CLOSING ADDRESS BY THE MINISTER FOR CHILDREN AND EDUCATION, MR SAM GALBRAITH, MSP 2
Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen
Long before I became Minister for Children, I had contact with the Children's Hearings system as a constituency MP. Throughout the years I have found all those involved in the system to be dedicated volunteers and professionals who commit their time and energies to doing what is best for Scotland's children.
I regret that I could not spend the whole day with you. But I welcomed the opportunity to hear the feedback from your working groups to give me a flavour of what you have discussed in detail.
I see today as the start of a process of renewed debate about the Children's Hearings system. Not a fundamental review. I do not believe that there is any support for a radical overhaul of the Children's Hearings system. The principles underlying the Kilbrandon Report and the 1968 Act and now the 1995 Act have served us well over the years.
But there is a concern that we could be doing things better and that our actions should be better focussed and supported to ensure that we are maximising the impact of our unique system.
I want to group my remarks to you today under 3 broad headings:
- the wider social policy context of relevance to the hearings system
- the specific context within which the hearings operates
- a forward look or vision for the children's hearings in the light of the research findings and other developments.
WIDER SOCIAL POLICY CONTEXT
You are all well aware that the hearings operate within a wider social policy setting. In many ways you could argue that as panel members, Reporters, councillors, social work, health or education professionals you are well placed to judge the success or otherwise of various policy initiatives affecting children and families. The referrals you consider may be in some sense a barometer of effectiveness. For these reasons, I want to focus on 3 areas which have a direct bearing on the work of the hearings system:
- our Social Inclusion Strategy
- new priorities in public health policy; and
- major developments in childcare and school education policy.
The Secretary of State and indeed the whole of The Scottish Office Ministerial Team were involved at the start of this month in a series of public engagements linked to the latest stage of the Government's programme of action to promote social inclusion.
One of the key indicators that drives our determination to get this policy approach right, is the fact that in Scotland a third of children live in poverty. Forty-one per cent of the under 5's in this country live in families where the money coming in is less than half the average national wage.
Poverty is not an excuse for offending behaviour by children and young people. It is not an excuse for adults to abuse or injure children. But, as we can see from the summary of Professor Waterhouse's research, children and families coming before hearings are predominantly from backgrounds depending upon State benefits.
As I say, poverty is not an excuse. Nor is it a virtue. We are committed to doing all we can to eliminate it by creating a more inclusive society. There is extra public investment of around £1.5 billion in Scotland aimed at tackling issues of social deprivation and poverty. We need to make sure that this massive scale of expenditure is being used to best effect. The projects and other developments we expect to see as part of the Social Inclusion Partnerships will all play their part in helping to raise the quality of life for children and families in our most needy communities.
Thriving self-confident communities are quite obviously better places to bring up families. They are the best supportive environment to help families and individuals through difficult times.
Public health policy
Turning now to health matters, I can say that, as a Government, we have not hesitated to recognise the link between health and socio-economic factors. The reality is that health is worst where communities are poorest. It gives me no pleasure to say - and I say it often because it is worth saying - that in the better off areas (such as the one I represent), people enjoy much higher life expectancy and better health than the Drumchapels or Craigmillars of this world.
Lifestyles are also worst in the poorest areas - more people smoke, diet is less healthy, and less exercise is taken. We have to tackle these intolerable inequalities. That is why I published on 17 February our White Paper Towards a Healthier Scotland.
This set out a comprehensive agenda for pushing Scotland up the good health ladder and tackling the inequalities I have mentioned. But the White Paper does more. It identifies the life-long impact of ill-health and health-damaging lifestyles in childhood and notes that there is also evidence that improved child health can reduce future delinquency. The White Paper accordingly confirmed child health as a priority health topic.
