless focus on quality, trust between partners and a passion for improvement - qualities we need from you, LSCB chairs, in bucketloads. CSE won’t be defeated without leadership from you, nor will the SCR system become the high-quality, crystal-clear, lesson-led system we need.
You need to change that Ofsted picture that LSCBs ‘must improve’ - to change the narrative - to shift the focus on to improvement, innovation, better working with partners, better protection of children.
So I look forward to hearing your plans - individual and collective - for doing so. I said to local authorities and their partners when I launched the Innovation Programme last year that if something was getting in their way, we would change it. And we did. We changed the law to enable them to delegate functions, freeing them up to innovate in ways they thought impossible.
I say the same to you now. Don’t tell me: ‘we’re not allowed to do that’. Come to me and tell me: ‘if you let us do that, this is what we can offer’. And I’m listening. If you want to model a new form of local accountability in your local area, tell me how. If a different structure would enable you to be more effective, bring it to me. If you could do things better within your LSCB but aren’t allowed to under the existing regulatory framework, tell me.
Don’t expect me to agree unless your proposals are robust and clearly evidenced. But if there’s a germ of a good idea, I can ask officials to work with you to develop them.
So I’m here to tell you, as I told local authorities a year ago, that I’m willing and eager to do all I can to help you work in new and different ways.
But I’m not here to dictate how you do it.
The future is very much down to you.
As chairs, you need to seize the chance to do things differently and better, to create your own space locally, to identify how you can better hold the system to account. If you need external support, tell me. If you want to trial a new partnership, explain it to me.
I began by saying that you come here today increasingly exposed to public scrutiny. That’s how it should be.
Because you, LSCB chairs, should be leading local change - not Ofsted and not me. And I look forward to continuing to help you do just that.