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This debate on new social workers is particularly necessary because of Her Majesty’s Government’s welcome success in recruiting new candidates to the profession. Especially, young people are now coming forward to take the course for the new degree that superseded the two-year diploma. For instance, this summer I heard from an 18 year-old care leaver attending the Associate Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People In and Leaving Care, chaired by David Kidney MP, that she was about to read social work at university.

The Government have recognised that employers have found that the degree is not sufficient to entirely equip students for practice. It is vital therefore that they immediately implement their proposal for newly qualified social work status—a proposal akin to the very successful and established newly qualified teacher status—thereby guaranteeing new graduates reduced caseloads and increased supervision. Young people, such as that care leaver, put their faith in us to provide the necessary professional framework when they choose their course. We must not betray them. The children and adults who depend on them need us to retain them. Those children and adults also need us to ensure that their social workers’ practice is safe.

In the short time available I shall seek to consider the achievements made by the Government, to look at areas of disappointment, and then ask the Government the timescale for implementation of their plans.

However, I should first like to put this matter into context. Over decades, social work has been in decline. The fundamental resource for good social work—good supervision entailing a space for reflection on practice and firm management of professional conduct—has withered under the financial and political pressure on social work. Reflection has suffered most. It is crucial in this profession, where practitioners make relationships with, for example, schizophrenics, alcoholics and violent men and women who can seek to harm their partners and their children, that practitioners can have regular, private discussions with their line manager, an experienced supervisor who is trained to give effective supervision. It makes me sick to my stomach to think how many practitioners lack this sine qua non. On looking at two social work text books from 2006, I find there is no index entry for supervision in either work and no comment on the subject in the text. Without effective supervision, many social workers are working blind.

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When guardians ad litem—advocates for children in public law cases—felt under threat seven years ago, we learnt that these practitioners, all social workers by background, were refugees from field social work. They wanted to stay in practice with vulnerable children but often felt that this was impossible in sometimes dysfunctional local authorities and chose therefore to work in the courts. The 2004 Local Authority Social Care Workforce Survey found vacancy rates for children’s field social workers at 11.4 per cent and turnover rates at about 10.6 per cent, the first figure being about five times more than that for nurses, teachers or police officers. There was about a 20 per cent vacancy rate in London and a very heavy dependency on expensive temporary staff.

My noble friend Lord Laming, in his forensic examination of the death of Victoria Climbié, expressed dismay that Mrs Arthurworrey, one of the principal social workers involved, was not receiving adequate supervision and had a caseload of 19 when the local authority’s own guidance stipulated a maximum of 12. Visiting a day centre for disabled young people in Hammersmith a little time ago, I was told that the turnover of social workers frustrated the families’ attempts to ensure that their children made a successful transition to adulthood. The advocate was not there for them. A string of different social workers could not be the effective advocates that these young people needed to secure services. Young carers speak of social workers flitting through their lives. Often young people attending the Associate Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People In and Leaving Care tell us how pained they are by their changes of social worker. One young man spoke of having five in less than two years.

So it is vital to retain these new social workers if social work is to be transformed into the effective, respected and professional institution it can be. Of course there are many excellent practitioners currently who do stay in post—children report this, too—but they are too often acting and working against the grain.

The Government have made welcome efforts to address the retention and recruitment of social workers through the registration of social workers; the three-year degree course, already mentioned, replacing the two year diploma and very significant increases in funding for social care training. Most welcome was the Options for Excellence White Paper of October 2006, the Government’s strategy for the social care workforce. An excellent document drawing on the expertise of all those involved with social work, including service users, it first introduced the option of newly qualified social worker status and provided a vision of a professional, reflective service constituted of learning organisations. Very sadly, its proposals were given no clear funding commitment by the Government at the time, much to the disappointment of those who contributed to it. I therefore look forward very much to learning the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review or other new thoughts on funding from the noble Baroness.

There have also been welcome Green and White Papers on children in public care, which have made it clear how frustrated social workers have been at not being able to spend time with their children and stick

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with them. The Care Matters White Paper has promised new measures of support for children and family social workers. Has similar progress towards the newly qualified social worker status been made for those social workers not practising with children?

I welcome the recognition by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his letter of 16 February 2007, that:

There is a great deal to welcome from the Government. However, when they first proposed newly qualified social worker status 12 months ago, Ian Johnston, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Work, said:

A year has passed. Will the Minister reassure us that real protections will be put in place for all new social workers? Will the minimum standards insist that new social workers receive at least one hour of one-to-one supervision with their line manager once a week? When will that, and guidance on the maximum size of workloads, be introduced? When will the retraining of line managers and senior managers take place so that they are competent to give good supervision?

I welcome the refreshment of the children’s workforce strategy, which is currently being undertaken. Does the Minister recognise the huge cultural shift that will have to take place if the Government’s ambitions for children are to be attained? What progress has the new adult social care workforce strategy board made in implementing the Options for Excellence proposals?

