Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  Q20  Mr Gibb: I absolutely agree with everything you say, and you raise an issue that goes right to the root of our key three public services involving health, crime and education, where the public is not happy. You have hit the nail on the head about the problems in those three areas. In terms of social services, do you think we can tackle that underlying poor-quality management by continuing to have social services accountable at the local level, so that accountability ends in a very small area of Britain; or is there not a case now for social services, just as an example and leaving the other two things on one side for the moment, for having social services as part of a national organisation with a proper pyramidical modern structure of management, where social services directors locally are accountable to a more experienced director of social services at a regional and national level?

  Lord Laming: Chairman, I have to say that I take an entirely diametric view. Whether it be the Health Service, the police service or the local authority service, management ought to be as close as possible to service delivery, and accountability ought to be as close as possible to service delivery. In the Victoria Climbié Inquiry there were far too many people in senior positions who claimed that they did not know and could not know what was happening to Victoria Climbié and other children at the front door. In some ways in our public services the management has got too distant from service delivery, and too much time of management is taken up keeping the organisation going rather than thinking about what is happening at a local level. I strongly believe that communities are best served if they have an involvement in their local services and have confidence in their local services, which means that we do not want national models, in my view. I would like to think that even within a local authority, the kind of service that is available, and the intensity of the service available, in a very poor housing estate was quite different from the service that might be available in some other parts of the same authority.

  Q21  Mr Gibb: How do you improve the quality of management?

  Lord Laming: By being absolutely clear what we expect of managers and what their job is. Far too often managers in big organisations see their role as defending the organisation and serving the needs of the organisation; whereas we ought to be judging managers on the way in which they serve the public. These are public services for the benefit of the public, and therefore the test is, as I keep saying, what happens at the front door. I think there is too little preoccupation at the front door. Too much of that is left to the most junior staff, the lowest paid staff, the most inexperienced staff. We ought to be making sure that we have people who are experienced, senior and who are judged by what is happening at the front door. I have seen some good services at local level since the Victoria Climbié report was published, where there has been a senior manager in the room with front-line workers, providing effective support and supervision as the workers come in. I rather like those models.

  Paul Holmes: You said that the Climbié tragedy was 10 years after the 1989 Act, but that really the 1989 Act had not been properly implemented. You said that five years on from your inquiry, Ealing, the authority at the centre of all this, had got worse. You have agreed with Kerry that social workers were difficult to recruit and retain, especially in the urban areas where the problems are most acute; so there are some systematic failures. We have just explored whether it is the quality of the management that is to blame. How far can you comment on whether the administrative and decision-making structures are the problem, which Every Child Matters is trying to move around; and how far is it a problem with cash and resources?

  Lord Laming: Chairman, I think a very important factor is that of the turnover of social workers and retention of social workers. There is a huge difference between authorities, and indeed between teams in authorities. You can understand why this happens; to be absolutely blunt, if I were a social worker working in some teams that I have experienced, I think that I would want to get out as quickly as I could. I think that some teams are quite dysfunctional; they are badly led, badly managed, and the staff are badly supported. In other teams, social workers—no doubt police officers, nurses and doctors the same—despite the workload are very happy teams; people are confident in what they are doing; they are confident in the management and confident in the leadership, and the turnover rate is dramatically lower. My view is that we are on a losing wicket if we go on thinking the problem is solely about recruitment of social workers or solely about the number that are trained as social workers if we do not address the retention of social workers. Training social workers to have them leave within a year or two years is not good. One of the things that I hope the inspectorate will increasingly do is look at the retention of front-line staff and look at why staff decide to give up. That said, I believe that we are indebted to front-line staff. When I trained to be a social worker, I expected to be one for the rest of my life. I was very happy being a social worker, in that I had worked very hard to become a social worker. I was a probation officer in those days. I had worked extremely hard to become a probation officer, and I thought that it was a great privilege and a great opportunity; but I had the good fortune to work in an extremely well-managed and well-supported department. I think that as a society we should value social workers more, not only in providing them with support and help but also recognising that in salary and conditions of service. It is a very demanding job.

  Q22  Paul Holmes: Kerry made the point that social workers often complain that they are massively overloaded with cases and that they are fire-fighting rather than properly managing a case load, and you have talked about pay; so it is a resource issue?

