Emma warns of government’s ‘dangerous’ social work reforms at National Conference

November 8, 2016

Speaking at the National Children and Adult Services Conference on Thursday, Emma spoke about the Government’s appalling record on social work reform.  Despite investment and years of reviews and huge reforms, the result showed the government was failing to improve services delivered by local authorities for children. 80 percent of local authorities are not yet providing services good enough to protect children according to Ofsted inspections since 2013.

Emma pointed to the crisis in social work which has been exacerbated by a 124% increase in serious cases where local authorities believe a child may be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm in the last 10 years.

Yet rather than deal with the issues affecting social workers such as addressing the excessive caseloads, the over-reliance on more expensive agency staff, the inadequate IT systems, the low morale in the sector, the withdrawal of vital services, the government is looking at systematic and technocratic reforms rather than practical reforms.

In her speech Emma described the Children and Social Work Bill as “one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation she has seen as an MP.”

Emma told delegates from the social work sector and local authority representatives that she was afraid of the impact government plans to allow councils to exempt themselves from long-fought child protection laws would have on vulnerable children. Under the guise of innovation, individual councils could exempt themselves from primary legislation creating a dangerous terrain and a postcode lottery of child protection throughout the country.

Emma made the point that statutory duties did not need to be disposed of in order to innovate and that there were plenty of examples of local authority’s making successful innovations without the need to be exempted from vital hard fought for child protection laws created by parliament.

Later in the day, Education Secretary, Justine Greening announced that the Government would expand teaching partnerships and several innovation projects including The Pause project and announced that Firstline, the leadership development programme run by children’s social work training scheme Frontline, will also receive £3.7 million in government funding to support 400 social work managers across the country.

Greening sought to ease concerns surrounding the controversial measures in the Children and Social Work Bill by stating they were not about privatisation or removing protections from children but instead about empowering practitioners to innovate.

Following the conference, Emma said,

“The sector needs less window dressing and more action; piecemeal projects, privatisation and outsourcing are not going to address the crisis in social work or the big reforms that are needed. It continues to baffle all in the sector that the Government are unable to explain what primary legislation it is that local authorities are saying they need to be exempt from in order for the opting out elements in the Children and Social Work Bill to be necessary. If Justine Greening and Edward Timpson, Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families, who also addressed the Conference, really believed their rhetoric about these opt outs purely being about innovation then they would have taken questions from the floor. The fact they didn’t speaks volumes about a reckless government hell-bent on pushing forward an agenda that can only serve to place our most vulnerable children at risk.”

 You can read Emma’s speech below:

Thank you for inviting me here today to talk with you about children’s social work reform and education. I am going to focus the bulk of my comments on social work reform as this is where the current legislative changes are happening. 

Some of you may know that prior to entering Parliament I was a child protection social worker. I was also lead member on my local council for adult social care, so I am sure there will be some familiar faces in the audience today.  

When I was still in practice, I was deeply concerned about the direction the Government were taking; seeing it now up close this concern has turned to sheer alarm. 

I want to make it clear today that it is this Government, not social workers and not local authorities that are failing our most vulnerable children. A damning report published just last month by the National Audit Office found that the actions taken by the Department for Education since 2010 to improve the quality of help and protection services delivered by local authorities for children was ‘unsatisfactory and inconsistent’ suggesting systematic rather thanjust local failure.

Ofsted has also found that almost 80% of authorities it has inspected since 2013 are not yet providing services good enough to protect children. Yet the number of children accessing services is increasing at an alarming rate. Latest figures show that we are heading towards 400,000 children in England in need of help or protection.  And they are just the ones known to us. Over the past ten years there has been a 124% increase in serious cases where local authorities believe a child may be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. 

Furthermore, the varied spending on social work has been found to be not related to quality. Many of the NAO’s findings certainly echo a recent Education Select Committee report that highlighted significant weaknesses in the Government’s agenda, and stated that their reforms focus on

“changing structures potentially to the detriment of the people delivering this key public service.”

I appreciate that getting things right for children and families is not an easy task; it is difficult and complex terrain. Successive Governments have battled with how to provide the best and safest social care system for children, but now there is an abundance of official and other expert advice to draw on, so we should be seeing some action and results—but we are not. 

The Government would say to you all today they have implemented the Munro report, introduced the Step Up to Social Work programme, Frontline, the innovation programme, What Works Centres, Partners in Practice, the intervention regime and Putting Children First, the Government’s vision for excellent social care by 2020.  But what they can’t say to you is why their actions have failed to yield results.  

