The way that a society treats its old, its sick, its children and
vulnerable people is a barometer of the health of that society as a whole. It
is therefore no wonder that the death of Baby P. had such an effect on the
public consciousness. Why is it then that in 21st Century in Britain
a so called advanced country, that circumstances like this can develop?
If this was a one off event, a ‘once in a decade’ occurrence, then that
would be one thing, but that wasn’t the case, this was just the most recent
well publicised case of a child being killed by the neglect and abuse of the
people who were supposed to be looking after and loving him.
It is certainly not the case that neglect and abuse are restricted to the
most down trodden families in dilapidated housing estates. What is true is that
the symptoms of capitalism in decay – unemployment, poor conditions, substance
misuse, family breakdown, mental and physical health problems, social isolation,
poor parenting skills and extreme poverty only tend to aggravate the situation.
Put it this way, they don’t make the situation any better.
The Tory press predictably attempted to blame the social workers involved
with the case, as well as of course Haringey Council. What response should the
Labour movement make and how can we fight to ensure that this sort of horror
story is never repeated?
Social work, particularly child protection is a hugely stressed job, which
is surrounded by a myriad of statute law, such as the Children’s Act,
regulations and case law. The powers of social services departments have been
built up over decades. They are built around identifying issues and
circumstances that the state deems as thresholds at which point action has to
be taken to protect children or other vulnerable people.
One problem with this approach is that it is quite easy for a family or a
young person to fail to meet the criteria that allows a box to be ticked, which
officially signifies that a particular threshold has been reached. In fact it
is sometimes the case that families, just, miss lots of criteria; in other
words, no one acknowledges the general problem, because the specific issues
don’t meet any one organisation’s criteria. Also, with increasingly transient
communities and stretched social work resources many people are “under the
But people’s lives don’t work on the basis of ticky boxes. The truth is
that dangerous behaviour patterns, risks and problems come about because of an
accumulation of problems, not just because a family is overcrowded for example.
It means that as far as the state is concerned there is a tendency for serious
issues to develop unpredictably, creating a “crisis”. Essentially, crisis
management is a huge part of social work practice.
Following the Victoria Climbie murder some years ago, the government
acknowledged that there were substantial gaps between the work of different
groups of workers in social services, early years, health visitors, schools,
health services and support services such as the Careers Service and the youth
service who dealt with teenagers. Councils were obliged to draw up Children and
Young people’s plans based around a series of measures known as “every child
matters” which attempted to develop “joined up thinking” in the way that
services operated. The intention behind this was to put in place preventative
approaches that could help spot problems earlier and which could follow a child
through from birth to the age of 19. This process is supported by the Common
Assessment Framework and a new series of “Children’s Trust” structures which
unite services to young people under one banner. Unfortunately, as is so often
the experience in the Public sector the changes have been complex, contradictory
There is a huge recruitment problem in social work with vast numbers of
vacancies and huge unworkable caseloads as a result. Social workers have to run
to stand still and that is reflected in stress, sickness and watering down of
the service that can be delivered. Combine that with a business model of
delivery and over emphasis on targets and ticky boxes and its no surprise that
the system breaks down.
As a recent UNISON Press release explains:
A Freedom of Information request to all local
authorities in the UK has
shown vacancy rates topping danger levels of 39% with a UK average of 12%. Councils have
consistently claimed that social work vacancies are falling, but the statistics
show that the true picture is much bleaker.
UNISON is demanding urgent action to attract new staff into social work and to
stem the stream of workers leaving the profession by making working conditions
more bearable. This means that councils must ensure that they not only fill
vacancies but reassess the number of staff needed to cover the high volume of
work. Without such measures the union is warning that there is a very real
possibility of another tragedy like Baby P”.
UNISON has a well worked 10 point plan for protecting vulnerable children. This
was drawn up after consultation to members in the frontline of child protection
and contains some extremely practical and necessary proposals. But the problem
is that it exists solely as a policy document in the government’s in-tray.
UNISON Conference heard delegates calling for a lead from the union in terms of
organising at a local level to implement the plan. UNISON’s plan would cost
money and it threatens management hierarchies and the whole target driven
emphasis of the government. So, solving the problem is made more difficult by
cuts, low wages and vacant posts in the public sector.
The Labour Movement and particularly UNISON must fight for implementation and
for full funding of the sort of programme that UNISON members drew up in the
ten point plan. It would be utopian to believe that there is a quick fix or
change of policy that would mean that every single life could be saved or that
every incident of cruelty could be prevented. To move towards a situation like
that, we would need a fundamental revolution in the way that society is
organised. We would need to plan for decent housing and employment, for a
massive increase in health care and for comprehensive support for any child or
family that needed it and that’s why we fight for Socialism.
UNISON’s Ten Point Plan
1.Co-working on all child protection visits: child protection visits to be done by two practitioners
providing improved safety, a second pair of eyes and second opinion.
2 More social workers and support staff: an urgent action plan to fill vacancies and to review staffing
levels across all socialwork teams.
3 National caseload management standards: enforced through the inspection process and regularly
audited by the council leadership, with sanctions against employers who breach the Code of Practice
for Social Care Employers.
4 More resources: a
planned programme of government
investment in children and families’ social work.
5 Cull of bureaucracy: a
root and branch zero-based review of all bureaucracy and consideration of
measures used to cut red tape in schools. Overhaul of performance indicators
which skew priorities.
6 Re-establish homecare services for children and families:
homecare workers to act as ‘the eyes
and ears’ of social services, provide practical assistance with care, and observe
children and families closely.
7. To create a system that is fit for
purpose, commands the confidence of social workers, and facilitates joint
working with health, education and the police. Immediate remedial measures by councils,
where the system is impeding effective, efficient work.
8. Better support and more reflective practice: social workers should have at least two years
post-qualifying experience before being allocated child protection cases. There
should be consistent, high quality supervision that is both supportive and challenging,
focuses on the needs of the worker, not the organisation’s performance
indicators and builds in time for reflection and mentoring.
9 Review of legal processes: a review of the decision to hike court fee levels for local authorities; and of CAFCASS’s funding
and capacity to ensure that resource constraints are not influencing legal
proceedings and outcomes. Consideration of what can be learnt from the Scottish
Children’s Hearings System.
10 Measures to rebuild morale, confidence and status of
social workers: redress the devastating
impact on morale through a sustained campaign to promote positive public
awareness about what social work achieves.