So we shall be working towards a co-ordinated programme of action to improve child health which will include activity across agencies to help children at risk through behavioural disorders and educational failure. Active, healthy children have the best chance of realising their full potential. Our White Paper and the range of activities on which we are engaged across Government will all serve to this end. In consequence our children will be the better equipped to channel energies into safe leisure pursuits and resist the kinds of offences or habits that you assess at hearings.
I wish now to focus on 2 main themes in employment and education policy which have a direct bearing on the work you do in the hearings system.
First, we have launched the Scottish Childcare Strategy with significant resources over the next 3 years to help expand the provision of childcare across the country. One of the main aims of the Strategy is to help those parents who wish it to re-enter the labour market with the confidence that a quality childcare place has been secured for their child. The Working Families Tax Credits will release around £25m per annum in Scotland to help those families who need it, pay for childcare.
We have also set up a new initiative to expand family centres so that provision for families with very young children can be improved. This is a joined-up initiative with input from both social work and education interests within The Scottish Office. The money has been allocated to authorities so that extra help can be offered to families with very young children on a more co-ordinated and systematic basis than before.
At the same time we are making available extra money to provide pre-school places for all 3 and 4 year olds whose parents wish it by the end of 2001.
Turning now to the schools dimension, we are putting in place a network of New Community Schools across Scotland with extra funding of over £6 m per year. Schools can then have immediate access to a range of related services covering social work, health, community development and community education for children and families. We believe the new community schools approach will help education attainment by improving the levels of support for families and children from services beyond education.
Links to hearings
I have not given this brief account of these broad topic areas simply to rehearse or advertise Government policy. I have mentioned them because they are all united by one major theme. Namely, that important social issues must be tackled on a multi-agency basis. No one organisation or interest can have all the answers to the range of needs that children and families have as they develop and grow.
This theme is of course well known to each of you here, whatever your background. You each have a part to play in the assistance provided to children and families coming before hearings. The role of education in highlighting truancy early on and working with the hearings system is but one example.
I believe that every initiative I have just mentioned in the wider social policy context depends for its success on our continuing to work hard to make joint working an automatic response where children and families with problems are concerned. The benefits of these initiatives will not appear overnight. They will feed through gradually to those communities that are most vulnerable in terms of social and economic health.
DEVELOPMENTS IN THE HEARINGS CONTEXT
I want now to move from the wider picture to the more immediate context within which the hearings operate.
Time Intervals Working Group report
First I wish to say a few words about organisation and process in the hearings system. Once again these all contribute to ensuring that the hearings system delivers a high quality product to the children and families they serve.
Let me start with what is for me a very important issue indeed. Shortly after we took office in May 1997 I asked Sally Kuenssberg, Chairman of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, to set up a Working Group to look at the scope for improving efficiency and effectiveness of the handling of cases within the hearings system. Under her chairmanship the Time Intervals Working Group brought together senior representatives from the Reporter service, panel members, the health service, education, the police and social work to tackle what is by definition a multi-agency matter.
I received its first report at the end of that year setting out where problems existed in the system and the key principles upon which to develop standards and targets to improve time-scales.
I asked the Group to work up those principles into a national blueprint document which would invite all the agencies and organisations concerned to sign up to national standards and targets for submissions of reports or assessments for hearings cases. After extensive consultation across Scotland, that is exactly what the Group did.
I am delighted to announce today publication of that blueprint document which sets out some challenging standards and targets to be adopted from 1 April this year. I sent out advance copies last month to the senior officers in local authorities, health boards and the police commending the Blueprint and inviting them to commit their agencies or organisations to the standards in the document. All the responses received have been very positive and supportive. The publication of this document marks an important stage in improving the quality of service we all provide to the children referred to the hearings system.
I pay tribute here to the work of Sally Kuenssberg and to all members of the Group, many of whom are present or represented in the audience today. As you might imagine, I have accepted - with great gratitude and some relief - their offer to reconvene periodically to monitor and review progress.
