The Department of Health is about to issue a circular telling health authorities and trusts how to work with local authorities to improve services for children in need or in care.

The move follows growing concern about the inconsistent way councils apply safeguards for children, and builds on the work of the Utting report which reviewed safeguards for children living away from home.

Social services departments have already been told to submit action plans by the end of January to implement the Quality Protects initiative, which sets objectives and targets for better children's services to be achieved by 2001.

Some objectives have already been qualified by the national priorities guidance issued jointly to health and social services last month.

A key objective is to ensure that children looked after by local authorities 'gain maximum life chance benefits from educational opportunities, healthcare and social care'.

Indicators for achieving the objectives include ensuring that children have the number of medical examinations laid down by law and have their growth and development assessed through health surveillance.

Other Quality Protects indicators cover dental checks, access to information and advice about health and healthy lifestyles, and the number of pregnancies in girls under 16.

The initiative was welcomed by Parkside Health trust chief executive Richard Higgins, whose trust provides services for some of the most deprived children in west London.

He told HSJ: 'This is exactly what we have been doing for some while. The health service has wanted to do this for some considerable time and anything that makes it clearer to everyone is to be welcomed.'

Health secretary Frank Dobson has also written to local councillors to inform them about Quality Protects, named after a theme in the Utting report.

Mr Dobson tells councillors that they took on 'important responsibilities for health and well being of all children' in their areas when they were elected.

He urges them to 'do your utmost to make sure that children in the public care get a good start in life'.

Making progress on helping some of society's 'most vulnerable young people' will depend, Mr Dobson says, on 'effective joint working between social services, health authorities, NHS trusts, primary care and other agencies.'