'Social Services Would Never Fiddle the Figures to Look Good. That's an Outrageous Suggestion'; IN THE HOT SEAT

Article excerpt

Byline: ANASTASIA STEPHENS

Is there hope for our embattled social services? Andrew Cozens, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, answers the tough questions . . .

Q Despite the focus on improving child welfare after the murder of Victoria Climbie nearly four years ago, adult social services continue to significantly outperform children's services. Why?

A This is true but not in the way you describe it. The performance of social service departments has improved significantly over the past three years. In November, more departments were awarded 2-3 stars than 0-1 star for the first time. It's true to say that overall, the performance of children's services has improved less rapidly than adult services. But they have still improved.

Q Two years ago, Brett and Brad Wilson were stabbed to death by their father while social services were monitoring the family. How can "at risk" children still slip through the net?

A This is the key focus of the new Children's Bill which makes it a duty for all agencies to make child protection a priority.

At the heart of the legislation is a new information-sharing hub in which details of all children will be made available to all agencies.

The aim is to ensure that anyone involved in monitoring a child has access to all relevant information so that vital clues to abuse are less likely to be missed.

Q Will league tables and national star ratings improve standards of social-service care or encourage bureaucrats to manipulate statistics to their own ends?

A That's an outrageous assertion. Social services are the most inspected part of local government. Our services are regularly assessed by independent inspectors. To qualify for a star rating we have to meet more than 100 indicators and criteria. There is no way that anyone could get away with fiddling the system.

Q Directors of social services departments can earn more than [pounds sterling]100,000 a year. Are they worth it?

A I manage a budget of [pounds sterling]110 million and employ 2,500 staff in what is a pressured and very complex business. I don't earn anything like that, but the going rate has gone into that territory and it's a fair salary for the job.

Q In the wake of Angela Canning's acquittal [she had been convicted of killing her children on the evidence of discredited "expert" Sir Roy Meadow] there is concern that children may have been wrongly separated from their parents. Surely these children must be returned to their parents?

A In criminal cases such as that of Angela Canning, it's the court who decides to put children into care and medical evidence may be needed. In civil cases, councils and social services are involved in these decisions.

But yes, cases where children may have been separated wrongly from their parents are serious, and should be handled appropriately.

Q Are these cases being investigated as a matter of urgency?

A Yes. Margaret Hodge [the Children's Minister] issued guidelines to local authorities requiring them to review certain cases immediately and for all cases to be reviewed within 12 weeks.

Q Taking a child away from its mother and father is the cruellest thing.

Do you agree that breaking up a family should be a last resort?

A Yes. We put most of our effort into supporting families and parents, helping children to stay at home. My department receives about 600 children's referrals a month but only a handful lead to a care order being taken.

Q lans to join up health and social services are at the heart of the Government's strategy to modernise management and delivery of social care. Do you ever worry the NHS might be taking you over? …