The task is now for senior managers and Chief Executives to back up their support by committing themselves to make sure that these targets are met and improved upon. The standards are deliberately high, as are the targets. For some they may not be achievable in the initial stages. But that should not mean that we set our sights any lower. One of the challenges of the Blueprint is to ensure that suitable monitoring systems are in place. Sally Kuenssberg, with my support, will be writing further with details of the monitoring arrangements as I wish to see what progress is made over time.
I must stress that the purpose of the exercise in not simply to reduce the time taken to process cases. That is important. It was one of the driving forces behind the review and the sooner action is taken the better it is for the child. I will be looking for overall improvements. But the action taken must also be appropriate. The quality of the decision must be high. Decisions taken by the hearings system cover all types of cases. It is important in our system, with its blend of care and assessment of need, not to sacrifice that quality on the altar of speed.
There are many other issues I could have referred to in this section. Panel member recruitment, low numbers of men coming forward, the perennial difficulties around panel members balancing hearings commitments with their hours and demands of work and colleagues, the delivery of panel member training. The incorporation of ECHR law, access to reports, and taking the views of children are a further raft of major unfinished business for us. These are all live issues as far as we are concerned but I don't have time to go into them in any detail today.
In this third and final section of my remarks I want to focus on some key findings from the research reports. Then, using them as a platform, I want to offer you some thoughts on the shape of the hearings system post the elections to the Scottish Parliament, 7 weeks today, and into the Millennium.
Public perceptions of the hearings system tend to focus on whether or not it is seen to be doing well in relation to children and young people with offending behaviour. The hearings system has been widely accepted in Scotland over the last 28 years as working well for children who are at risk. This is a phrase which trips easily off the tongue. It does not recognise the complexity and often harrowing nature of many of these cases which you have to tackle. These are vitally important cases and I need to record how much we value your efforts in making this system work.
Care and protection referrals continue to account for 50% of the cases that come before hearings although there are a far smaller number of initial referrals to the Reporter. However there seems to be less certainty among the public about the efficacy of the hearings system for children who offend.
It is not easy for you - or indeed for politicians - when faced with calls from the public or media for what we might call in shorthand, some 'get tough' action. Whatever your views on the merits of such representations, I think you have to agree that these calls are understandable. The public are victims of offending, whether as individuals, organisations or the community at large. They have been directly affected. They wish assurance that something will be done - such as reparation -and that the child will not offend again in future. Often that will mean specifically that the public is looking for guarantees that they will not feel at risk.
All in all these are legitimate aims and in principle can be addressed by the hearings system without breaching the fundamental approach enshrined in Kilbrandon. 'Needs not deeds' is only a distorted slogan for the much more elaborate and thoughtful analysis set out in detail in Lord Kilbrandon's report. Kilbrandon recognised, and experience has shown, that children who offend may do so for a variety of reasons, some of them springing from family circumstances. These have to be addressed by the system. But there is also a place in it for an approach that addresses the nature of offences, their gravity and frequency. Without such an element, where appropriate, the hearings system is never going to get to the heart of what is needed to help address that behaviour and maximise the chances of that child or young person growing into a responsible adult.
I said a moment ago that there was no reason in principle why the hearings system cannot handle that aspect of public concern. However the research reports you have been debating today have highlighted that the system has its weaknesses and does not appear to work well in certain areas. Let me highlight a few points:
- the allocation and prioritisation of resources plus the fact that the system does not deal well with persistent young offenders are 2 constant themes. The hearings may be able to identify effective disposals for the first timer minor offender but can it be said that the system works well with the older age group and the persistent offender?
- is it right that a hearing should terminate a supervision requirement because a child is not co-operative or is not responding to the measures already tried? Is not the challenge to devise innovative alternative methods of supervision, which overcome these hurdles?
- is it right that, in 65% of all decisions, the hearing discusses only one option? Is education giving sufficient priority to its role in the hearings system and in developing their future?
- how do we improve the mechanism for taking the views of children before or at hearings or for preparing them or their families for the hearing?
