Tim Loughton MP: Has Child Protection become more about protecting the system than protecting vulnerable children?
This week we published an update to ‘No More Blame Game’ - the report by the Conservative Party Commission on Social Workers which I chaired and which we published in October 2007. It was a well received green paper on how to improve the standing and image of social workers as an essential component of effective child protection.
The latest report follows a series of high profile deaths of young children failed by children’s services departments and it makes important recommendations about the urgent changes we need to make. At the heart of our proposals is a plea for an end to interminable structural change and a bid to unshackle child protection social workers and other key professionals from paperwork and computer box ticking where assessment nightmares like the Integrated Children’s System mean that many social workers spend up to 80% of their time on the bureaucracy in the office and precious little quality face to face time with the vulnerable families and children they went into the profession to protect.
We want to see an overhaul of the inspection system which failed so badly in Haringey with inspectors actually going out with caseworkers, just as they would sit in a classroom and monitor teachers. We advocate better on the job ongoing training for front line staff and senior managers, proper inter-agency working and a high profile recruitment campaign that includes a new ‘super-breed of social workers ‘Care First’ based on the highly successful ‘Teach First model’. Specifically we have called for greater transparency when things go wrong by automatic publishing of Serious Case Reviews suitably anonymised so that we can all learn from mistakes made. Disgracefully, Michael Gove and three other privileged Parliamentarians were allowed only a furtive sight of the Baby P review behind closed doors, without pen and paper and sworn to secrecy.
The same day we published the results of a survey of local authorities which revealed vacancy rates on average of 14.6%, with 8 councils having vacancy rates over 30%. It is hardly surprising given the demoralised state of social workers after recent cases but in a profession where dealing with vulnerable families needs continuity and establishing empathetic relations is vital, this is a dangerous situation which only makes more Baby P’s inevitable.
Our work culminated in a debate on Child Protection on Tuesday again called in Opposition time as the Government have failed to hold a single debate on children’s issues since they created the post of Children’s Minister. ‘Hugging a social worker’ is not often seen as natural Tory territory but if we are serious about protecting the most vulnerable members of our society then we have a duty to do our bit to make sure that good social work practice is promoted, and social workers can be seen as part of the solution rather than constantly panned as part of the problem.
The Government response from an increasingly defensive Ed Balls was depressingly predictable. The Tories are playing politics with children; our figures were rubbish and we should be ashamed that we are not backing the latest mega data collection disaster waiting to happen in the form of Contactpoint, about to go live and which we have pledged to scrap
The problems with the current system were demonstrated in the response to the Baby P disaster by Sharon Shoesmith, the sacked Director of Children’s Services in Haringey. Her initial comments were to the effect that all her social workers had done their jobs properly; procedures in the manual were followed properly; she was not going to resign. Oh and by the way a seventeen month old boy had died in horrific circumstances at the hands of his mother and her friends. As long as all the boxes were ticked then that is the main thing.
Child protection has become a big enterprise in this country on the back of a lot of generally well intentioned legislation. Is there a danger though that the greater imperative has become to protect the system than to protect the vulnerable children it is supposed to be there to protect?
We will not let this one go. We have been working closely with Conservative colleagues now running children’s services departments in the majority of councils who can effect changes now, without having to wait the results of yet another Government review or indeed of the next general election. Child protection is too important to wait around whilst Ministers play politics.
To read the full Social Worker Commission report which has been submitted to Lord Laming’s review go to conservatives.com.