Early help must be at the heart of our child protection system

Ravi Chandiramani
Monday, May 16, 2011

Eileen Munro's long-awaited review is a sound body of work that if accepted by government ought to improve the protection of children in England.

The report's approach promises to cut down on countless rules, regulations, procedures and targets and the resultant culture of blame and back-covering that has poisoned the child protection system and demoralised a workforce. In its place, over time, should emerge a system that invests more trust in children's professionals to make good judgments that fit particular circumstances.

Munro has shown some cunning in calling on government to accept all her recommendations and not to "cherry-pick". If it does the latter, its response will be seen as something of a defiance of the report.

But recommendation 10 - to place a duty on local agencies to secure sufficient "early help" services for families - is likely to get short shrift. Despite consistent rhetoric in support of early intervention services to prevent families from reaching thresholds for social care, the government's mantra of local freedom seems to trump all other considerations.

The recommendation is also a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Cuts to a range of services providing "early help" are well under way just as job losses and benefit cuts increase social need. The early intervention grant to councils falls well short of the funds it has replaced.

Still, it is a good recommendation. Prevention and early intervention should always be the first line of protection. As Munro states, it is easier and more cost-effective to help families early.

At local level, the best and most efficient help is co-ordinated by multi-agency teams. The government must ensure its national response to the Munro review is properly co-ordinated with its impending responses to other major reviews. These are Graham Allen's work on early intervention (whose second report on funding and finance for programmes is imminent); Frank Field's report on poverty and life chances; and Dame Clare Tickell's report on the Early Years Foundation Stage, several of whose recommendations are about keeping children safe.

The government has said plenty in favour of early help for children and families. Soon it must act. Public service is about more than just lip service.

Ravi Chandiramani, editor, Children & Young People Now

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