Failure might mean that the 18 year-old care leaver I began with found herself overwhelmed. At the very worst, her decisions might lead to the death of a child. She might then be held up for vilification by the media, but we would know that it was we who failed that child and that brave woman by not providing the professional framework in which she could succeed. More generally, failure implies the continued haemorrhaging of social workers. No gradual accretion of experience on the front line and in management will be possible, but only that experience can eventually provide the expert, compassionate and professional institution that our vulnerable need.

I welcome the positive steps the Government are taking. A long journey has to be made. We have let down our social workers for too many years, and we must not miss this chance.

7.53 pm

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I welcome this debate initiated by the noble Earl, who has been the champion of children in care for many

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years and now adds social workers to the list of those to whom he is prepared to give a voice. I should declare my interests, as I have worked as a social worker or in jobs related to social care all my life, including local government, the voluntary sector and regulation. At the moment, I am the chair of Grooms Shaftesbury, working with disabled people, many in residential care, and I am deputy chair of CAFCASS, the largest single employer of social workers in the country. I have the privilege of continuing to see the practice of social workers at first hand.

A golden thread is woven through social work. Despite huge changes in structures and frameworks through new legislation and protocols, the principles of good social work practice remain. The way we do it will change with new knowledge and experience, but much is constant: the need for clear, evidentially based assessment, especially around the safety of children and vulnerable adults; the use of relationships in helping people to resolve complex problems and change behaviour; the management of authority and the capacity to set boundaries; and maybe the ability to love the unlovable and to stick with people when everything seems impossible in their lives—principles that young social workers will need to implement from the very first day in their job. There has always been the suggestion that you should begin by giving a social worker the least complex cases, but you never know until you cross the threshold what is contained in the family’s dynamic.

I believe that the job is more complex today than it has ever been, yet we give less time for reflection and development to those to whom we have consigned these tasks on behalf of our society. When I was a young social worker, I could expect supervision from my team leader once a week until my competencies were secure and then on a regular basis to ensure clear thinking and objectivity. It was combined with group learning, sharing experiences that moved the learning curve up speedily, and it had the requirement for continuous learning and improvement. My manager had skills to pass on in both casework and case management. Sadly, we have been through an era where case management lost the dynamic element of understanding that is essential in the helping process. I hope that some of these skills are being revived, relearnt and passed on.

To illustrate the complexities that social workers face today and that were barely understood when I was a social worker on the ground, I want to give two different examples. The first comes from work that we are undertaking in CAFCASS to help our staff to understand and work with diversity. If there were time I would give your Lordships the statistics that we have on the highly complex groups of racial mix that we have to work with in CAFCASS, which means that our staff must understand diversity of different cultures and conditions. The patterns of family life throughout England are changing, with divorce, reconstituted families, dual-culture marriages and children and, as Sherry Malik, one of the directors of CAFCASS, put it in a recent speech, the fact that,

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To work in this environment demands that CAFCASS is a learning organisation. We must therefore find ways of helping our staff to think through not only the technical issues before the court, but also the services that are meaningful and unique to the set of circumstances of each child and family involved. That takes time, and the better we work, the longer it takes.

My second example is from the world of adult disability, where increasingly the care given to those who are severely disabled or have complex learning difficulties, but nevertheless wish to live full lives, is bounded by risk assessment. Of course staff must balance risk with public scrutiny, but the smallest mistake that they make without proper consultation can lead to their total vilification.

Young social workers are more responsible than ever for the rationing of resources, need more than ever to understand increasingly complex situations and find themselves more than ever in the front line and accountable for their work. They deserve the support and pay that reflects that. As we have achieved time for development and decent salaries for teachers, is it not time that we did the same for our social workers? They carry the baton for the deprived and the sick, for those in trouble and in danger, for the abused and the abuser, on behalf of all of us. The least we can do is to give them support and a decent place and status in our society in return.

7.59 pm

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, one of the things that has most impressed me since I entered the House is the commitment of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to issues of social welfare in this country; that is, to the welfare of its citizens, the welfare of social workers, who constitute such an important force for the alleviation of social problems, and the welfare of the social work profession, which is the best guarantee of standards in social work and of social workers being properly equipped with the skills that they need to do their job. The noble Earl not only evinces a strong commitment but is tenacious in following it up; hence this short debate tonight, which I congratulate him on securing.

In a short debate such as this, it is possible to make only a few points—I shall make four. First, expenditure on personal social services has increased substantially in recent years, by 10 per cent in real terms between 2003-04 and 2005-06. That is impressive by any standards and the Government deserve credit for it. Secondly, however, it is still not enough. Despite the Government’s best efforts, provision is falling further behind need on account of demographic and other factors, and the system is slipping deeper into crisis. There is a disconnection between the official picture presented in government rhetoric and what happens on the ground. In March 2006, the Local Government Association reported that seven out of 10 people receive social care only if their needs are substantial or critical. Eighty per cent of councils plan to tighten their criteria still further. That has forced many disabled and elderly people back on their own resources, leaving some to rely on family or friends for essentials and others simply to go

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without. We can see the results daily on the streets of our inner-city areas. The Comprehensive Spending Review must recognise that growth in spending on social care is being dwarfed by the growing needs of our ageing population.