  Lord Laming: I find the resource issue quite difficult, if I am absolutely frank—and I wish to be with the Committee—in that it is very easy to say "we need more resources". I am sure everybody is tempted to say that. However, I want to say frankly to the Committee that I do not want more resources to produce more of the same, because more of the same, frankly, is not good enough. We have to get into the equation an evaluation of outcomes. More resources must be linked with better outcomes, and better outcomes are about better service to people. If you think of Victoria Climbié, she was only alive in this country for 10 months, and during that time she was known to four social services departments, three housing departments, admitted to two different hospitals; she was referred to two different child protection teams in the Metropolitan Police, a specialist unit at the NSPCC: resourcing was not the issue. The issue was that nobody stopped to say, "What is a day like in the life of this child? Why is this eight-year-old never in school?" These are not difficult questions, and so I think we have to increasingly say, "more resources will be allocated if you can demonstrate better outcomes for children." Some authorities are doing that.

  Q23  Paul Holmes: In relation to that, if Every Child Matters is looking at how social services, hospitals and police integrate better, when you get down to the front line what do you suggest should be done in terms of the skills and training that social workers, supervisors and team-leaders have? Should there be changes there?

  Lord Laming: There are a number of things I would like to see happen. First, I believe very much in specialism, specialist knowledge and specialist skills. The idea that a social worker can be an expert in mental health, learning disabilities, the needs of elderly people and children, is fundamentally wrong. I would like to see social workers being expert in their particular field, and that means knowing the legislation, knowing what their role is, having confidence in the systems, and being clear about the responsibilities of other agencies. Secondly, I do not think that social services should be treated as the catch-all; that when there are problems for other services, if they refer the child to social services that means they can abdicate their responsibilities. Every one of them has a unique and distinctive responsibility, and a continuing responsibility, whether it is in the Health Service—whether it is a GP, a health visitor or a police officer. They have a continuing responsibility. I think that we need to get that clear. Thirdly, in the future, local authorities from the chief executive to the lead member on children's services, to the director of children's services, should have to demonstrate what arrangements they have made in their local area for each of these agencies to play their separate role, and to exchange information in an appropriate manner. I do not mean being insensitive to privacy, but to refer information in ways that are agreed between the agencies, but when the child is at the centre of this process.

  Q24  Chairman: Lord Laming, are incidents like the   tragedy of Victoria Climbié an increasing phenomenon in our society, or a declining one, giving a broad brush?

  Lord Laming: I cannot answer that, Chairman, with any authority, because different people attach different importance to different bits of research. Some people will give a certain number of deaths of children per year, and other people will say "yes, but they were not children that were known to social services or known to the services as being a child at risk". I hope you do not feel there is anything glib in what I say on this subject—because I feel this very strongly—but too many children in our society are not getting the services they need and the protection they are entitled to at this stage. Until that changes, whatever the numbers are, we have to keep on working away to say it is not good enough and that we have to do better.

  Q25  Jonathan Shaw: Lord Laming, the local safeguarding children's boards are going to be statutory in place of the voluntary area of child protection committees; are you satisfied with that response? Do you think that that will provide an effective means of protecting children and co-ordinating services, despite not all of those organisations having a statutory requirement to co-operate? There was some debate on this around the Bill, which I am sure you are familiar with.

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Yes. I think it is a huge step forward because I think that what was evident in the Victoria Climbié Inquiry was that other services took the view that if they referred a child to Social Services then that basically meant that it was now a Social Services responsibility. As you gathered from what I said earlier, that is not a view that I share at all. I think that the local safeguarding boards are a significant step forward. I think that I would like to think that in future any evaluation of a local children's service would begin with a few simple questions, like: what do you know about the needs of children in your area? How do you know about those needs? How are you addressing those needs, collectively? Persuade me. I think the boards would have a big responsibility to do that.

  Q26  Jonathan Shaw: If you had a seat on this Committee, Lord Laming, and the Minister was in front of you, what would you be looking for her to be telling the Committee? What would you recommend to the Committee that we need to look for as we conduct this inquiry?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: I think that that would be rather presumptuous of me. I will tell you what I would like to at least put in your minds. I think that the Children Act forms a good foundation. I think that there will be some tendency out there for people to become preoccupied with a small number of structural organisational factors and, therefore, give the impression they have complied with the Children Act, whereas I think that the great possibilities the Minister has is to persuade these authorities—not just local authorities but all of the authorities—that the well being of children, more than the safety of children, is their collective responsibility. Therefore, we are not going to be mesmerised by minor organisational structural features. We are going to be targeting the outcomes for children. Good experience for children, good experience in their early childhood, confidence in the future for these children, an ability to think that society is good for them and that they want to contribute to society and good role models. I think the Minister for Children could be supported in that.

