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3 Feb 2009 : Column 798

We need a well trained, highly motivated work force, and a strategy to provide the skills and training tools needed. The social work profession is good in part, but it is not very good in a much larger part. The culture must be changed. That might involve giving more respect and status, or changing the name of the social work profession, or looking at the relationship between health visitors and social workers.

Meg Munn: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important to give status to other people who work in child care, such as nursery nurses?

Mr. Sheerman: I absolutely agree with that point.

I hope that the inquiry that the Secretary of State has set in motion will look very fundamentally at the social work profession. It needs to be better rewarded, better motivated and better trained. Some evidence given to our Committee contained serious criticism of the quality of university training for social workers, and that must be looked at. We also need a trusted interface between parents and carers. We want a profession that is helpful and supportive; we do not want people to think that the inquisition is coming. We must also acknowledge that the social work profession is more difficult than is often thought.

Let me add a point that is central to the debate and has not been mentioned: we need to have the ability to track a child’s progress, particularly between birth and the age of five. That is why I certainly will not add my voice to the criticism of ContactPoint. At present in this country, when a child faces problems of the kind I am talking about, it can go totally undetected. Unless he or she comes to the notice of the authorities, nothing is known. Many child deaths occur in families who have had no contact with children’s services and social workers. Our system needs to be more like the Scandinavian one, so that we know where children are and we are able to monitor their progress much better. At present, there is very little possibility of doing that, which greatly worries me.

On the system of accountability, Ofsted reports to this House through the Committee I have the privilege to chair. I said to the chief inspector the last time she came before the Committee that I did not think it was good enough to have such a remote inspection system, which did not involve enough face-to-face contact between her inspectors and the departments being inspected. There are only 150 children’s departments. Why is an Ofsted inspector not inserted permanently in each of those local authorities? There are 2,300 inspectors and 1,500 extra inspectors. Why cannot we have that? I ask that question because there is great public concern. The role could involve much more support than at present—the role is currently carried out as a paper analysis.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: I do not think I can allow another intervention.

We must also learn from experience and from all these dreadful cases. I urge us to listen to the outside experts; we are not the experts here. I want to secure a consensus, and we might be able to get it from the people who know about this stuff. Politicians do not
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really know about it; we have to be judged by the professionals. When they say that serious case reviews should be published, I will then be convinced, but I am not convinced at the moment.

We also need the systematic collection of records and data. It is so easy to say that it is all red tape and to cite the figure of 80 per cent. Social work and monitoring children and families is a highly complex task. It needs to be done with a human touch, with good management and with the data, which must be scrupulously kept and scrupulously checked. In every serious case review that I have looked at, I have found that so often things go wrong when management decisions are made on the basis of data that do not exist.

9.11 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee and who has made a number of interesting points.

At the outset, I wish to say, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, that social workers are the unsung heroes of the public sector. They put their heart and soul into their jobs, and they work long hours, often for little reward and in some extremely difficult circumstances. It is an incredibly sad fact of our political life that public perceptions of social work, especially throughout this country, are so low. As hon. Members have mentioned, someone who visits one of the Scandinavian countries will witness a people who value and respect the work done by social workers on behalf of society’s most vulnerable and neglected individuals. I am sure that we would all like to see the profession join the likes of teaching and medicine as something that more children and college students aspire to enter once they reach adulthood. The baby P case reminded us all of just how high the stakes can be, because when things are not running smoothly, when systems do not work and when people take their eye off the ball, tragedy can strike. That is why it is so important for us to look at the state of the profession and take urgent steps to reform it.

I wish briefly to touch on recruitment, which, put simply, is in crisis. According to Unison, vacancy levels in children’s social care work are running at more than 10 per cent., and three quarters of all local authorities are reporting difficulties in recruiting social workers for these teams. Higher numbers than those provided by Unison could be cited, but undoubtedly the vacancy rate is very high. There has been a 30 per cent. rise in vacancy rates in just four years, and more than a third of those who study social work at university do not go into the profession. The number of whole-time equivalent social workers per 100,000 head of population is just 87.6. When I looked on the internet earlier today, I found that the figure for Massachusetts and some other US states where we do not think of public provision as being that great is more than 200 per 100,000 head of population. Unison recently did a survey of 369 front-line staff across the country and found that two thirds of respondents were working in teams where more than 20 per cent. of posts were vacant.

