England & Wales Education and children's services

Should training for councillors on the corporate parenting role be mandatory?

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The IICSA report on children in the care of Lambeth Council

The July 2021 report on Children in the care of Lambeth Council by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) set out the Council’s institutional failure to protect children in care from sexual abuse, cruelty and exploitation over many decades. It finds ‘there are now much‑improved systems in Lambeth’ (page 183) while noting a case as recent as 2016 where the Council mishandled allegations by a child in care. However, without wishing to minimise the actions of perpetrators and the consequent long-term damage to those who were abused, most of the report examines events which can loosely be described as historic.

Much has changed in the last 40 years about our society’s commitment to supporting vulnerable children: the nature of placements when children are taken into care; local authorities no longer maintaining children’s homes; the phenomenal costs of buying places in the private sector; and the role of local government in safeguarding children. The LGIU has mapped these changes over the years, two recent briefings are worth looking at for those who are new to these issues are Children’s Social Care Review in England: Case for Change (July 2021) and Children’s social care – rising costs and other pressures (March 2021). See also the primer on education and children’s services for new councillors.

This blog discusses the report’s recommendation that there should be mandatory training of elected English councillors covering (i) safeguarding and (ii) corporate parenting. Newly elected members should receive training on these matters as soon as possible following their election. Training should be mandatory and repeated on a regular basis. The training content should be regularly reviewed and updated.

Training

There are few voluntary roles in society for which training is not available on appointment. For some positions, such as appointment as a magistrate, training is mandatory. There are well-established training programmes for school governors, and other defined positions, such as being a charity trustee. Volunteer work with young people in youth organisations and sports clubs is likely to come with training. For one particular there is very little training: parenting – beyond numerous society-sponsored antenatal training opportunities.

Training for councillors

The mid-1960s was one of those perennial times when there was a public perception that local government was not good enough. The Government set up a committee of inquiry under John Maud (who was later to chair the Royal Commission on Local Government as Lord Redcliffe-Maud). The resulting ‘Management of Local Government’ report (1967) found no evidence to support a decline in the quality of elected members – noting the “widening gulf between the expertise of the professional officers and the limitations of the lay-man” (sic). It recommended the establishment at universities and colleges of training courses for council-members to give them “an understanding and appreciation of scientific and technical developments which form the basis of policy decisions.” Plus, to avoid members having an “excessive preoccupation […] with the more simple things”.

Today, service as a local authority councillor is one of the voluntary roles for which society now expects but does not yet mandate, participants to receive training with the objective of helping them acquire and develop knowledge and skills for use in the town hall and in the community. However, as the Maud report found, training for councillors, specifically what councillors are trained for, has implications for the respective functions of elected members and appointed officers: i.e for the ability of elected members to question and debate complex issues in public; and ultimately the health of local democracy and community leadership. This is without considering the time commitment, remuneration, and who is elected as part of the role.

Once elected, a quick internet search will show the wide range of induction and training provided by councils for their elected members and access to training provided by other bodies. The LGIU provides an extensive range of in-house training for local government as well as an open online training programme at available here.

Mandatory training for councillors

The IICSA raises the issue of mandatory training. Councils can make training for councillors mandatory using the council’s constitution. Induction and the council’s code of conduct feature as required training in constitutions although there appear to be no sanctions for those who refuse.

Almost universally, councils make training a requirement before sitting on a planning/development control committee because of their quasi-judicial functions. Likewise for licensing, and to a lesser extent staff appeals and pensions. Some councils have panels separate from the council’s administration reviewing decisions on the ‘permanence’ of children in council care. This will include adoption and fostering as well as placing children in residential care. Non-compliance with any training requirements can be dealt with through removal from committee and panel membership.

Training prior to becoming a councillor

Training prior to being elected is not as developed as training after the election. There are not many jobs that people apply for which can take up to 10 to 20 hours a week with little remuneration and without full scrutiny (other than the democratic election) of their willingness and ability to do the job. There are a few qualifications, aged 18 or over, an address in the area and not been convicted of an offence resulting in a sentence of imprisonment (suspended or not) for a period of not less than three months without the option of a fine during the five years prior to election day.

The MHCLG has a helpful website ‘become a councillor‘ and the political parties which sponsor candidates provide help and manage the selection process. The last thing the political parties want is to have to fight a by-election a few months after the election because an elected councillor finds that the job is not for them.

There are developments in Australia worth noting: the state of Victoria has mandatory candidate training for council candidates under 2020 legislation.

Corporate parenting and safeguarding

The IICSA recommendation mentions, separately, corporate parenting and safeguarding.

The principles behind corporate parenting are now helpfully defined in law. See section 1 (Corporate parenting principles), Children and Social Work Act 2017. Councils in England, including shire districts and combined authorities, are required to adhere to the principles in dealing with children for whom a local authority has taken on parental responsibilities.