The written proceedings of the conference will make very interesting reading indeed. I am not going to attempt now to answer any of the questions. However I will use some of these themes in looking forward to the future points for action and debate on the Children's Hearings system in Scotland.
In a forward look, I have chosen 3 or 4 selective areas, some of which you may well have debated in the course of today.
I know you may be wearied about the topic but I think we must take a fresh look at how the hearings system deals with persistent young offenders. We know that the numbers are small but that the individuals concerned are normally referred with a high tariff behind them and can cause disruption and misery in their local communities. The research provides yet further confirmation of this.
We already have piloted targeted approaches through special projects such as Freagarrach, CueTen and the new Invest to Save project which I announced earlier this month. It is now up to local authorities to decide how to take forward successful piloted projects as part of mainstream provision.
You could argue that these are really dealing with the consequences rather than tackling the root causes. I agree. But at the start of my speech, I set out what the government is doing to tackle many of these problems. We have also taken steps, with the assistance of Sally Kuenssberg, to look in detail at the process. What may be needed now is a closer examination of the outcomes.
The Children's Services Plans certainly offer a natural vehicle for planning ahead and getting budgets in place to launch more innovative schemes or approaches. I am not yet convinced that local authorities have realised the full potential of Children's Services Plans for this purpose. They certainly provide a forum for looking at outcomes.
If any reassurance is required, this might be the moment to say that I do not rank the handling of offending cases above the referrals you consider on care and protection grounds. Indeed, the distinction may be artificial once the grounds of referral have been established. Children who offend may also have been victims. One of the main findings of the cohort research is the progression from referral on care and protection grounds at an early age to referral on grounds of offending when older. This merits further study.
The welfare principle cuts across both types of referrals and the expertise you develop as panel members, Reporters, police, health, social work, education professionals must be deployed in depth no matter what the grounds. However do we need to think more imaginatively about the particular position of care and protection cases, especially where children are referred more than once from an early age to the hearings system? Such cases could make particular demands upon the competencies of panel members in particular. As could cases involving persistent young offenders. Could you envisage a system where there is more specialisation by individual panel members in order to deepen the quality of consideration and advice provided by the system for particular types of cases?
I am not advocating this as a policy. This would be a controversial step as it runs the risk of introducing distinctions that not everyone may accept. Nonetheless I believe that in any forward look we should not be frightened, in considering whether the hearings system's impact could be improved, to develop more flexible approaches which build on the current strengths of the system. I am sure that in many cases panel members already acquire a form of expertise over time and perhaps we need simply to assess the benefits of making that sort of personal development more explicit within the training system.
Finally I want to leave you with the thought that we are approaching a major change in Scottish life from May 6 onwards and that the hearings system will have its own part to play in adapting, adjusting and making a contribution to the new environment. That may mean a focus on the most vulnerable in our society who may come before children's hearings from time to time.
I expect there to be a constant pressure on policymakers at national and local level to demonstrate the strength of existing systems and remedy any apparent weaknesses. What we now called the joined-up approach could be a particular focus of scrutiny. We need to point to effective joint working between education, social work, health, the police in early intervention with cases that may come before a hearing. This could well take the form of more diversion projects or activity so that only cases where the hearings can make a distinctive contribution actually come before you.
I expect also that the themes of reparation and mediation may well surface in a more pronounced way and I believe the hearings system has the capacity to handle these aspects within the existing system and without distorting any of the core values that we all share.
Finally I want to pay tribute to the work of panel members and all the supporting professional officers who work across a wide range of agencies and organisations in both the statutory and voluntary sector. It is your efforts that make the hearings system a dynamic and well-respected feature of our social policy infrastructure. You are valued and will continue to be valued for the time and commitment you give. I look forward to continuing partnership with all concerned so that we can keep the hearings system fully relevant and up to date to the changing needs of Scotland as we move towards this major new development in our constitutional history.
Thank you for your attention.