Child Protection Improvement Programme: ministerial statement

Minister for Childcare and Early Years Mark McDonald MSP delivers a speech on improving Scotland's child protection systems.

Presiding Officer, a year ago the then Cabinet Secretary for Education set out this Government's intention to implement a Child Protection Improvement Programme. In doing so, she acknowledged the strengths inherent in the current system, but acknowledged weaknesses that required addressing to ensure we are doing all we can to protect Scotland's children.

In the last year, we have been working closely with partners across the children's services sector to honestly scrutinise Child Protection in Scotland and determine the changes which are required.

Today I am publishing the Child Protection Improvement Programme Report, and the report of Catherine Dyer's 'Systems Review – Protecting Scotland's Children and Young People: It is still everyone's job'.

Presiding Officer, I can advise that I accept in full all of the recommendations and actions in each report. The effective and efficient implementation of this suite of recommendations and actions will strengthen all aspects of the system to better protect our children.

Before I outline the key findings and indicate the steps to be taken to ensure implementation, I want to thank everyone who has worked closely with us on the Improvement Programme. Their time, effort, knowledge and expertise has helped us to develop meaningful and substantial recommendations.

I am very grateful to Catherine Dyer for leading the independent systems review, and to the members of this review group and the broader advisory groups for their thoughtful contributions.

Every child in Scotland who has been harmed or abused, or who is at risk of harm or abuse, should receive the best possible support and protection, no matter their circumstances or where they live. The risks children face – and our understanding of those risks – continue to evolve and our system needs to continuously adapt to address these.

According to the most recent figures we have 2,751 children on the Child Protection Register. While this represents a 4% decrease on the previous year, the number has increased by 34% since 2000. And while more children left the register due to an improved home situation, more were also on the register for over a year.

Generally, the Systems Review concluded that when children or young people are identified as being at risk of significant harm or have been harmed, then the system works well to protect them. The need for improvement must be set within this context but, Presiding Officer, we cannot and must not shy away from the challenge before us.

One of the most profound impacts on the welfare of our children is neglect. Neglect is the primary maltreatment issue that children in Scotland currently face. 39% of children placed on the child protection register had been emotionally abused and 37% had suffered from neglect. In addition, 'lack of parental care' is the most common reason for referral to the Children's Reporter, with 5,606 referrals in the period 2015 to 2016.

Over the last 10 years, we have undertaken significant investment to support parenting, to better prevent neglect and to address the issues which give rise to neglect; our investments include the Early Years Change Fund, Public Social Partnerships, the Lloyds TSB Partnership Drugs Initiative, the expansion of free childcare and the Family Nurse Partnerships.

And we have continued this investment with a programme of action on neglect that is working with local agencies in three local authority areas to look at how practice change can be affected to work with families more effectively, based on the best available local, national and international evidence.

An evaluation of the early work on this programme will report to me at the end of this month and I will consider carefully the outcomes of this work.

Much has been done over the years to update legislation to strengthen the rights and wellbeing of our children. One area, however, where the law is out of date is section 12 ('cruelty to persons under 16') of the Children and Young Person (Scotland) Act 1937. This provision targets physical neglect and harm of children and young people but does not take account of our modern day understanding of neglect. We now know that emotional and psychological neglect can be just as devastating for children and young people as physical harm. Yet section 12 is still the criminal legislation in operation today. The archaic language of section 12 also means that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal have difficulty in prosecuting some offences due to its limitations.

I can therefore confirm, Presiding Officer, that new legislation will be brought before this session of Parliament introducing a new definition and criminal offence of abuse and neglect of children. Given that it has taken 80 years as a society to make this change, it is vital that we get it right. We will therefore consult this year to determine the scope and nature of the legislation.

Through the Improvement Programme, we have also published an updated action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation, which includes a revised definition and supporting document, to guide practitioners and run a national campaign to raise awareness of what constitutes sexual exploitation, particularly among parents. We have consulted on a draft human trafficking strategy that includes a focus specifically on children and we are working with stakeholders, particularly children and young people, to develop a revised child internet safety action plan which will be published shortly. We are working with the Children's Hearings Improvement Partnership to help identify action to strengthen consistency and effectiveness across the Children's Hearings system.

Presiding Officer, I am clear that this Improvement Programme must not be seen in isolation. The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry will consider whether further changes in practice, policy or legislation are necessary in order to protect children in care in Scotland from such abuse in future. Should recommendations for change result from the Inquiry, it is essential that we honour the integrity and spirit of the Inquiry and make such changes to do all we can to avoid the abuses of the past.

We must also ensure that we allow the independent root and branch review of the care system to shape child protection in the future. This review will look at the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the care system in Scotland, and provide care-experienced young people the opportunity to speak directly to government.

The Child Protection Improvement Programme has augmented and reinforced our understanding of the factors which can diminish the capacity of parents to meet their children's needs and keep them safe. Multi-agency planning for and delivery of child protection in local areas is increasingly practised – this should be replicated in national policy, planning and delivery too.

A National Child Protection Policy will therefore be published identifying all the responsibilities and actions across Government which are aimed at supporting families and protecting children.