This can include those who have left care up to the age of 25. 44-pages of DfE statutory guidance are available: applying corporate parenting principles to looked-after children and care leavers. The role of local authorities and the application of the corporate parenting principles. It is worth noting that it applies to shire districts that may have dealings with looked-after children in their housing and leisure roles. It also applies to relevant partners which include NHS bodies, schools and the police. For councils with children’s social care functions, there will be decisions over placement, fostering, children’s homes, permanence, return to parental care, special guardianship order within the extended family and adoption.

Safeguarding encompasses a wide range of activities. It starts with assessing the welfare of families and their children referred to the council – self-referrals, community referrals, and those from education, health and the police. Where there are concerns, and the potential risk to the children from hunger, or other abuse (mental and physical), social workers liaise with other professionals to work out what is best for the family and the welfare of children.

It can include signposting to other services which can lead to support for parenting and minimising the risk of harm to children. Safeguarding also includes prevention. See the 116-page DfE publication working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (latest update December 2020) for further information. Annex A contains definitions of the different types of abuse, and Annex B contains links to over 70 other related government publications.

Three issues

The three main issues for debate are how will training be made mandatory? The risks of banket training and training for what? And the risks in training all councillors.

How will training be made mandatory?

The DfE is represented at the IICSA inquiry but has so far chosen not to comment on the Lambeth report’s recommendation of mandatory training for councillors. Currently, DfE legislation on elected members only covers the need for each relevant council to appoint one of their members to be the Lead Member for Children’s Services. MHCLG legislation controls eligibility to stand for election and, as mentioned below, it is in need of updating.

Should a willingness to undertake training on the corporate parenting role be a requirement to stand? Should the requirement be part of the acceptance of office? What if an elected councillor refuses to undertake training or does undertake training in a thoughtless manner?

Although all councillors (of relevant councils) are corporately responsible for children in care, not all will be involved in decision-making, and have access to relevant supporting information. Should a mandatory training requirement be limited to those councillors who undertake specific roles in relation to children such as being a cabinet member, or a member of a corporate parenting panel?

What sort of training?

The legislative and procedural background to the local authority’s children’s social care services role is both vast and complex, and not something which can be crammed into a half-day session soon after election giving all the other competing demands on newly elected councillors. Some councillors will have the advantage of having worked in the area professionally or been foster or adoptive parents. Some councillors will be ‘care-experienced’ and have an immensely valuable contribution to make. A one-size-fits-all approach may not be helpful. Distance learning may have a place.

In preparation for senior council roles, councillors will gain an understanding of the issues, and the statutory framework, from sitting on the responsible overview and scrutiny committee, for example. The jump through from backbencher to becoming the Lead Member for Children’s Services is significant. Should training be directed at those who want to undertake this role?

How much of the training should be about the law and procedures? Should the training be nationally prescribed with a local element of elected members meeting officers, visiting children’s homes, and meeting representatives of the local children-in-care council? Should training extend to understanding the local outcomes for children in care? How the Council monitors their educational development? How foster parents are found and supported?

Helping elected members to understand the human side of children in care must be an important part of the training. The vulnerability of children whose family life has been chaotic, abusive and without hope may be far from the comfortable middle-class university-educated elected member. The need for loving adults and stability in the lives of children in the council’s care must be understood, and be a recurring objective, by councillors their corporate parenting role. While the wish to volunteer and to make our society a better place will drive many councillors, understanding the needs of vulnerable children is another step. What sort of training would help?

Checking councillors

The lengths adults will go to gain access to children (and vulnerable adults) for depraved purposes is well documented. Although there are no recent documented cases, getting elected to a relevant local authority is a possibility. The case of the Rochdale MP Cyril Smith who had been a long-term Rochdale councillor is a historic example. The IICSA Rochdale report is here. Mandatory corporate parenting training may include information about local council procedures and the vulnerability of children which could be put to use for criminal purposes.

As mentioned above, there are prohibitions of persons standing for election who have criminal records. MHCLG consulted in 2018 but has not yet brought forward necessary legislative changes, to extend this to include being on the sex offenders register, or being subject to a Sexual Risk Oder, as a disqualification in England from standing for election.

In the absence of this proposed requirement, and for other reasons, councils are almost certainly going to expect councillors to undertake an ‘enhanced’ DBS check before serving on any panel or committee dealing with children (and vulnerable adults). This is likely to include all cabinet members. This may flag up whether the person is on the sex offenders register, for example.

The issue of the level of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and the ‘barring’ service is complex, that is whether a person is barred from working with children and vulnerable adults. Currently, councils should not be using the barring service to find out whether councillors are barred. Trainers running corporate parenting training sessions knowing that the audience does not contain persons who have been barred from working with children has obvious advantages.

 

Comment on this blog, including whether the LGIU should provide corporate parenting training, can be sent to john.fowler@lgiu.org. For further information, please visit www.lgiu.org or email john.fowler@lgiu.org

Competing interest: the author was a member of a council bordering on Lambeth, and of its Social Services Committee, from 1982-86, and therefore knows many of those named in the IICSA report, and the constraints under which councils and councillors were working under 40 years ago. The recommendation for mandatory training may have come from the testimony of elected members from the 1980s that they knew little about the corporate parenting role. He may return to issues raised by the Lambeth report.

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