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Children and Young People Bill is a missed opportunity

The recently-published Children and Young People Bill purports to strengthen children's rights, and to ensure that public services "get it right" for children.

Every sensible person knows that children's welfare is underpinned by family welfare. And we know that prevention is much better than cure. So why does the Children and Young People Bill contain not one single mention of families? Of relatives? Siblings? Why does it not contain one single mention of prevention? Of community?

The bill represents a wasted opportunity for legislation to radically alter the current direction of services and of spend on children and families. The CYP Bill proposes a bit of rearranging of furniture, but no alternative to the status quo.

We invest heavily in meeting the costs of failure, and are parsimonious to the point of madness about investing in prevention. What is needed is a blueprint for prevention, for a radical realignment of services, priorities, and investments.

The need for such a major step change was recognised by the Government when it embraced the Christie Commission prescription for public sector reform. As much as 40% of public expenditure was estimated to be spent on responding to and creating problems rather than preventing problems. The greatest investment we could make in prevention is in recognising and meeting the needs of families. Instead we ration or deny support to families struggling with caring for relatives' children, with the care of children with disabilities, with poverty, stress and illness.

This Bill comes straight from service-land, that 9-5 Monday-to-Friday land. In this land, professionals and not families and communities are to be the basis for children's welfare.

There is no mention of the need for good local support services for all families in need of practical and emotional help and support. Instead, every child will have a "named person" as the first point of contact by anyone concerned about their welfare.

A lot of time and money is going to be spent on something that has not been subject to any systematic qualitative or quantitative evaluation of its benefits in this or any other country.

The Government is also committed to services which "build up (people's and communities') autonomy and resilience; that work together effectively..."

So why then does this bill not seek to introduce the well- evaluated services that do precisely this? Family centres and family support services can encourage self-help, create and sustain networks of care and support, provide practical help and assistance. That support can't be conditional on the latest "big idea" or obsession.

Yes the early years are important, but family support is needed at every age and stage, and for every shape and size of family. Building services around topical or age-related focus on "young carers, early years or children affected by domestic violence and neglect" only serves to reinforce unhelpful rationing and professional claims making.

Family group conferencing recognises and strengthens families, involving the wider family and friendship network, and supports their efforts and plans. This represents an approach that builds capacity rather than trying to replace the families with state-paid named persons and "corporate parents". But these approaches find no mention in the bill.

We don't need to go to New Zealand to see family conferencing working. But councils here like Edinburgh who have invested a little in it will find that the bill requires them to spend instead on the bureaucratic nightmare that the named person promises to be.

And we have been told that the Government is also looking for services that "prioritise prevention, reduce inequalities, improve performance and reduce costs; and are open, transparent and accountable."

But there is no mention of prevention in the bill. The number of children coming into public care is rising year on year. But instead of looking to why this is the case, and prioritising measures that would reduce the harm of broken families, the Bill is concerned with mitigating the failure of prevention.

The focus is on measures to improve care. Instead of prevention, we have a bill that is concerned with the demands of failure. Failure to support families, failure to provide good care by the corporate parent, failure to support children into adult life who have been in care.

The CYP Bill should have seized the opportunity to rebuild services from the bottom up, based on the needs of families and communities. What we have been given instead is a mish-mash of measures and provisions, none of which seem designed to meet the government's own ambitions.

Maggie Mellon is a child and family policy consultant.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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