The Government's key piece of legislation to enhance children's rights could worsen the plight of some children, Scotland's councils have warned. They claim the 1995 Children Act, which requires a considerable increase in joint working across a number of disciplines including education, is so badly resourced that preventative work with children is being sidelined.
Councils will spend more than #163;16 million this year on implementing the Act, only #163;5 million of which comes from the Scottish Office. They estimate their expenditure in 1998-99 will be #163;11 million, with #163;3.2 million going specifically on education.
A survey by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, reported to the convention's social affairs forum today (Friday), states: "Not only was Government additional funding falling far short of actual and estimated expenditure but a number of other services and areas of provision were being displaced to allow councils to meet their statutory duties under the Children Act legislation. The exercise has also shown up that in many areas councils are implementing only the minimum legal requirements and are being constrained by the new Act from developing services and facilities to meet the particular needs of their local areas. "
David Ferguson, Cosla's head of policy development, said: "What is most concerning is that preventative work with young people, which would avoid children getting into need in the first place, appears to be losing out."
The difficulties are being considered by a joint Scottish Office-Cosla working group, which includes representatives from education. It hopes to feed its case for additional funding into the annual negotiations on the local government finance settlement.
Cosla's survey says there will be a particular burden on secondary guidance staff and school management in general. Teachers will have to attend more case conferences, liaison meetings and children's hearings and undertake joint review work. Other demands on education include psychologist and staff development time.
Norie Williamson, Cosla's head of finance, reports: "The development of additional tasks to cope with the Children Act is meaning a loss, or lessening, of services to users in other areas."
Mr Ferguson comments: "The Children Act is one that everyone supports and authorities have done very well to do as much as they have. The question is what is being hit to allow that to happen."
Councils now fear that they will have to restrict the definition of "children in need" under the Act unless they are more generously resourced.The legislation leaves it to each council to decide on what constitutes need.
The Cosla survey shows that meeting the educational needs of children, including those affected by disability, accounts for #163;1.3 million and will rise to #163;1.8 million next year. Staff training by education authorities represents another #163;348,000, participation in reviews of "looked-after" children another #163;264,000 and the preparation of children's service plans #163;248,000.