Thank you, Mary (McLeod, chair of Safe Network advisory group). And thank you to all who were involved in the preparation of the Safe Network standards document launched today.
I was able to get a preview before its publication and it provides straightforward, practical advice that I’m sure will be invaluable to many individuals and organisations who work with children.
Too often in the past, Government has produced well-intentioned but very lengthy tomes - yet really, it’s not the database, or guidance or regulations that make children safer. It’s the way that they are translated into practical action by professionals in the sharp end.
We have here today, and I’m delighted to see, an enormously diverse audience, with representatives from a wide range of organisations and charity groups - big and small - who have many different perspectives on working with children. You may be a football coach, parent or youth volunteer involved in a small organisation or you might be a paid representative of a big charity working with local authorities, and dealing with vulnerable children in the child protection sector.
Common purpose: safe and active children
But we all have a united common purpose in making sure we keep children safe. While at the same time we want to allow them to live active lives, and be free to explore their world outside home and school.
And we need people, we need organisations, who have the passion, the energy and the goodwill to continue working with young people, developing their potential and promoting their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Because the vast majority of people who work with children are motivated by good intentions, and they want to contribute in a way that is useful and meaningful and worthwhile.
So we must encourage adults who want to come forward and give their time freely to work with children, not treat them as potential child abusers, simply by virtue of their wanting to help. I think it’s a warped kind of vision that suspects wrongdoing unless there is hard evidence to prove otherwise.
But we cannot be naive and we must not be complacent. But we do need to return to common sense levels of vigilance, where we all take responsibility for our children’s safety and wellbeing, by keeping our eyes and ears open and raising concerns effectively when they arise.
And this goes right to the heart of what the Big Society means. It’s about all of us being responsible adults - alert to any potential harm, and not just assuming someone else will sort out any difficulties, or warn of any suspicions.
And I believe that a good, healthy society depends on people who are motivated by goodwill, and who are happy to take responsibility for themselves and others.
Too much red tape
Now, of course, we all know that we’re living in financially straitened times. But does it really cost more to keep children safer and help them live richer lives? Is it good financial sense, for example, to have child protection social workers who are trained and experienced in front line work, spending 80 per cent of their time in front of their computers?
For many people, one of the biggest barriers to working with children and young people has been not simply the lack of money, but the over-abundance of red tape.
The sheer complexity of paperwork involved in current regulations is itself costly, burdensome and off-putting. The result is that organisations, feeling overwhelmed, can end up being far too cautious in what they do. Or they simply avoid working with children altogether.
It’s not a healthy state of affairs for our children or for our society.
The fine balance between the need to protect children on the one hand, and to give them freedom and real life experiences on the other has become horribly skewed in recent years.
We can’t wrap our children in cotton wool for their entire lives. Instead we need to nurture confidence and resilience.
Vetting and barring
So we have to go back to a common sense and proportionate approach that will protect children, without driving a wedge between the generations. We have to restore the trust in our relationships that I believe had suffered a major breakdown in our society over too many years.
The new measures put before Parliament last week as part of the Protection of Freedoms Bill will rebalance the system by scaling back checks to common sense levels. It will be less bureaucratic and less intimidating, so that well-meaning adults won’t be put off working or volunteering with children.
Of course, protection will always be our top priority. And we will always maintain sufficient criminal record checks to ensure that we safeguard children and vulnerable adults.
We know there is no room for complacency. Only this week, a report by the NSPCC told us that although the situation is improving, nearly one in seven children and young people have experienced at least one occasion of physical violence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect by a parent or carer.
And children are also increasingly exposed to the dangers, as well as the undoubted benefits, of the internet - with cyber bullying and online grooming a very real fear for children and parents: nearly one in 10 children say they were bullied online last year and 12 per cent received sexual messages.
It could be tempting to view the internet as a sort of 21st century hydra. In Greek mythology, of course, the hydra was a many-headed serpent, and for each head cut off two more grew in its place. Sometimes it seems that for every online threat we start to tackle, at least another two spring up.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t attempt to regulate at all, of course. But it is to recognise that regulation has its limits, and that vigilance is important. I’m extremely grateful to Professor Tanya Byron for her work with us on how to keep children safer online. Out of her report the UK Council for Child Internet Safety arose which I jointly chair with Home Office Minister James Brokenshire and we are working with industry, children’s groups, local authorities, schools and the police to make the internet a safer place for children and their parents - and I particularly mention parents because much of the solution starts at home and is not something that can be delegated to Government, regulators or schools.
Parents need to keep an eye on what their children are looking at and who they are talking to online, and to make good use of parental control software. And we have to make young people themselves aware of how to manage their social networking safely.
Essential to what we are doing to improve safeguarding is the review undertaken by Professor Eileen Munro. Her interim report published earlier this month argued that too many rules, too much red tape, leads to a fixation with process that is, in any case, counter productive to genuine safeguarding.
Because people start to trust rules and systems rather than their own common sense. Their individual sense of responsibility for what is happening around them is improved. And as we all know, the best system in the world for keeping children safe will never be as effective as the involvement of sensible, sensitive adults, looking out for the children they know and work with.
In her interim report The Child’s Journey Professor Munro argues for a new approach that focuses on the child, rather than on the demands of inspection. Professionals, she says, are forced to spend too much time on the demands of inspection and regulation.
And she argues for reform that makes it easier for professionals such as social workers, police, health and family support services to work together, train together and most importantly act together to help vulnerable children. I look forward to reading Professor Munro’s final recommendations due in May.
Safe Network’s role
So it’s clear that reform is needed. And reform is afoot. And organisations like Safe Network, and its partners in the voluntary sector, have an important role during this time of major change.
For smaller groups with more limited resources, Safe Network has been a great support, helping organisations understand what to do to comply with safeguarding rules, as well as guiding them through what they don’t need to do.
It has faced up to the challenge of bullying, advising groups on positive strategies for tackling this endemic problem, and crucially involving young people themselves in working out ways to prevent it. Encouraging responsibility in children, who are also looking out for each other.
And in the context of the Big Society, we’d like to see more of this type of support for more volunteers who want to get involved in working with children.
And we want to hear a strong voice for the voluntary sector, helping organisations become savvier about the commissioning process, so that smaller groups can play a bigger role in providing local services for children.
Commissioning and cuts
Because in these really tough economic times, we don’t want local authorities to take the easy option of indiscriminately cutting funding to voluntary groups. But of course, we have given them the freedom to decide their priorities - and we can’t empower local authorities, and then start telling them what to do. But clearly the Government has given a clear steer about placing more importance on early intervention, about trusting professionals to make quality value judgements on the frontline not in the back office and that we need to assess interventions in terms of quality of the outcomes and the beneficial impact on children not just on numbers, structures and processes.
So it’s up to you in the voluntary sector, and your partners, to make commissioners aware of the strength and expertise within your ranks. Don’t let it be an easy option for commissioners to cut you out.
Nowadays, to survive, more than ever you have to demonstrate value and show smarter working. So join forces, work together, pool your expertise and be really creative about what you can do. Because we want voluntary groups to have the capacity and knowledge to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
More responsible adults, safer children
And the more active, responsible adults we have working with and looking out for our children, the safer and happier they will be.
It’s great that we’re now getting common sense regulations; it’s great that we’ve got the Munro review reporting in the spring; it’s great that we’ve got a network that spreads advice and gives support.
But ultimately we all have a responsibility. And when we come through the challenges ahead, the real winners will not be individual organisations, or partnerships or commissioners or the Coalition Government or even the Big Society. The real winners will be our children.