  Q27  Jonathan Shaw: You described when you left Hertfordshire Social Services after being the Director there for many years. Let us just suppose you were just beginning your job as a Director of Social Services in 2004 and this had landed on your desk. If you had you time again, what would be your starting point and what would you envisage your department to look like in terms of its relationship with other departments over the course of the next two years?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: The best director of Social Services I have seen, the best Social Services departments in operation that I have had the pleasure of seeing, are much better than I was as a Director of Social Services, very much better. The biggest change that has happened in the services, that needs to happen in all the services, is what I describe as a change from senior officers being administrators to senior officers being managers. That is something that may seem fairly easy to say, but it is very difficult to implement because I think that when I was a Director of Social Services the emphasis was very much on complying with certain things like keeping within budget, making sure that staff got paid and all the fundamentals were in place in terms of good administration. I think that what is now needed is something much much more sophisticated and more difficult, which in a complex organisation where you depend upon a diversity of skills and a wide range of people fulfilling different jobs and where there are huge demands upon your service, then you are never going to have such resources behind you that you are going to meet all need. You need to have a clear set of priorities and to give front line staff very clear leadership and for the staff to know that at the end of the day you are accepting personal accountability for what happens in the organisation. I attach enormous importance to the head of the organisation being personally accountable for what happens in the organisation because I think that is not only right but I think it is a huge message to staff about the way in which this organisation conducts its business.

  Q28  Mr Gibb: Can we talk about the database. I understand you recommended such a database, how it has been proposed. Can you just answer the question about whether this is a good use of resources. It is likely to be an expensive item; experience shows they do tend to become very expensive. Would that money not be better spent improving management and improving the quality of people employed on the front line?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: I think, Chairman, this is the really important question, if I may say so, because I personally do not want to see an all-singing all-dancing mega national computerised programme, as it were, but what I do think is very important is to recognise that a child might be on a large number of databases, but (a) the databases are not coordinated, (b) they cannot speak to each other so information cannot be easily exchanged, and (c) it means that no one service ever gets a full picture. What struck me in the Victoria Climbié Inquiry was the number of witnesses in Phase 2 when we had seminars where we drew people from all around the country, where people were saying time after time: it is only after the child has died that we all come together—as you are sitting together now, Chairman,—and people put on the table what they knew about this child and its family. It is only then that we realise something of the full picture. Had any one of us had that perspective before we would have acted earlier; it may be expensive in one way, but it is hugely expensive with the death of a child if we do not get it.

  Q29  Mr Gibb: If you do not want an all-singing all-dancing national database does that mean you want a locally administered database?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: One of the things that I recommended was that the departments set up pilots because I think this is a complicated area, especially if we just take London. Families can move across the street and be in a different borough. There is no point in having a database that is borough-based. What we know about children who are abused is that they can be quite often presented in different hospitals, even hospitals just two or three miles down the road. They go to different accident and emergency wards. People tell a different story as to why the child has the injuries. I think if we are really going to take seriously the fact that we need to use the information which is already in the system then we need to have a database that is comprehensive in relation to being able to have it used by all of the key services, but also which is able to pick up previous attendance at accident and emergency, previous injuries, potential injuries to children. On the other hand, I think that it is a database which is about highlighting contacts with children. It is not a database which necessarily has all the material on it. It is enough to know that this child was in hospital last week or last month or whenever it may be and then get the information from the hospital. You do not have to have all the information on the database. I do think the protection of privacy in that is a very important matter.

  Q30  Mr Gibb: It sounds like you are talking about a national database.

  Lord Laming of Tewin: I am talking about a national database to do this specific function, but not a national database which has a lot of personal information on it.

  Q31  Mr Gibb: It will be a national database but locally there would be a database.

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Let me say, Chairman, I made the recommendation because I am not a computer literate person. I am one of these people who need a lot of help in this area. There are those who are much more skilled than I am.

