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Lifting veil of secrecy from children's panels

Two weeks ago, the scale of the crisis and disquiet at Children's Hearings Scotland (CHS), the organisation responsible for children's panels, became clear when The Herald obtained an edited version of a survey of its staff and volunteers.

The survey showed the majority of those who were asked - 79% - felt morale was low. They also had little faith in the management team to address widespread problems with communication, IT systems and support networks. The staff were proud to be involved in children's panels - and rightly so because they represent the best of Scotland's welfare system - but they were not proud to be part of the organisation that runs the panels.

After a freedom of information request, The Herald has now seen the full version of the survey and it adds some unsettling detail to the story of unhappiness among those who work at CHS. One respondent said the organisation was operating under a veil of trepidation; another said it was trying to keep the reality of how bad the situation is from staff on the frontline. CHS staff said there was division, a lack of clear direction and a culture of uncertainty.

The survey, and its reluctant journey to full publication, has highlighted two major failings by CHS, the first of which is on transparency. The survey on staff attitudes was carried out last November, but it was only made public - after months of silence - when The Herald obtained an edited version. CHS remained keen to keep the survey out of the public domain and it was only the freedom of information legislation that eventually forced its publication.

Such a lack of willingness to be transparent is unacceptable in an organisation such as CHS and attempts to suppress information which should be in the public domain risk undermining the body's credibility. Scotland's FOI legislation was designed to bring about a culture of openness, but recent examples of institutional secrecy - such as the actions of CHS or the Scottish Government on the details of Alex Salmond's hotel accommodation during the Ryder Cup in Chicago - demonstrate that there is more work to be done.

The second failing of CHS has been to maintain the morale of the staff and volunteer panel members during a profound reorganisation of the panel system. For a long time, the panels were arranged by local authorities, but that led to some regional variations and inconsistencies; the aim of the reorganisation is to establish a national network with national guiding principles. The reform is needed but the changeover to the new system has been managed badly.

CHS must now take swift action to improve the situation not only for the sake of the vulnerable children and young people at the centre of a system that deals with complicated problems including criminality, truancy, neglect, and abuse, but also for the sake of the staff and volunteers. Their support and goodwill have made Scotland's children's panels a treasured part of the welfare system; that goodwill must not be lost.

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