Published: 05/02/2004, Volume II4, No. 5891 Page 6 7

The government is to bring GPs 'under duties to protect and safeguard children', children's minister Margaret Hodge has revealed.

The minister told a joint conference by HSJ and sister magazine Local Government Chronicle on improving children's services that imposing these duties would be an 'interesting challenge' because GPs tend to be 'reluctant' to share information on patients, and can 'hide behind legislation'.

The Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills are 'discussing ways' to impose duties on GPs. They want to ensure GPs play their part in systems to support children's trust models of integrated care by increasing information-sharing across agencies. The government is set to establish local safeguarding boards to replace existing area child protection agencies, which it says will have the 'teeth' to match their responsibilities. But Ms Hodge said last week that the government is aware there are currently no duties placed on GPs to take part in such schemes.

'GPs will be brought in under duties to safeguard and protect children - that is something which we are discussing how to do, ' she said in response to a question about the new general medical services contract.

'GPs are one of the most important groups in that they have [more] contact with children under the age of two than any other profession... If we want to ensure we are seeing early signs and focusing on preventative work, then this is obviously very important.

'However GPs are probably the most reluctant partners out of all the professions, in terms of sharing information. They tend to hide behind legislation and refuse to co-operate, so its going to be an interesting challenge, ' she added.

Though children's trusts will not be mandatory, Ms Hodge repeated the assertion in the government green paper Every Child Matters that it is expected all local authorities will have established a form of children's trust by 2006.

Such trusts should take into account the duties of 'mainstream' agencies with regard to child protection and 'co-operation across professional boundaries'.

The twin duties, likely to be enshrined in the forthcoming Children's Bill, have been highlighted by many of the 35 Pathfinder sites testing different models for integrated children's trusts. Ms Hodge made it clear that new legislation via the bill is possible if a strong case is made.

Penny Thompson, Sheffield social services executive director and Association of Directors of Social Services' children and families committee co-chair, called for 'more clarity' on what responsiblities GPs hold to share information.

She added: 'We are also seeking support on using NHS numbers as unique identifiers - the Department of Health supports that, but what we need for safeguarding is more simplified guidance for data sharing.'

A report from the joint DFES and DoH children's trust team on moving towards a common assessment framework is expected in March, with a view to it being introduced by Pathfinders by September.