As part of this National Child Protection Policy, we will develop a plan to better prevent the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of Scotland's children. This will build on the work I have already outlined and will be designed to respond to emerging threats and challenges, as well as incorporate evidence of practice, activities and interventions which work. The aim is to provide agencies and practitioners with an evolving resource which supports their skills, knowledge and expertise.

We all need to feel confident that the processes in place to protect children are working effectively.

The Systems Review recommends that we consider how to create a National Child Protection Register. While work with partners will begin to explore how best to establish a National Register and how it might work, in the short term we will work with Police Scotland to develop a flagging system on the National Vulnerable Persons Database to identify all children placed on local Child Protection Registers.

We must also ensure that the processes for learning in the child protection system are rigorous, timely and effective. Where a child has died or suffered significant harm through abuse or neglect, we must always consider what might have been done differently to have prevented that tragedy or what could be done differently to minimise the risk of a similar tragedy occurring. That is why we expect Child Protection Committees to undertake Significant Case Reviews (SCRs), and share them with the Care Inspectorate so that it can analyse reviews and report nationally on key areas of learning.

The Review concluded that we could learn more if the Care Inspectorate also received copies of all Initial Case Reviews and I agree. The Care Inspectorate will now take on this expanded role and explore how best to share findings to influence practice.

I am also writing to all Child Protection Committees to make clear my expectation that they all follow the guidance and will now share all Case Review findings with the Care Inspectorate. National standards will also be provided for those who carry out reviews to make sure they have the right skills to ensure that reviews are conducted in a timely and consistent manner.

Analysis by the Care Inspectorate of recent Significant Case Reviews found that the time taken varied from five months to 37 months, with criminal proceedings often complicating matters. The protocol between the Crown Office, Police Scotland and Child Protection Committees on Significant Case Reviews and criminal proceedings is being reviewed and will be further publicised in order to reduce delays in concluding SCRs.

Inspections are also key to the effectiveness of the child protection system. I have asked the Care Inspectorate to host a short life working group to look at how joint inspections can better focus on the experiences of, and outcomes for, children at the greatest risk of harm. The group will consider all relevant recommendations emerging from the Child Protection Improvement Programme, and draft a new inspection framework ready to replace the current programme of inspections, which end in December 2017.

While it is important to have the right processes in place – and to effectively evaluate these – it is people who keep children safe. And our frontline practitioners undertaking this most difficult and often harrowing work need to know that they are supported through effective leadership. They need to know they are supported by effective governance, responsible scrutiny and appropriate management information. Leadership was identified as a key focus for the Improvement Programme, not least because too many joint inspections have identified variable and weak leadership.

For this reason, in June last year, the Deputy First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I held a summit for the leaders of services with a role to play in child protection in the public and third sectors, to emphasise the importance of collective responsibility and hear experiences. The Systems Review also considered the importance of leadership and governance and as a result of its findings. I can announce today that I will chair a new National Child Protection Leadership Group to support, strengthen and improve activity on child protection.

This group will seek to embed consistency and reduce duplication in local areas. It will also support the implementation of the recommendations and actions in both reports, and it will expect agencies to work collaboratively to deliver improvements and achieve sustained, meaningful change. The National Leadership Group will also identify how best to evaluate improvement and measure progress.

Catherine Dyer's Systems Review Group was tasked with considering whether a statutory underpinning was required for key aspects of the child protection system. The Group concluded that legislation by itself would not deliver improvement. It recommended a range of other actions before moving to legislate.

I have carefully considered this conclusion before accepting it. However, I am clear that we must see real progress in implementing the improvements recommended by both reports, particularly to address consistency of approach. If in a year's time there is little evidence of real and substantial progress in delivering improvements, then this Government will bring forward legislation to provide an appropriate underpinning for child protection committees, in the use of the Child Protection Register and in the conduct and application of Initial and Significant Case Reviews.

In particular, it is vital that I see evidence:

  • of consistent good practice within Child Protection Committees;
  • of effective leadership within Community Planning Partnerships, and engagement by all relevant agencies;
  • of adherence to child protection guidance; and
  • that initial and significant case reviews are being undertaken when necessary, shared with the Care Inspectorate, and that agencies can demonstrate practice is changing as a result of relevant findings.

We now have in place a Child Protection Improvement Programme which can and must move rapidly from reflection to implementation. We must move from pockets of good practice to a culture of good practice across the whole child protection system.

Presiding Officer, this Government is determined to ensure that more of Scotland's children get the best possible start in life. For the most vulnerable in our communities, at its most fundamental level, that means protecting them from harm and abuse.

We must continue to embed a Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) approach in children's services. We must also continue to invest in activity which supports families and intervenes early to prevent difficulties arising and escalating. But we also need to ensure that we have a system in place which empowers practitioners to intervene to protect children when support is not working.

That system must value its workforce, and it should be accountable and committed to a process of continuous improvement, to address emerging risks and challenges, and which is focused on adapting and improving practice based on what works. The recommendations and actions contained within the Child Protection Improvement Programme report, and that of the Systems Review, set out a clear pathway to achieve our vision and ambition for Scotland's most vulnerable children.



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