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The reasons for such a shortfall in front-line staff have been set out to Ministers over and over again. One of the leading reasons is, of course, pay, which is a difficult issue. At the top end of the tree, a social worker can earn, at most, £40,000 a year. That should be compared with the sums paid to deputy head teachers or head teachers in schools, where salaries of double that are more common. Thus, one can see that social work is a less attractive route for someone to take. There is a huge difference in incentive between the different professions. If we want social work to be regarded in a similar light, we need to address the fact that the average salary for a social worker is just £23,600. The question has to be asked: is that high enough to attract the brightest and the best into the profession?

We must ensure that we target attracting people into the profession, and retaining and motivating them as our No. 1 concern. That is even more important than the systems, although of course we need good systems and to ensure that information is shared. High quality, highly motivated social workers in full-time posts will guarantee continuity and good information sharing far more effectively than overblown Government-driven IT projects. That is why there is so much concern about those projects that the Government are currently pursuing.

The key is to improve the status and attraction of social work. Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, said recently:

Perhaps that is one of the factors that has stopped young people wanting to go into social work in the first place.

For an example of a positive response to the recruitment issue, I cite my local authority, the East Riding of Yorkshire council. It recently initiated a recruitment and retention plan, which sought to address shortages in children’s social worker posts. Its award-winning approach saw a reduction in vacancies from 50 per cent. to just 6 per cent. in 12 months. It introduced several initiatives, including a social worker recruitment pool, a care ambassador scheme and the production of a DVD and a prospectus for all local schools, colleges and universities. The council faced up to that issue and made a serious difference.

Social workers are the unsung heroes and we need to ensure that they are in place and properly supported. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) emphasised, we need an holistic, joined-up approach in which issues such as the lack of universal cover by health visitors—which has happened under this Government—are looked at again. We need early intervention, and we should always remember the evidence that the Committee heard: that children who suffer from neglect are damaged more than any other children apart from those who suffer the most severe physical abuse.

9.17 pm

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Too much of our child protection policy has been constructed following tragic cases. I am afraid that I can go back a
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lot further than the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). At the beginning of my time in this House, I served on the Committee considering the Bill that was introduced after three very tragic cases during the mid-1980s and the Cleveland child abuse case. Those cases, of course, provided very different perspectives. The inquiries into the cases of the three children who died saw them as a failure of agencies to work together effectively and the failure of social services departments to intervene, especially when parents were avoiding contact. The Cleveland case was on the other side of the issue, and the social services and the medical profession were criticised for over-zealous diagnosis of sexual abuse and intervention that was too hasty and overrode the rights of parents. Somehow, in the midst of all that, we had to construct legislation. At the same time, social workers were trying to do their job with very different messages coming from this House and the world outside.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) talked about his visits to Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, and how well they were doing in respect for social workers. When I made such visits, the social pedagogues told me that they would not be able to work in the same way if they had our press. They said, “We don’t have everything that we do paraded in tabloids. We don’t know how people ever go into social work in the UK, because whatever decision they take is frequently pilloried.” We must all take some responsibility for that, and I am afraid that the earlier exchange would perhaps reinforce that view among social workers rather than making them feel that people in this House were seriously trying to come to terms with what is happening in the world in which they are working.

During the passage of the Children Act 1989—I invite the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to read some of the exchanges that took place—I had to work extremely hard to get the then Government to take seriously the suggestion that training should be written into it. It was a battle royal to get training written in as one of the basic requirements for early-years workers and those working with vulnerable children.

We cannot eliminate risk altogether, although we sometimes talk as though that were possible. Some of our press certainly talk as though we could. We cannot do that. People have to be enabled to make sound and robust judgments, but it must be clear what is expected of workers in a particular position. The tragedy at the moment is that workers are totally risk-averse. I talk to lots of directors of children’s services and chief executives, and it seems that the system has become totally risk-averse. That is not in the interests of children, either. It is in our interests and theirs to have more long-term strategic objectives, which we allow people to get on with and to work with. Yes, we should inspect and, yes, we should hold people to account, but we should recognise the seriousness of the job that people are doing in a way that enables them to make sound judgments.

