There is a commonly held view in child protection that no system, however robust, will stop people hurting vulnerable children, but early warning and good preventative services will reduce the risks. It is the basis on which much of the current system has been developed and one accepted by voluntary and statutory agencies alike.
Another belief is that without good coordination, local safeguarding systems are not effective. Children get lost between services and there is the capacity for everyone’s problem to become nobody’s responsibility.
Both of these areas have traditionally been covered by the weighty Working Together document, the latest version of which has recently finished its consultative period. We await the final version with anticipation, if not trepidation, borne of a certain knowledge that this will be by far the shortest, most succinct and, in some ways, most controversial iteration to date.
Should we be concerned?
Not if – and it is a big if – the ambition remains to improve a cross agency system that has not always delivered in the past. And not if everyone in the new NHS is aware of what their role is and how they contribute to protecting some of the most vulnerable members of society – children at risk of harm.
It’s just like health and safety; you can share responsibility but you can’t delegate it. Everyone is accountable and everyone needs to assure themselves that what is in place locally works.
But alongside the main document, we will get an accountability framework for the NHS and, potentially, a learning and improvement document and a framework for assessment. Add to this local guidelines, which can vary from one local authority (and local safeguarding children board) to another and suddenly this looks less succinct, less easy to navigate and, more importantly, less clear about how those accountabilities work through the system. And, while implied, the previous focus on early intervention and prevention is more difficult to see in a tangible form.
In a time of tight resources and major upheaval in the system, I have two pleas.
Firstly, let’s make it easy for frontline staff to find, in one place, all they need to know to support the complex judgments they have to make, sometimes on a daily basis. Let’s fix this in the new system and be ambitious for the changes we could make as a result.
Secondly, let’s never forget that prevention is better than a crisis, and ensure that the proactive safeguarding elements of children’s services are not lost in the rush to secure efficiencies and reconfigure services.
Read our new report Children and young people’s health and wellbeing in changing times
Jo Webber is deputy director of policy at the NHS Confederation. Follow Jo on twitter @nhsconfed_jo