Child Services Reforms After Climbié Death Are Hampering Efforts, Says Watchdog

A reform of children’s services after the death of torture victim Victoria Climbié has created a recipe for confusion, a government spending watchdog will say today. Victoria died in February 2000 at the age of eight from hypothermia caused by malnourishment and damp conditions. The postmortem had found 128 injuries on her body.

The abuse carried out by her guardians went undetected by social services, police and NHS staff, who failed to alert each other to obvious danger signs.

The government’s response to the case was to order the integration of children’s services, bringing the relevant professions together under the umbrella of local children’s trusts. The aim was to improve coordination.

In the first independent analysis of the trusts, the Audit Commission said they had spent too much time and energy on setting up structures and processes at the expense of improving the lives of children and young people.

It said: “On the ground, professionals are working together, often through informal arrangements outside the trust framework. Trusts get in the way. A third of directors of children’s services say the purpose of the trusts is unclear and the uncertainty is hampering their efforts to deliver better services.”

Integration of services was recommended by Lord Laming in 2003 after he conducted an official inquiry into Victoria’s death. The proposal was accepted by Alan Milburn, then health secretary, but implementation became confused after education ministers took over responsibility for children’s social services.

It was decided that the trusts should not have any statutory authority and would not own assets, employ staff or have legal accountability for spending public money.

The commission said the trusts were unsure of their role and relationships with other organisations.

“There is little evidence that children’s trust boards are making a substantial difference to outcomes … Children’s trust arrangements should be halfway through a 10-year change programme: they still face significant challenges for the future,” it added.

The commission said that children and young people should be given a greater say in how children’s services are designed, but did not call for the trusts to be scrapped.

It said: “While it is too early to say whether children’s trusts have made much of a difference to the lives of children and young people, it is also too early to say that the current arrangements need to be changed.”

The children’s minister, Beverley Hughes, said: “I am very disappointed that the commission appears to have gone for headline over substance.

“Not only are the messages a misrepresentation of what their own report as a whole says, but it is based on fieldwork which is now almost a year old.

“Significant changes have taken place since then, not least the publication of the Children’s Plan, which sets out very clearly our high ambitions for children and the strength and role of children’s trusts in delivering them.

“We have consulted widely on how best to strengthen children’s trusts and we will shortly be publishing a completely revised guidance document on children’s trusts, which explains what a children’s trust is, what it does and how it fits into the wider family of partnership working.

“We are also proposing to introduce legislative changes building on what has already been achieved.”