National protection force to curb child abusers

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The Independent Online

A national child protection service may be set up by the Government to halt the tide of abuse scandals that have exposed failures in the system that is supposed to stop children being harmed.

A national child protection service may be set up by the Government to halt the tide of abuse scandals that have exposed failures in the system that is supposed to stop children being harmed.

The plan would downgrade the role of social services departments, which would focus on supporting vulnerable families and hand over potential abuse cases to a new national body. The idea, which would be fiercely opposed by social services chiefs, is gaining support inside the Government and is likely to be included in a Green Paper on protecting children due to be published next month. Ministers insist the plan is not an attack on social workers but believe a shake-up is needed after a spate of official inquiries into abuse cases.

Pressure for change will increase today when Lord Laming, a former chief inspector of social services, submits to the Government his report into the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, who suffered 128 injuries at the hands of an aunt and her violent partner. Although there were 12 occasions on which Victoria could have been saved, the report highlights a persistent breakdown in communication between social workers, hospital staff and police.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, will publish the Laming report later this month along with the Government's initial response. The inquiry's findings will heavily influence the Green Paper.

Last month, the investigation into the death of two-year-old Ainlee Walker concluded she died from neglect and abuse after a lack of communication between agencies.

Until now, ministers have argued the problems should be resolved by closer co-operation between the different agencies. But a rethink is being considered. Paul Boateng, a former Health and Home Office minister who is now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is convinced that a national body is needed and has been asked by Tony Blair to take an interest in the Green Paper.

One Whitehall source said: "There is a growing recognition that we cannot go on as we are. Inquiry after inquiry has exposed the problems and yet nothing seems to change."

A ministerial working group is studying proposals by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think-tank close to Downing Street. Its blueprint says: "Seamless multi-agency working may only be possible through the creation of a new service dedicated to safeguarding children. This could help ensure child protection becomes the responsibility of all the relevant agencies, rather than solely that of social services. It could also help remove families' uncertainties about whether social services are investigating them or supporting them."

The IPPR denies its plan would mean centralising child protection policy and insists local authority social services would still play a crucial role. Its plans are modelled on the new system for handling young offenders – a national Youth Justice Board and local youth offending teams bringing together the police, social services and education.

However, the proposals will put a further question mark over social services departments. Ministers have already pledged to break up the "monolithic" structure by creating children's trusts. Although based in local authorities, they would have the power to hive off services to charities, private firms and not-for-profit public interest companies.

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