I am delighted to have the opportunity to be here today. As you know, I’m a firm advocate of care professionals spending as much time as possible with children and families - but learning and development is also important, so I’d like to thank Community Care for organising this event once again.
I’d just like to say at the outset I am proud to be Minister for Children’s Social Care, and I want to make it clear that I am your minister. Over several years in opposition and now in Government too, much of my time is spent on the front line talking to your colleagues at the sharp end and to the children and families they work with - I make a point of that. Officials in Whitehall advise me, but your contribution is crucial. With it, I am able to challenge accepted wisdom and make sure that your concerns are heard and taken up. This is really important.
For instance, when I visited one city last year I accompanied social workers who mentioned that they were not provided with mobile phones when visiting very challenging families. The senior officials and councillors accompanying me were also unaware of this.
Everyone in this country who cares about child protection owes social workers and other care professionals a great debt of gratitude. Every day you work with the most vulnerable, often in highly challenging circumstances. Your commitment makes a huge difference to our society. It is vital you are treated and respected on an equivalent basis to nurses, police, doctors, teachers and other crucial professionals.
It is precisely because we value the work you do so highly that we are already reforming and improving the child protection system, and we have moved urgently in the first 100 days on child protection. Our aim is to remove any obstacles standing in the way of you making well-informed judgements in the best interests of children, and free you from the unnecessary bureaucracy that has grown exponentially in recent years.
Much of the groundwork for our approach was done whilst in Opposition. In the years I spent shadowing this role I set up and chaired the Commission on Children’s Social Work, which produced the report in 2007, No More Blame Game. I responded on the commission’s behalf to Lord Laming’s 2009 report and spoke at the Victoria Climbie Foundation, where we launched our policy paper, Back to the Front Line, specifically on children’s social work in February 2010.
This is something we haven’t just plucked out of the air but stems from a long-term commitment to the importance of an effective, motivated and well-trained social care workforce at the heart of protecting our most vulnerable children and families.
So when the Government took office, we were able to hit the ground running.
As part of that commitment, I spent a week in Stockport with social workers on the front line, visiting families, attending the out-of-hours service, adoption panels and local children’s safeguarding boards. It was a real privilege to work with the team and see first hand the pressures they are facing.
I want to talk through the changes we’ve already made in the last six months and our future plans. And more importantly, I want to listen to your views and answer your questions.
Despite the best endeavours of social workers and the best intentions of government, in recent years public confidence in the child protection system has been severely undermined - not least since the Peter Connolly case. And the people at the front line have been increasingly weighed down by rising numbers of referrals and ever-increasing rules and regulations.
There has been too much major structural upheaval and it is clear that the bureaucracy around child protection - which in some cases has become an industry in itself - must be reduced.
So in June, Professor Eileen Munro was asked by the Secretary of State to conduct an independent, comprehensive review of child protection to identify the real obstacles to effective practice at the front line, and to find ways of liberating professionals to spend more time with vulnerable children and families. That is what social workers went into the profession to do.
It is essential that the work is complementary to that of Moira Gibb’s - chair of the Social Work Reform Board. I am clear that the valuable work already underway in reforming the training and professional support for social workers needs to carry on the excellent work already done by Moira and the Social Work Reform Board.
Unlike previous investigations into your work, the Munro review has not been commissioned as a knee-jerk reaction to a public crisis. Eileen has a broad remit and is free to examine the issues and recommend as she sees fit. But I know that she relies on you at the front line to provide her with material and the learning from your own experience. So this review is really driven by your contributions.
This represents two differences, a halving of the rule book, and it is not a knee-jerk reaction.
Professor Munro published her scoping report last month. In it, she describes a system which I am sure you recognise:
- Professionals complying with rules and regulations and spending less time assessing children’s needs.
- A target-driven culture with social workers unable too often to exercise their professional judgement and professionals feeling demoralised over time.
