Inattention to detail

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on why Ministers should show more respect to those looking after children in care

For too many children in care, the state does not carry out its parenting responsibilities adequately. Life chances for these children are poorer than their peers and time spent in care is too often a prelude to a life of mental health problems, unemployment and the criminal justice system. The state’s role as corporate parent to children in care is vitally important, to ensure the highest standards of support, the best opportunities and access to the services that help reduce the inequalities they face.

In some respects, this Bill is welcome – focussing as it does on improving the outcomes and support for looked-after children. The introduction of detailed principles of corporate parenting provides much needed recognition of the need to reconsider the support offered. The extension of the personal adviser role to care leavers up to the age of 25 is also a step forward.

But mirroring the government’s track record with education – where problems of teacher shortages are denied – the Bill fails to tackle the fundamental issues facing children’s social work. These include too high caseload levels and staff turnover rates, and an over-reliance on agency workers and unqualified social work assistants. When framing the Bill, Ministers eyes were not fully on the ball.

Social workers play a vital role in society, yet many have become demoralised through a government narrative which blames them for failings in the system. Six in ten regions have seen a fall in the numbers working in children’s services, at the same time as a 50% increase in spending on agency social workers.

The Bill entitles all care leavers to a local care offer of the services provided to help them make the vital but extremely demanding transition to adult life. Labour wants this to go further in the form of a national offer, delivered locally. This will help avoid a repetition of the postcode lottery of the offer currently available to children with special educational needs and disabilities.

The most contentious clause concerns the ability of councils to opt out of some children’s services. We strongly believe that child protection and wider social care should not be run for profit, and are concerned the Bill could pave the way for widespread privatisation. We will press the government to demonstrate just what problem its proposal is designed to address.

While supporting the core aims of the Bill, the devil will be in the detail – something that is sadly lacking at present. To general frustration, half of the Bill is in skeleton form, with many aspects of social work regulation – including the establishment of a new government appointed regulator – subject to secondary legislation.

This is becoming an all-too familiar pattern in the Lords this parliament, as we saw with the Childcare, Devolution, Energy and Housing bills in the last session. It is also completely unacceptable and we have submitted a motion to today’s Second Reading debate, calling for the publication of draft regulations before Peers consider the related clauses in Committee. Our concerns are echoed by the Lords Constitution Committee, which yesterday published a report highly critical of the government’s approach.

Social workers make an amazing contribution to our society. The best combine skill and knowledge with care and compassion to help transform the lives of the most vulnerable young people and families. So we should treat them with more respect and enable them to deliver what every child deserves – the best possible childhood, free from abuse and neglect.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 14th June 2016

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