Because they are missing the obvious. What is needed in the social work profession is continuity, stability and confidence, and a Government who can hold their nerve on how best to help children and families by putting in place and embedding good policies. The Government are failing to get the basics right: reducing social worker caseloads; preventing experienced professionals from quitting the profession; training social workers in a holistic way; not fast-tracking them, and forcing them to specialise before they have even been trained in the basics; and amending IT and the bureaucratic process across the board to achieve the goal of getting social workers where they want to be—out from behind their desks and seeing the families with whom they work. 

One of the overriding problems is that the Government seem unable to tackle the crisis in social work because they simply don’t know how to deal with the significant increase in the sheer number of people accessing the service. To do so, they would need to admit what we all know: that the Government’s closure of Sure Start, the removal of early years help and family support, punitive welfare policies, austerity measures and swingeing cuts are impacting everywhere, and nowhere more starkly than in the children and family social work arena, which by its very nature is interlinked with wider societal and economic issues. 

Social workers, local authorities and the families they work with don’t operate in neat silos and therefore government responses to children and families’social work shouldn’t either… but they do. 

Instead the Government have decided to introduce the Children and Social Work Bill, one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation I have seen during my time in Parliament. 

This Bill allows local authorities to exempt themselves from children’s social care legislation.   They say this is to allow local authorities to innovate, yet many local authorities are already innovative and have not needed primary legislation to be so.  

I remember all too well that there are many frustrations in practice but many of the things social workers find prohibitive, such as case recording are in secondary legislation, guidance, or custom and practice in their particular local authority – all of which can be changed without primary legislation.   

So far, despite repeated requests, the Government have been unable to say where in the sector this demand has come from, exactly what legislation is in the mix and which local authorities it is that are banging down their door to remove legislation that protects our children.    

What is actually transpiring is a groundswell of opposition to these proposals. Children’s organisations, social workers and other professionals are absolutely aghast and are committed to the scrapping of these plans.  

I am sure we can all agree that innovation can be a good thing but the fear here is that the Government have a different agenda, one that is rooted in rolling back the state’s responsibility. As local authority budgets continue to be decimated, outsourcing may seem to some an option. Is it a case that because there is no money to be made in good robust child protection that follows legislation, why not remove this legislation and then the private sector might show interest? Is the end-game to open up the protection of the most vulnerable children to the market, where their protection will ultimately cease to be the overriding concern?

This is poor legislation at its best, a Bill making dangerous and fundamental reforms to Children’s Social Work without consultation, without any evidence base, without any robust assessment, and worst of all it’s a Bill about Children and Social Workers with no input from Children or Social Workers. 

We are hopeful of a defeat on this section of the Bill in the Lords though at least one Bill we don’t need to hope for a defeat on is the Education for All Bill, which was consigned to the dustbin just last week. 

This Bill was not about Education for All, far from it, it completely omitted children with special educational needs and disabilities, those very children that already fall through the net.  The Bill was yet another ideologically driven piece of legislation focussing on structures not children and that is why many people rejoiced when the Bill was scrapped seeing it primarily as a victory over the demise of the proposals that would’ve been tacked onto the Bill to bring back selective education which we all know in an already unequal society will only serve to entrench division. 

But we also know that the Prime Minister is wedded to the grammar school idea, so it is highly likely that the schools that work for everyone consultation due to be published early next year will bring the proposals for extending grammar schools right back. So this is not necessarily a U- turn as we saw with forced academisation plans but a mere pause. 

The scrapping of the bill has also left question marks over a fairer funding formula which is urgently needed to address the stark differentials in how our schools are financed. And again, whilst it is welcome that local authorities are to remain having a role in our schools and improvement has not been handed to the commissioners, local authorities have been left in limbo as government had already budgeted for this change leaving a black hole of 600 million pounds in local authority school services. So school improvement, oversight of local authority controlled schools and other responsibilities such as maternity cover are now unfunded.  Just this morning I was reading a worrying article that said schools are having to resort more than ever before to fundraising and renting space to stay afloat. This cannot be right; surely our children and the teaching profession deserve better security than this. And this against a backdrop of millions being squandered on free schools and conversions to academies, models that have been proven to not yield better results. 

We want the government to stop tinkering with School structures and listen to what teachers have been crying out for: investment, reduction of workload, curriculum stability, the end to debilitating bureaucracy, smaller class sizes and policies to deal with the crisis in recruitment and retention. Because rectifying problems in the system is what any Government should be consumed with and legislating for.  

I came in the past to this Conference as a social worker and a councillor so I know how much knowledge and talent is in this room. I am humbled and proud to be asked to speak with you and I want you to know that Labour will always fight to protect our children and give every single one of them the absolute best start in life regardless of their background, postcode, or circumstances.

You can read an article about Emma’s speech at conference in the social work trade magazine here


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