We also have to do far more to support parents. The risks are greater when parents are not confident, sure or able to take the right decisions. So, the early intervention that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) talked about and that I have talked about until everybody is bored silly is still at the heart of good child protection. We need effectively to support parents in their role as parents. We should not see
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parenting as a natural skill that everybody has. I do not know any parent who, when they are being honest late at night, says that it is all easy and straightforward. Every parent has huge challenges and huge difficulties. It is our responsibility to ensure that the support for parents is such that we tackle child protection in a much more serious way.

9.23 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Child protection is absolutely at the top of the agenda in my constituency and I want to take the opportunity of this important debate to focus on some local issues.

As many have said, the tragic case of baby P exposed a catalogue of failures at Haringey social services department, but it was not an isolated case. I think we all know that. My local authority, Reading, experienced a similar tragedy with the death of three-year-old Trae-Bleu Layne, who died in October 2006 from methadone poisoning when she was injected by her mother to make her sleep. The council’s handling of the case was subsequently described as inadequate by Ofsted. The child was under the supervision of Reading borough council’s children’s department, and during the inquest into her death the coroner was critical of the failure to do enough to safeguard her well-being. In particular, there was a failure to ensure regular visits and to monitor those visits.

The mother was a known heroin addict and the police admitted that both they and social services staff could have done more to protect the child. The coroner concluded that, despite the mother’s manipulative efforts to stop social workers visiting the house,

One would think that an episode like that would act as the strongest possible warning to a local authority, but in 2008 Reading borough council was one of only eight councils, including Haringey and Wokingham borough council, to have its child protection services deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted.

The main findings of that Ofsted report make very uncomfortable reading for anyone involved in Reading. It highlighted a catalogue of failures in the children’s services department. It specifically noted that key child protection assessments were not being completed within acceptable time scales, that personal information on children was not being stored in a way that was easily retrievable, and finally that there was weak performance management in the local authority’s social care service.

Although the lead councillor for children’s services was sacked at a full council meeting last week for his negligence in leading that service, a whistleblower has stepped forward and described a culture of bullying in the service. If that is true, that culture undoubtedly contributed to systemic failure in the department. What I find difficult to understand is that the very people in the department who were employed to protect Reading’s most vulnerable children were probably being bullied themselves. However, it is not the first Reading borough department about which I have heard allegations that a culture of bullying exists.

Unfortunately, the bad news does not stop there. Reading borough council also has problems with its performance relating to looked-after children. The Ofsted
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report highlighted the disturbing fact that only a relatively low proportion of children leaving care achieve one pass or more at GCSE. I know that that is not so uncommon around the country but, if we are serious about social mobility, then surely we must ensure that vulnerable children are able to access a decent education.

Another worrying aspect of the report was that it found that there was a

in the children’s department. Reading council has stated that it wishes to take on more social workers to ease the burden on existing workers, although it appears that the reason it has not been able to recruit and retain staff is the culture of the department. That said, the poor public image of social work following the crisis after baby P, coupled with the growing pressure of the job, has clearly cut the number of people who are willing to enter the profession.

That is incredibly sad, because social workers do an extremely important and valuable job, and most do it quite brilliantly. I stand in awe of the contribution that many of them make. It is our duty, in this House this evening, to help to restore the reputation of social workers, not to try to destroy their profession. In this respect, the Ofsted report noted the fact that action has been taken in Reading over the last 18 months to deal with “significant staff capability issues” and to address shortcomings in supervision and front-line practice. I pray that those actions will bring about a significant improvement.

However, it is true that the Government’s red tape is stopping people doing their jobs, and we heard earlier this evening about the 80 per cent. of time spent on paperwork. No amount of child protection legislation is a substitute for skilled professionals. Social workers need to be allowed to get on with the jobs that they are extremely qualified to do, instead of collecting data and ticking boxes.

As far as Reading council is concerned, I support the changes that it is implementing and understand that it is trying to make improvements. I hope that the results of the recent Ofsted report will trigger some deep thinking and reflection about past errors and behaviour, but there is no room for complacency or further error in either Reading and Wokingham. Improvements must be deep-seated and long lasting. A real change must take place in the running of children’s services both locally and nationally, so that all our constituents get the services that they are entitled to receive.

Whether they involve baby P in Haringey or Trae-Bleu Layne in Reading, we all have a duty to ensure that such local authority failures are never repeated.

9.29 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I shall deal with just three issues in my contribution. I want to speak about the importance of raising the status of those who work in child protection, and about the need for better training and better inspection.

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