  Q32  Mr Gibb: You want the database to be done nationally. Perhaps you want the payroll to be done nationally as well for the Social Services department. I cannot quite understand: you want these things to be locally based organisations yet you want the database to be national. What else do you want to be national in terms of Social Services?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Having a database which is national does not imply national service. Nowadays, the opportunity to manage information is so much more sophisticated and easier that you can exchange information between services. Whilst we were actually sitting on the Victoria Climbié Inquiry we were pressed to take on other deaths of children. The ones that we were asked to take on, like Victoria, they moved between authorities. The new authority had not picked up that the previous authority had concerns or had not picked up what the concerns were of the previous authority. We do have to take this seriously, but on the other hand I think that we can do it on the basis of highlighting the involvement of other agencies without putting the content on the data.

  Q33  Mr Gibb: I understand that. You want to have all children on this database do you?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: The reason I recommended a pilot is because I know that there are 11 million children or something in this country. It did seem to me that what we must not do is create a database that nobody is going to use; that would not be by any means the biggest database. As I understand it, the vehicle registration database, the Passport Office, National Insurance, Social Security systems have much bigger databases, but the difference with this database is that many more people could input information and many more people could access information. That needs to be controlled because there are real issues there. That, frankly, is a step beyond me. That was why I recommended pilots.

  Q34  Mr Gibb: Will parents have access to the data retained on it about their own children?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Yes. For years and years, Chairman, I have believed that nothing should be on a case file that is not known to a parent. In other words, when I was in practice I operated on the basis that anything that I wrote on the case file, the person concerned could be aware of it. I could not tell them what a psychiatrist had written because that was their information, but anything that I wrote, I believe very much in transparency. I believe it is patronising in the extreme to say that people cannot cope with what you believe and write about them or their children. Therefore, yes, whatever is on the database parents should know about it.

  Q35  Mr Gibb: Will they then have access to see the thing referred to? You say you do not want full information on the database, just have references to the fact that there was a hospital visit or whatever, a question from the social worker. Will they then have access to the ongoing file that it refers to? It implies that they would?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: I believe in transparency. I believe in not patronising people. If there is a concern about somebody's child or a concern about their parenting skills I think workers, whether they are doctors, nurses or social workers or police officers, should be mature enough to say to a parent, "I am concerned about this child. I am concerned about these matters. The reason why I need to investigate this is because of X, Y and Z."

  Q36  Mr Gibb: If an error is discovered, what are the procedures for removing that error from the file and the database? For example, if a parent were accused of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, for example, and it turned out that it was an erroneous accusation, would the fact that there had been an accusation of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy be removed completely from the file or would then an adoption agency asked for information about that parent's suitability to adopt children be informed that there had been a false accusation of this syndrome?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Chairman, I operate on a simple principle which is that any database that I am on—and I hope the same for you—you should know you are on the database and you should have opportunity to correct anything you think is wrong. I do not believe in this day and age that we should support any system which is based upon secrecy.

  Q37  Mr Gibb: You would be in favour of removing the erroneous information from the file which would then not be referred to again by the authorities when quizzed by people accessing the database?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Yes. If somebody said that I had a poor credit rating and the database said that I had a poor credit rating I would like to have the opportunity to correct it if it was wrong.

  Q38  Mr Gibb: Do you think that is what happens at the moment in Social Services departments?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: In my view, and it is only my view, good work should be based upon a measure of openness, trust, and transparency. If I had tried to practise this some years ago before I had grey hair, and I hope that I would practise this now, I remember when I first started as a probation officer I used to let everybody know that I was working with, that I kept a case file. I let them know exactly what I was putting on the case file. Every couple of months or so I would review with them their progress as to whether they were fulfilling the conditions of their probation order. If they were not, I would tell them what I had concerns about and if necessary I would tell them I was going to take them back to court for failure to comply with the probation order. Personally I do not accept that work of this kind requires any degree of secrecy.

  Q39  Mr Gibb: A final question, Chairman: what should we, as a Committee, be alert to? What should the Committee be alert to over the coming months of the implementation of this database?

  Lord Laming of Tewin: Anybody that tries to simplify the issues because I think that they are extreme complicated. Secondly, I think that matters of confidentiality are hugely important, but there are issues that have to be managed and you have to be aware of how people are managing them. I have always said to people: as long as you can demonstrate that any action you take you can put your hand on your heart and say you took it in the best interests and the well being and safety of the child rather than for any other reason, then that is action which should be defended.

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