Recession must not be used as excuse to cut children’s services, warns commissioner

THE recession must not be used as an excuse to backtrack on delivering children’s services, it is warned today.

Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Keith Towler, said local authorities are not consistently implementing Welsh Assembly Government policies and failing to put the best interests of children at the heart of decisions.

Among the main concerns in his annual review for 2008-09 are the protection of vulnerable children and the ability of Wales’ newly-reorganised health boards to do so.

He also criticises action on child poverty as “inadequate” and the UK’s youth justice system as being dominated by a punitive approach which does not comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“I have seen a number of instances of decisions that are made in relation to children that are constrained by resource issues rather than the best interests of the child being paramount,” he said.

“I am aware of the pressures that current budget settlements place on local authorities. Such limited financial resources may prevent the consistent implementation of Welsh Assembly Government policies by local authorities across Wales. Whilst I acknowledge that times are tough on local authorities, we must make sure the current financial climate isn’t used as an excuse to delay the full implementation of national policies.”

Mr Towler said recent high profile cases, which he did not name, had “highlighted the important role of health providers in identifying child injuries”.

Among such cases are Peter Connelly in Haringey, London, who suffered horrific abuse which went unnoticed by professionals even though he was seen by them 60 times, and Aaron Gilbert in Swansea, whose body was found to have more than 50 separate bruises by the time he died of brain damage in hospital in 2005.

Recent reports by Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales and Health Inspectorate Wales into the safeguarding and protection of children have identified inconsistencies in practice among local authorities.

Mr Towler said: “I am concerned that the recent consultation on the unification of public health services across Wales is not sufficiently robust in relation to the role of the National Public Health Service in Wales in safeguarding children.

“Safeguarding children is an extremely challenging task.

“Developments in Wales in the past year have shown the need for WAG to have a clear strategy in place that will ensure all children are effectively safeguarded.”

Mr Towler said child poverty was “possibly the single most important issue facing modern Wales”.

He welcomed WAG’s launch in June 2008 of the Taking Action On Child Poverty strategy but said it was “one initiative in a plethora of policy moves where implementation and progress on child poverty has been inadequate”.

“This must change,” he said.

“A national priority requires a national flagship policy such as this, but it also needs political will and brave actions from government at both Wales and Westminster level. The current economic circumstances provide a more challenging environment in which to address the issue.

“However, the recession must not be used as an excuse. Child poverty is a child rights issue and rights exist in any environment, perhaps even becoming more important when the prevailing economic situation is in a downturn.

“The effect for those who are already suffering disadvantage is to increase the gap between themselves and others whilst the number suffering the inequality of child poverty increases.”

Mr Towler welcomed the Assembly’s support for the eradication of all forms of physical punishment of children but condemned Westminster for not furthering the agenda.

And he said some of his earlier recommendations have moved forward during the last year, including the provision of school based counselling services and the significant advances towards the wider provision of advocacy to children and young people.

However, he criticised the lack of progress in producing the joint review of child and adolescent mental health services.

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said: “Children and young people’s wellbeing in Wales and the promotion of their rights as citizens remains one of our top priorities and a key part of our One Wales agreement.

“We will now consider the report’s findings and respond in due course in line with the timescales agreed with the Children’s Commissioner’s office.”

The Welsh Local Government Association yesterday welcomed the report.

WLGA Leader, councillor John Davies of Pembrokeshire, said: “The report highlights many examples of good practice that are under way across Wales by local authorities in delivering services for children and young people. These include the provision of school based counselling in schools across Wales, the revision of the Personal and Social Education Framework for schools and the continued development of advocacy services.

“Local authorities are working across departments and with partner agencies through the Children and Young People’s Partnerships to ensure that the services provided respond to local needs.

“Whilst, there is much for local authorities to be proud of in terms of their progress over the last few years, we recognise that some key challenges remain and which need to be addressed, including improving performance standards even further and addressing performance variability, albeit within an extremely difficult funding climate.

“This year’s provisional local government settlement indicates there is much worse to come for local authorities in terms of budgets over the next few years. The last few years have already been very tough but by becoming more efficient, working collaboratively and prioritising resources local authorities have managed to protect vital frontline services including services for children and young people. Across the entire public sector, organisations including local authorities are being forced to consider their priorities for the forthcoming period.

“Improving services for children and young people remains a top priority for every local authority in Wales. They are committed to delivering better outcomes for children and young people and eradicating child poverty in the longer term. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) continues to be the key driver for services for children and young people in Wales and the best interests of children and young people remain at the forefront of service delivery.”