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Children's trusts hampered by uncertainty, says Audit Commission

Date:29 OCT 2008

The children's trusts created by the government after the death of Victoria Climbié have been confused and confusing, according to an evaluation by the Audit Commission published today.

Five years after the green paper Every Child Matters and eight years after the child's death, "there is little evidence of better outcomes for children and young people" resulting from the requirement that local areas in England set up special panels to coordinate services.

But on the ground professionals are working together, often through informal arrangements outside the trust framework. Trusts get in the way: a third of directors of children's services say the purpose of the trusts is "unclear", and the uncertainty is hampering their efforts to deliver better services.

Progress has been made in bringing professionals together, but sometimes by navigating around the "centrally-directed approach". Local agreements worked better than external direction, the study found.

The Audit Commission's study is the first independent assessment of the government's scheme for bringing together the professionals involved with children. In the official inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié published in 2003, Lord Laming had complained about lack of joining up.

The Audit Commission study found too much time and energy being expended on "structures and process" at the expense of improving the lives of children and young people and their families. Whitehall had focused on "organisational blueprints" and different departments had taken conflicting lines in their guidance to councils.

In a blow to government hopes for streamlining of services locally, there was little evidence children's trusts had offered value for money improvements.

The government insisted they were given the ambiguous title "trusts", even though at the same time the label was being applied to completely different bodies operating in primary care and hospitals and adult social care - "care trusts" were introduced by the Department of Health in 2002. "This sowed the seeds of later and continuing confusion".

The government has been too prescriptive, the study concludes. "There is a tension in mandating partnership working; the greatest benefit comes from common ownership of problems, rather than merely responding to external direction".

The main findings are:

  • Children's trusts have little if any oversight of budgets and money for children's services;
  • The relationship between trusts and other local partnerships is unclear;
  • Children's trusts are unsure whether they are strategic planning bodies or concerned with the detail of service delivery;
  • In going ahead with trusts, the government seemed to have ignored the results of its own pilot study; and
  • There is little evidence that mainstream money has been redirected by children's trusts.

The Commission made has recommended the removal of barriers to local partnership schemes, children should have more say in how children's services are designed, and "missing partners" such as GPs, schools and other agencies should be brought in.

The report on the death of Victoria Climbié by Lord Laming in 2003 recommended services for children and their families be better integrated. Following the green paper Every Child Matters, the government said local areas in England should have children's trusts and their legal basis was established in the Children Act 2004.

In May, the mother of Victoria Climbié, Berthe Climbié, said she had been "betrayed" by local government authorities who have failed to implement recommendations made by Lord Laming.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is preparing new guidance on the operation of children's trusts.