Why Children are the Missing Link in the RPA Debate

6 September 2005 News

Speech by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, to the Review of Public Administration Conference on Tuesday 6th September 2005 at the Stormont Hotel

Timing, as they say in comedy, is everything. And the timing of this debate is of course crucial. It also takes place when hundreds of thousands of children and young people are tramping back to school.

But as we get down to the very serious business of discussing the weighty matters of public administration, I want to pose a question to you all.

Last week Primary One children took their first steps into school life, with the excitement and trepidation that accompanies the beginning of the learning journey. At the end of today I want all of us to consider, will the changes made in the Review of Public Administration mean those four-year-olds will receive better, more efficient and more child centred services when they are starting their secondary education?

When I first started showing a lot of interest in the debate around the Review of Public Administration, I was greeted with puzzled looks. Why was I, as Commissioner for Children and Young People, poking my nose into an issue that was concerned with politics, with efficient bureaucracy, with structures and boundaries? Surely there was enough for me and my staff to do ensuring that “children’s rights and best interests were promoted and safeguarded” as my legislation puts it, without commenting on what was already a heated and somewhat fraught debate.

That last comment reveals the very reason why my Office should be involved.

If we are going to promote and safeguard children’s rights and best interests over the coming years, then the outcome of the RPA is crucial.

If we are going to hear the voice of children and young people, then we must have structures in place that listen to that voice and can act upon it.

If we are going to have effective services for children that treat them as whole people, rather than as pupils, or as patients, or as “looked after” or as criminals or as victims…

Then we must have ways that help professionals delivering different services to work together.

What initially prompted my interest in this whole area was witnessing the major changes taking place in children’s services in England and Wales in what is known as the “Every Child Matters” agenda, given legislative force in the Children’s Act 2004. A number of factors lead to these changes, but key among them was the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, and Lord Laming’s report which criticized the lack of coordination between key organizations – the NHS, the police, the social services and education.

The radical overhaul undertaken by the Government has a number of key features. First, government has gone back to first principles and set out five main outcomes for children i.e. they have answered the question “What do we, as a society, want for our children?” The answer may sound simple, and some have criticized it as being as predictable as motherhood and apple pie, but nonetheless I think it is vital. The five outcomes are

  • Staying safe
  • Being healthy
  • Learning and play
  • Making a contribution
  • Economic well being

It is a fundamental tenet of policy making that you know what you want to achieve and these five outcomes set the objective for children’s policy. I could quibble about the wording, and I would like more of a child rights focus, but nonetheless I welcome these outcomes and I have been arguing that children’s policy in Northern Ireland needs to embrace them. I am encouraged that those working on the Children’s Strategy, seem to accept this point, not least because of the excellent work done by Childrens’ Service Planners in Northern Ireland that is outcome focused.

But building on the outcomes, government has introduced structural changes. There will now be Children’s Directors within local authorities whose responsibilities span education and social services. An individual Councillor will be appointed as the leading Member for children. Organisations working with children are required by law to engage in a much closer co-operation, not least through revamped Area Child Protection Committees in Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards. Much more information will have to be shared among organizations working with children. New Children’s Trusts and Children’s Centres are being established to promote a child centred approach with different agencies contributing. Extended schools and after school clubs are another aspect of the policy of delivering services to children where they are.

So in England and Wales, a new joined up approach to child welfare is transforming the delivery of services to children.

Meanwhile what is happening in Northern Ireland?… Very little. We do have children’s service planning which has done some excellent work. We do have some isolated projects cutting across statutory agencies – one good example is the Wraparound Project in the Southern Health and Social Services Board area for disabled children – but a number of these joint projects are ending with the demise of the Executive Programme Children’s Fund. We often pride ourselves on our joint Health and Social Services trusts and boards – but they operate on totally different boundaries to our education boards, and there is no common accountability – unless you go right up the line to the Secretary of State. So I believe we are falling well behind what is happening in England. The RPA provides us with one opportunity to partly rectify this failure in our approach.