- Too much emphasis on identifying families and not enough attention to putting children’s needs first. A culture which has built up on risk aversion and box ticking. In short, doing the right thing rather doing what is right.
- Serious case reviews concentrating only on errors when things have gone wrong, rather than looking at where things have worked well and sharing good practice and continually reflecting on what could be done better.
I know from meetings with you that court proceedings are an area of concern and that delays in the family court system have an impact on the welfare of children. Eileen’s review is happening in tandem with the reviews of the Family Justice Review under David Norgrove, which will report next autumn but with an interim report in April to coincide with Professor Munro’s final report, particularly concentrating on log-jams in the family courts.
As I mentioned, Eileen’s initial report also describes concerns with serious case reviews. It is imperative that these are efficient exercises which are tightly focused on learning lessons.
In Opposition we pledged to publish the full reports of serious case reviews and we quickly took the decision when we took office to carry out that commitment in line with a drive for greater openness and transparency.
I know this is controversial and some of you won’t agree, but I would say that the biggest beneficiaries of full publication of serious case reviews are indeed social workers themselves. It will help the public to understand the work you do every day, rather than have social workers panned on the front page of tabloids when the full story reveals something else and a wider apportionment of responsibility.
And we have asked Eileen Munro to develop some more effective - and less bureaucratic - models for learning from serious incidents, and indeed from good practice. This must not be about apportioning blame - it must be about better, more sustained, and more widely shared learning:
- transparency to restore public confidence and confidence in the profession
- serious learning exercises
- identify responsibilities - not a blame game
In short, I want social workers to have the confidence to make the wrong decisions occasionally but more likely make the right decision based on well-informed value judgements taken at the sharp end where it really matters.
Another swift action we took was to scrap ContactPoint. We have opposed this since it was first proposed in the Children Act of 2004. I believe it was an unwieldy and expensive system that didn’t meet the needs of supporting vulnerable children and families.
I am working with officials on developing an alternative signposting approach which is better focused on genuinely vulnerable children, especially those moving between local authority boundaries.
I would rather the £224 million spent setting up ContactPoint had instead been spent on 7500 more social workers at the front line. It is professionals, not computers, that intervene to save children. And whilst better information sharing is vital, it is the means to an end - not the end in itself in order to tick a box.
In fostering and residential care, we are revising regulations, statutory guidance and national minimum standards, to strip out unnecessary proscription and give professionals the flexibility to operate within a child-focused and fit-for-purpose framework.
I want to make all guidance sharper, shorter and more accessible; for example, I removed 7000 words from the leaving care guidance - people don’t want to wade through lengthy tomes of government prescription, and they shouldn’t have to.
People working with children deserve our thanks and recognition for changing lives and helping children achieve their potential. This is one reason why I will be publishing a charter for foster care. This will show what support foster carers can expect from their fostering service and local authority, and what is expected of them - a common-sense approach that has, as its default position, that they should treat foster children as any good parent would treat their own birth children.
The charter will make clear that local authorities should involve foster carers in care planning and support carers to make everyday decisions about their foster child. We know from children how important this is to them.
The Government wants to see all local authorities performing to the level of the best: more looked-after children adopted where this is in their best interests, less delay, and all based on the premise that the most important factor identifying a suitable adoption placement for a suitable child - whether they can offer a stable, safe, loving family environment, whether on not they are the perfect ethnic match, smoke, or are overweight.
We also want to see more collaborative working between local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies so that adoption services are enhanced and adoptive families found for the most difficult to place children. That is why I have set up an advisory group on adoption to provide expert advice on how to remove barriers to adoption and reduce delay in placements. And we need to work closely with courts too, and have discussions with Sir Nicholas Wall of the Family Court Division to establish a better dialogue between family judges and adoption panels.
