Thanks, Maggie [Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England]. I’m very pleased to be here and grateful for the opportunity to contribute to your conference.
As a champion of children living in fear and challenger to our collective conscience, the NSPCC has been a powerful force for good over the years. Your work to help victims of abuse and neglect through channels like ChildLine – which we’ve been pleased to support – has been especially valuable.
It’s crucial that we give young people a stronger voice. Which is why, as Maggie has said, straight after this speech, I’ll be returning to Parliament to debate our clauses in committee on strengthening the role of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in our Children and Families Bill.
But, arguably, the NSPCC’s greatest impact has been through its unflinching mission to make us, as a society, confront what is still so often incredibly hard to face – the desperate plight of our most vulnerable children and the urgent need to do more to protect them. And the report being published today is no exception to this long and proud tradition.
I’m encouraged by its findings that, in many ways, today’s children are safer, with child homicide and child deaths from assault and suicide down and a decline in some forms of maltreatment and abuse. I’m also encouraged by your acknowledgement that we’re on the right track, with child protection services working harder than ever to reduce harm, and getting smarter about doing so.
But I agree that there’s much more we need to do – to better understand child abuse and neglect, to intervene earlier and with even greater impact.
That’s why we’re fundamentally reforming the child protection system to put the needs of children at its heart – so the system fits in the needs of children and not the other way around.
These reforms and the issues being discussed today could not be more timely. From shocking revelations about child sexual exploitation to alarm about the exposure of children to online pornography, child safety is higher than ever on the public agenda and in the public conscience.
The never-ending revolution in technology, in particular, is, taking us into uncharted territory, with new opportunities opening up alongside new dangers.
But while there’s no way we can put the digital genie back in the bottle, we can certainly do more to equip our children to stay safe. And, with toddlers manipulating iPads more confidently than their parents, it’s clear you can’t start too young.
Which is why, primary school pupils will have the chance to learn about internet safety under our proposed changes to the National Curriculum. They’ll be taught how to communicate securely and responsibly online and how to keep their personal information private – essential skills in the information age.
But, technology aside, it still very much remains the case that children are, sadly, most likely to come to harm at home and in the hands of someone they know.
This, as we know, was the terrible fate of Peter Connelly, Victoria Climbie and Khyra Ishaq.
In many of these instances – as we’ve also seen with victims of child sexual exploitation - the children’s cries for help went unheeded time and time again. They were met by indifference, disbelief and, in the worst instances, vilification from adults who should have been protecting them.
And after every such tragic case, we hear the familiar refrain ‘never again’ – until the next time.
Of course, we all know that we cannot completely eliminate risk. We should always be realistic about that.
But there will always be a next time until we learn the fundamental lesson that a child’s needs (to be safe, to have their basic needs met, to be heard) must always come first.
Ahead of the rights of abusive parents who are unable or unwilling to change their ways and ahead of adults wanting to escape criticism or any challenge to assumptions and work practices, however manifestly ineffective or outdated.
Problems with the child protection system
This is something that, over the years, many politicians and professionals have pledged to do, but, despite some good work, we know that there’s still far too much variation in child protection around the country.
There are, of course, some highly effective examples of good practice, such as multi-agency safeguarding hubs, including the one I visited in Nottinghamshire. But, it’s clear that too many local authorities and other agencies are still failing to meet acceptable standards for safeguarding children – to look for and act on signs of abuse, to intervene early enough and remove children decisively in sometimes the most appalling of cases.
Having lived and worked, for many years, with children damaged by neglect and abuse, I’ve seen, first-hand, what failure to act can mean – both in terms of the huge challenges these incredibly vulnerable children face and what it takes to turn lives around.
Now, as you may know, I grew up with over 80 foster children and two adopted brothers. Many came from chaotic, troubled backgrounds. Their behaviour was, at times, extremely challenging to say the least.
I’ve seen babies addicted to heroin go into spasms. I’ve watched on as an abused and deeply angry little boy shattered every pane of glass in my dad’s prized greenhouse because he didn’t know how else to let his anger out. And I became proficient in most swear words by the age of ten thanks to the foster children who parroted back to me what they had heard at home.
