What happens when the conversation ends?

Too often the care system fails to involve young people in decisions that affect their lives, or to engage them in any meaningful way. Where consultation or participation initiatives are pursued they are often short-lived or seen as an end in themselves. Quality Protects, the modernising fund which aimed to transform children’s social services, came to an end last month and other local consultation and participation initiatives are under threat.

The Children Act 1989 states, before making a decision, local authorities must “as far as is reasonably practicable ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child”. And citing article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England claims that the right to be involved in decision making, “is not dependent upon age or understanding”. This is typical of the increasingly uncompromising character of the children’s’ rights agenda. Indeed, consultation and participation have come to play an increasingly important role as a governing ethic in children’s policy circles.

In the green paper which preceded the much anticipated children bill, the government claimed to have the nation’s 11 million children on side. Or, some might argue, a dubiously complicit sample of them. Apparently, economic well-being, staying healthy, staying safe, “enjoying and achieving” and “making a positive contribution” were at the top of their collective wishlist. A cynic might find this all a little convenient for a government bent on promoting healthy lifestyles, risk-aversion and a newly engaged citizenry.

But is it accusations of thinly disguised ventriloquism that so discredit efforts to ascertain the views of children and young people? Or is the much cited consultation fatigue to blame? Certainly, deepening levels of mistrust seem to blight each and every policy endeavour whatever its merits. Either way, suspicion that consultation is being used as a stalling tactic, or an unconvincing distraction from policy vacuity or political indecision, is on the rise. Yet perhaps something more fundamental lies at the heart of this enthusiasm for connecting with such “hard to reach” constituents.

Does seeking legitimacy supposedly through the mouths of babes, itself, betray a shaky hold on the public confidence? Has “user centeredness” become an all-purpose and consequentially tired and ineffectual mantra? There is, I think, a danger in conflating misgivings about social work practice with the very different concerns of political or institutional legitimacy.

The social work profession is in a seemingly continual state of disarray. The relentless glare of adverse publicity in the wake of preventable tragedies, culminating in the momentous inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, has wounded it immeasurably. Consequently, the children’s rights agenda appeals to those seeking to relegitimise the social care enterprise or find a renewed sense of mission. But is hiding behind the kids really a solution to this existential crisis?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/apr/23/childrensservices.comment

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