I am aware that the social work profession has been in semi-crisis over the past few years. Demoralised social workers, high vacancy rates and high caseloads all add to the stress of an already stressful job. You are dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. I’m keen to address these issues by helping social workers to have a stronger voice, improving recruitment and exploring new ways of organising social work services. At the heart of all this, though, is the objective to free up the time of social workers and other professionals at the front line.
I am pleased to see progress being made in establishing an independent college of social work. A strong professional body for social workers will help to ensure that changes in social work practice will continue to be rooted in the experience of the front line and give professional gravitas as well.
In order to give children the best service, we need social work teams to be fully staffed, highly trained and well-supported. I am grateful to the Social Work Reform Board for its work to date in addressing this. It is crucial we ensure that quality graduates enter the system, that they receive effective support from their employers and that they remain in the profession.
My department is funding a range of support programmes for social workers, such as the Newly Qualified Social Worker scheme, and we have recently released a further £23 million social work improvement fund to local authorities, to help them address local social work priorities. I recently visited Chester University to explore the Step Up to Social Work programme. Again, this shows the commitment this Government has in persuading high-calibre graduates to choose social work as a long-term career choice. We need new people to come into the profession - committed and motivated.
Some of you will be involved in the social work practice pilots. These present a unique opportunity to explore new ways of delivering services and they are already showing positive benefits for children and social workers.
It is therefore right that we extend the Social Work Practices model so that every LA in the country will have an opportunity to participate. I am pleased that my colleague, the Health Secretary, sees the same exciting potential in this approach and is trialling it in adult social services as well.
Obviously questions of funding hang over any speech made by a minister these days. The Spending Review took the tough decisions to reduce the deficit run up by the previous Government. I know that you and your colleagues working on the front line in public services are concerned about what this will mean.
We have given local authorities greater freedoms in the way they organise children’s services, but be under no misapprehension that child protection remains an absolute priority. There will also be no more major structural upheaval diverting valuable time and resources away from the front line.
We have made clear the importance of early intervention and there will be funds available to support this through the early intervention grant. We have told local authorities that failing to intervene early is a false economy. The cost of failure is huge, both in financial and in social terms.
You will have heard yesterday that as part of the Government’s arm’s length body review and ongoing commitment to channel as much resource as possible directly to the front line, my colleague, Children’s Minister Sarah Teather, announced that the Department is withdrawing NDPB status from the Children’s Workforce Development Council and bringing its ongoing functions into the Department for Education. We want to build on the expertise and progress of CWDC, working very closely and constructively with them.
As I have mentioned, the work of the Munro review and the Social Work Reform Board will provide a strong framework to train and support social workers. We will work closely with CWDC to make sure that the momentum they have built in recent years on children’s social care isn’t lost.
Over ten years ago Victoria Climbie met a horrific fate. The report that followed triggered a deluge of legislation, regulation and direction by central government telling you how to do your jobs.
Much of that was helpful, but I don’t believe - despite the very best intentions of the previous Government - vulnerable children today are appreciably safer than they were ten years ago.
We’ve got to get it right. Over the next few years, we need to see a new child protection system emerge. What this will look like is largely up to you. But there are some things I am hoping to see:
- social workers and other professionals freed from bureaucracy and able to spend most of their time with vulnerable children and families on the front line. More time spent proactively working to keep families together rather than too often reacting when it’s too late
- more high-quality graduates choosing social work as a first career of choice
- a social work profession that has the confidence to take risks in its work. And the confidence to make the wrong decisions, occasionally, but based on sound, well-informed value judgements taken at the sharp end - not chained to a computer screen.
As I said at the beginning, I am your minister and we have an exciting and challenging few years ahead. We have the chance to re-cast child protection and ensure that we can take better care of the children who need help the most, for years to come - learning from the best, not trying to reinvent the wheel, trusting the professionals and not adding volumes of proscriptive regulations and guidance.
Finally, I’d like to say a word of thanks to you all:
- for your dedication to your job in recent years in difficult circumstances
- for the way you work with the most vulnerable children and families every day.