But, over time, I saw how love, stability and routine helped them settle and thrive. And it became increasingly clear to me that many could have been spared immense suffering and long-term damage if they’d got consistent and reliable help earlier.
I went on to become a family barrister often representing children in care; an experience that reinforced what I’d seen at home - that timely intervention still wasn’t happening anywhere near enough.
By the time a case landed on my desk, the damage had, all too often, already been done, and it was a matter of trying to make the best of a bad job. It was apparent that cases were managed, all too often, for the convenience of adults rather than the interests of the child.
So if we’re to seriously raise our game and do better at keeping children safe, it’s vital that we reverse this wrong-headed emphasis. That we re-focus on the child protection system where it should always be – on the needs of the individual child.
What the Government is doing
Our reforms are focused on doing just that.
We’re implementing recommendations from Professor Eileen Munro’s valuable and widely-welcomed review of child protection; helping us move towards a much more child-centred system in which there’s a greater emphasis on early help, on identifying and tackling neglect and on multi-agency working – where possible, before formal intervention is needed.
One of Professor Munro’s most important recommendations was the need for guidance on the core legal requirements on all professionals working to keep children safe.
A clear framework within which professionals could exercise their expertise and judgement. And which spelled out what different agencies could expect from each other.
We’ve delivered on this in the revised Working Together guidance, that Peter referred to, which has just come into force just this week. And we’re also producing an equivalent young person’s guide for the first time, with the Office of the Children’s Rights Director, to make sure we reach those whose needs are at its very heart.
Crucially, the guidance emphasises that safeguarding is the responsibility of all professionals who work with children, reinforcing, once again, the importance of multi-agency working.
As you know, Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) are absolutely vital to driving this at a local level so that different services; police, health, education, social care, work closely together and properly share information.
This is happening in a highly effective way in some parts of the country, such as Lancashire’s excellent Engage project – a multi-agency team that has been especially successful in tackling child sexual exploitation, whether that be better prevention techniques, bringing criminals to justice or supporting victims.
I want us to do more to understand what works and why so we can spread best practice further through the LSCBs.
Serious Case Reviews
And when things do go wrong, we need to confront, honestly and openly, the mistakes that were made.
As your study, last month, into neglect, showed, one of the most critical vehicles for learning lessons – good and bad – are Serious Case Reviews (SCR).
Yet, until recently, all that was published were bland executive summaries. This certainly suited the adults who had made mistakes. But the price of sparing their blushes was paid by our most vulnerable children who were condemned to suffer from the same failings, over and over again, because we didn’t learn vital lessons.
That’s why this Government has insisted on SCRs being made public. Some local authorities, such as Leicester, north Somerset and Nottinghamshire, have responded positively to our call for greater transparency and accountability.
And we can see the benefits of publication beginning to be felt on the ground. In Southend, for example, findings drawn from SCRs triggered targeted, multi-agency audits of domestic abuse referrals to children’s social care. These audits identified that not enough was being done to engage with men in families, which had implications for children’s outcomes. So, training was introduced to raise awareness among practitioners and improve this engagement.
Yet, despite their potential to drive improvements, the number of SCRs being published remains disappointingly low – around half (99) of the 181 SCRs started since June 2010 have been completed, but only 44 have been so far been published.
This does show an increasing trend – 10 SCRs have already been published in the four months of this year compared to just seven for the whole of 2011. But too many SCRs still take too long to complete and too many are not published.
We’re keen to see these numbers rise significantly. It’s why we’re establishing a new national panel of independent experts to scrutinise and advise on LSCB decisions not to initiate or publish SCRs. One of the big issues to emerge from published SCRs and which bedevils multi-agency working is the failure to share information effectively.
Only yesterday, I met a council lead member for children’s services who was frustrated that many professionals still don’t know what facts they can share with other professionals about children at risk, often because of confusion about data protection rules – which is madness, when you consider that passing on the right information at the right time to the right organisation could quite literally mean the difference between life and death for a child in danger.
The modified Working Together guidance addresses this issue head-on, making it clear that, where a vulnerable child is concerned, the presumption should be to share information.