So what do I suggest as the key test for assessing any model that is proposed within the context of the RPA. I have a three fold test:

  • Will it facilitate a child centred approach delivering better outcomes for children?
  • Will key services aimed at children and young people either be answerable to a common political authority at the local level or at least be delivered within common boundaries that enable joint working?
  • Will there be greater political ownership and democratic accountability for key children’s services, allowing the voices of children and young people an input to the process?

Let me say a little more about each of these tests:

  • Child Centred & better outcomes – I feel the major weakness in our current arrangements is that it forces children to be considered as partial beings. At school they are pupils, at the doctors and in hospital they are patients, when family problems arise they may become clients of social services, if they get into trouble they are perpetrators or perhaps they will be victims or witnesses. We all know that children’s well being is dependent on education, health, safety, economic well being, and them feeling they can contribute all working together. This is about children being considered as a whole. It is about different agencies being able to work together to promote the rights and best interests of children. It is about being able to measure that, and know that children are progressing year on year. So a straightforward overall test – will the new arrangements for public administration make it easier for children to be considered as whole people or not?
  • Common authority or boundaries – This puts flesh on the bones of the first test. I make the assumption that if children’s services are to work better together, able to treat children as one, then they either need to be answerable within the same area to a common democratic structure, or at least they need to be, in the jargon, coterminous, i.e. although answerable to different structures they have the same or very similar boundaries. That means we have to sort out education and health/social services boundaries. In England they have gone further and made social services and education the subject of the same local authority departments with the same political head. My preference would be to see something similar here.
    I would also make a plea that the PSNI have a look at their internal structures when the RPA has settled down and consider whether they can realign. The Community Safety Branch of the Police plays a very important role with children and young people, as do potentially the District Policing Partnerships. I would make a similar plea to the Housing Executive – in England and Wales housing is a responsibility of local authorities, and that facilitates housing, social services and education, for example, all cooperating for children’s sakes. Working together is really important.But please also remember that children and young people – like most of us – pretty much don’t care where their services are organized, sorted out, planned and financed; They simply want to know that services will be there when they need it; not which County Hall; council office or Government department is responsible.
  • Democratic Accountability and Children’s Voices – The sad reality is that currently with the absence of the Assembly, the only services being provided in which children – and indeed the rest of us – can contact the local political representatives responsible are those provided by district councils. This means the huge raft of children’s services have only limited democratic input. In saying this I am not belittling for one moment the massive contribution made by those who sit on Education Boards, Health and Social Services Trusts and Boards, and so on. But the relationships are indirect, and the accountability much less than in England.
    I say this as someone who was a councillor in a London Borough. I was able to work with young people to challenge the housing authority, social services and leisure service to provide a new youth club on a housing estate. I was able to deal with issues raised by my young constituents as varied as the use of school premises for other activities, the impact of a planning development on a nursery, the need for a new zebra crossing, a family in an overcrowded flat and so on.
    We need similar political accountability and responsibility here. This will give a greater voice to our children and young people. This will encourage them that political involvement is relevant and can affect them. It will make the work of local youth councils much more interesting and important – at present there are perhaps only 2 or 3 youth councils in Northern Ireland that are really motivated and effective.It may sound simplistic to say so, but there is real validity in making the point – children and young people can offer insight and innovation into services. But more importantly they provide the perspective that is necessary when planning their services.

So in summary, I see the outcome of the RPA as central to children and young people’s lives. We have a real opportunity to make things better. An opportunity for different agencies to focus on common outcomes for children. An opportunity to make service delivery more holistic. And an opportunity to make services more accountable and inspire children and young people to make their voice heard much more effectively

Remember the question I posed earlier? When the RPA finally delivers its verdicts on structures, boundaries and bureaucracy – will the Primary One pupils of today, have better services when they are 11?

I urge us to grab that opportunity, and alter the administrative landscape for the good of our children and young people.