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ANALYSIS - TAKING CHILDREN OFF YOUR HANDS

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Social services departments could face being made obsolete if government discussions to nationalise children's serv...
Social services departments could face being made obsolete if government discussions to nationalise children's services become reality.

Mike Leadbetter, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said such a move would spell the 'death knell for local government' (LGC, 28 March).

A significant chunk of elderly, mental health and learning disability services have already been integrated closely with the health sector in NHS partnership trusts and newly formed care trusts, which are NHS bodies.

Children's services are the next major target. The state of child protection in particular is a political and public relations hot potato. If this were to be lifted out of local government control, social services departments could become insignificant due to the vast reduction in the functions they would perform, leaving a host of implications for directors, staff and the nature of the services provided. The cross-cutting nature of social services means the impact would be felt by many council departments.

A number of professionals believe the move is rooted in health secretary Alan Milburn's long-standing lack of confidence in social services' ability to deliver.

One social services director says: 'We believe this is more to do with the dynamics between the Department of Health and the DTLR. Mr Milburn doesn't believe we will deliver on his national political agenda because we are politically determined locally, so he has been going hell for leather to lift us [social services] out.'

She adds: 'The bit that made it hard for him to lift social services out of local government into the national health service was children, so this move would be a great platform for him, because the Home Office could take a nationalised child protection agency and attach it to the police. The Department for Education & Skills would have family support services and the DoH could have adult services.'

Jane Held, co-chair of the ADSS children and families committee, says councils are the organisations best placed to provide services for children and their families, and service provision across a council would be adversely effected if they were removed.

'Local authorities are fundamentally the community leaders. You need services that are local and keyed into education, leisure, housing and community organisations -that's what councils provide,' she says.

'At a national level, that role would be lost, however it was organised, as there wouldn't be the same community leadership responsibility.'

John Ransford, director of education and social policy at the Local Government Association, is concerned with the impact and disruption another restructure would have on local government in this area.

'The trouble with any organisation is that you have boundaries - local government represents a whole series of initiatives and works in partnership with other agencies. Creating another agency would lead to a lot of organisational change, which we do not need at the moment,' he says.

Although the demise of social services departments would place directors and senior staff in a precarious position, Ms Held says they would be involved in whatever system was introduced.

'It's fair to say that social services directors will need to direct social care whatever and wherever it happens, but our fundamental values are based in the context of social services being part of local democracy and accountability,' she says.

Social workers at the acute end of providing services would take the brunt of organisational change, especially if services were not improved by it.

One senior social worker says they are fed up with reorganisation. 'The government keeps going from the bulldozer to the Rolls Royce and back again,' she says.

Not keen on the prospect of being employed by central government she

says: 'It would just be like having big brother watching over you rather than having

a restructure to make improvements to

the service. Centralising the service would be a form of heavy policing and I would

not feel valued and trusted to do my job

effectively.

'It would be a mammoth organisation and I doubt whether social workers would be able to have the same level of autonomy. This kind of talk happens when officials who are divorced from what's going on on the ground have these convoluted and grandiose ideas that they want to find guinea pigs for.'

The outcome of the Victoria Climbie inquiry may well provide the catalyst for central government to implement changes, but Ms Held says that centralising children's services will not address the failings.

'These failures are based on issues around resourcing, capacity and good communication,' she says. 'Structural change will not improve things in these areas. You still have to communicate whether you are a national organisation or a local one. These issues need to be addressed however services are organised. Structural change will just increase the risk [to children's service provision] at this point in time.'

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