Actions speak louder than words

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
"The harsh reality is that many looked-after children and young people are simply not achieving their potential or getting the quality of care, protection and support that they need," Sam Galbraith, then Education Minister, told the Scottish Parliament in 2000.

Fifteen months later, his successor, Jack McConnell, returned to the topic.

"I want to raise the profile of looked-after children even higher," he told MSPs. "They are Scotland's most vulnerable young people... they need, and they deserve, the best quality services that we can provide."

Fast forward another nine months, to January 2002. Yet another Education Minister, Cathy Jamieson, opined: "The statistics are chilling. They mean that vulnerable young people will not be qualified to access the employment and training opportunities that they seek. We can and must improve matters."

Four years pass. Peter Peacock is now in charge, and his tuppence worth in 2006 was to assert: "Services intended to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked-after children have not always been as good as they should be, and our expectations... are often far too low. The challenge for us now is making sure we can help all looked-after children make the most of their strengths and talents."

And now we have Hugh Henry. Beating his breast this January, he told journalists: "Too many of our most vulnerable young people are not fulfilling their potential... this is a problem that needs care and attention from everyone involved."

Ministers, we have your message. But there is a yawning chasm between words and actions. So after a study, a task force, a ministerial group and a working party - and, apparently, lots of cash - the inspectorate is now being sent into local authorities so that Mr Henry can hold personally responsible every council chief executive.

Yet, if they have failed, so have Mr Henry's predecessors. If it is time to call failure to account, Mr Henry, then start with Galbraith, McConnell, Jamieson and Peacock, as well as their senior civil servants.

The blighted prospects of children looked after by our local councils are not in doubt, but each individual tragedy has been made much worse by the inability of governance in Scotland to help. Fine words have been poured out aplenty. Effective solutions have not followed. What is needed is a new plan and a new commitment.

The new plan should ensure that every looked-after child has his or her individual education and care package negotiated, registered and monitored.

This will take more than the new pound;12.8 million allocated, but it would make personal the general concern that ministers keep mouthing.

The new commitment would underpin such a plan. Ministers would undertake not to talk about this issue every time they wanted to show their credentials as human beings, but instead give a time-scaled pledge to achieve agreed indicators.

To spread the load, they could engage their opposite numbers in the other parties in a special urgency group to oversee what is happening, particularly as all the ministers have asserted that this is an issue that should unite the political divide.

Groundhog politics are a very Scottish phenomenon. Scottish politicians regularly make statements about what needs to be done, and then lambast that it hasn't been - as if achieving progress was nothing to do with them.

Yet, it is what they are there for. Until now, as far as Scotland's most disadvantaged children are concerned, their record has been a disgrace.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator

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