Health – information sharing
It’s right to say that the health service’s track record in this area has been a notable source of frustration. It’s a common complaint from LSCB Chairs that the NHS has an abundance of information, but doesn’t necessarily share it with other agencies.
So I’m pleased that my colleagues at Health are making moves to tackle this, with Dame Fiona Caldicott working on a statutory code of practice for information sharing.
And in December, there was the launch of a new system to make child protection information available to NHS doctors and nurses who suspect abuse or neglect when treating children in emergencies and unscheduled care.
The NHS Commissioning Board has also just published its accountability and assurance framework for safeguarding in the NHS, making it much easier for health professionals to understand what they need to do keep children safe.
But what we’re really grappling with, when it comes to better information sharing and, indeed, refocusing the system on the needs of the child, is the need for a shift in attitudes and culture.
Fundamental to this are our reforms to bolster the workforce and improve practice.
Social workers do one of most critical, most demanding and, yes, potentially, most rewarding jobs in our society.
Something apparent when I accompanied social workers on family visits in Halton, in the north west, a few weeks ago.
One of the visits was to a family with four young children, in which the mother had learning difficulties and the father, mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. I was hugely impressed by the strong relationships and meaningful communication the social worker had established with the family.
This meant that her direct, practical attempts to support the parents by, for example, attaching a checklist of small steps to follow on the fridge, really hit home, rather than just eliciting platitudes that change nothing.
I was also struck by the high morale and signs of strong leadership I saw when visiting the council offices. I was particularly interested to hear about a case file audit system they’d introduced, that had initially been greeted with unease by social workers, but had now been embraced it as a useful tool to motivate staff and manage performance.
This is just the kind of positive approach I’d like to see spread more widely – a commitment to self-improvement where professionals are not afraid to challenge one another.
And our reforms to provide greater leadership and support to the profession should go a long way towards this.
We’re appointing a chief social worker to lead the debate nationally about reform and ensure the profession has a strong voice at a national level.
Locally, each council is appointing a principal child and family social worker to lead on standards of practice and on learning locally.
We’ve also set up the College of Social Work, a Step up to Social Work programme, and initiated a strengthened Ofsted inspection framework.
And we’re keen to do for social work what has been done for teaching through TeachFirst.
Which is why we’re so supportive of Frontline, a brilliant idea by a TeachFirst Graduate, to get talented, committed graduates into social work.
I’m hopeful that we can get it up and running so some of our brightest and most committed graduates can start making a difference to our most vulnerable children and provide a welcome boost to the profession.
It’s by investing in people working on the frontline in this way that, I believe, gives us the best chance of driving the decisive shift in culture that’s needed to truly put children’s needs at the heart of the child protection system.
There’s little doubt that the fight against child cruelty continues to challenge and test us as a society as no other issue.
Even in our supposedly cynical age, we’re shocked by the extreme violation visited on the victims of child sexual exploitation. We worry about new threats to our children online.
Thankfully, as your report recognises, we’re making good progress towards keeping children safer, but it’s clear we need to do more to intervene earlier and more effectively, especially in a technological landscape that’s rapidly changing.
As I’ve just outlined, our overhaul of child protection and social work and proposals to put internet safety on the National Curriculum aim to do just that.
There’s nothing more important than protecting children from harm. Where children are suffering abuse or neglect they should be taken into care more quickly.
By re-focusing the system on children’s needs through our reforms, we’ll help ensure that each child gets the right support at the right time.
And key to such timely intervention is the need to listen to the children and young people involved.
This message emerges loud and clear, time and time again, from the children who contributed to Professor Munro’s review, from the victims of child sexual exploitation and from the many letters I receive from young people.
As one of the older children interviewed for Professor Munro’s review said: ‘You’ve left me for too long.’
It’s, sadly, a plea that many vulnerable children would echo; starkly illustrating the uphill struggle they face in getting their voices heard and getting the timely help they so desperately need.
It’s only when young people no longer feel the need to make these pleas, that we can honestly say that we’re making the leap required of us - to properly protect them from harm and to reduce our chances of having to say ‘never again’ in years to come.