Thirdly, how does the current situation impact on hard-pressed social workers, particularly new entrants to the profession? In a survey carried out a few years ago, social workers uniformly reported excessive case loads, acute stress and a feeling that new staff were thrown in at the deep end. It is little wonder that newly qualified social workers feel thrown in at the deep end, because there is no shallow end. Support for newly qualified social workers, which the noble Earl seeks, could do much to ease what must be one of the most difficult baptisms of fire for any professional. In such a pressured environment, new staff need to be given time to find their feet, which could not only help mistakes to be avoided—we all know what that can mean—but ensure that we improve retention rates, which, as we have heard, are an abiding problem for the social care workforce.

Fourthly, the suggestion in the Care Matters White Paper of a year-long qualification period for new social workers who work with children is welcome. I hope that the Department of Health will move in the same direction for those who work with adults. The first-12-weeks approach to the common induction standards for adult social workers is the minimum required for safety rather than a fully developed effort to help new staff to flourish. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government see the common induction standards as a first step.

8.04 pm

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for initiating this important debate and acknowledge his commitment to driving up standards in the social work profession and increasing respect for it. I declare an interest as a member of the Unison parliamentary group—a union that represents the individual and collective interests of some 40,000 social workers.

If the die had been thrown differently, I would not be here today, but would instead have been pursuing my original ambition to be a social worker. Unfortunately, when I graduated in 1976, cuts in the public sector by the then Labour Government meant that no new recruitment was taking place and I was forced to find alternative employment. Thankfully, as a result of the superb stewardship of the economy by our current Prime Minister, we have now been able to invest in public sector jobs rather than implement draconian cuts. That should make possible the radical reforms necessary to boost the morale of the profession and attract a wave of new recruits to an increasingly beleaguered service.

That the social work profession is not in a greater crisis today is because we collectively exploit the commitment and dedication of existing social workers, who are struggling to cope with increasingly complex case loads in departments that are perennially understaffed. In children’s services, for example, 12 per cent of vacancies are unfilled and the rate of

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annual staff turnover is 11 per cent. As a result, those who remain face impossible workloads, and levels of stress and burn-out escalate. We have to intervene to break that cycle. That is why the proposal in Options for Excellence to guarantee newly qualified social workers a reduced caseload, structured additional supervision and mentors could make a great difference. Investment at an early stage of career development is vital to protect new recruits from destructive early experiences, while protecting our original investment in their initial qualifications. Parallel with this policy is a need to broaden our recruitment base by investing in new routes into social work; for example, other categories of social care staff could be encouraged to enrol on part-time, work-based social work courses such as those being pioneered by Unison and the Open University.

The White Paper’s proposals include many welcome steps towards raising the status of the profession and beginning to tackle recruitment problems. However, there are a couple of developments about which I shall raise a note of concern. First, I fear that the proposal to pilot independent social work practices for children’s services could prove an expensive distraction and fragment rather than streamline provision. I hope that the Government will think again about it.

Secondly, the split in policy responsibilities for social work between DCSF and the Department of Health is fuelling speculation that a split between children’s and adults’ social work is being considered. Such a move would be damaging to the service. The current structures enable social workers to take a holistic approach, focusing on the needs of the family as a whole. Many social workers strengthen their experience by moving between child and adult provision during their career. Splitting the service would mean the loss of a broader and more informed perspective. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that it is not being seriously considered.

If we share a determination to transform and inspire the social work profession, we need to address core management and employment issues. For example, we need a real commitment to rooting out the blame culture that is targeted at social workers. We need proper systems of caseload management to banish impossible caseloads, tackle high levels of unpaid overtime and provide a better work/life balance. We need sustainable pay structures to prevent social workers remaining one of the lowest-paid graduate professions and to end employers’ reliance on expensive agency staff. We also need career routes and pay progression that reward front-line staff. Those issues are fundamental in addressing the morale of the profession and crucial to attracting the next generation into the sector. I look forward to the remainder of the debate and hope to hear some reassurance from the Minister that those issues are being addressed.

8.09 pm

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his important objective of pressing the Government to do more to support new, young and inexperienced care workers. Child and

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family social workers have one of the most difficult as well as most important roles in our society. When a child is taken into the care of the state, their social worker often becomes the most important person in their lives. In explaining why, I shall quote from a report about social workers from July of last year. Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, reported on the views of children about their care workers. In his conclusion, he quoted three things that children said—although I shall quote only two of them. He wrote:

Another young person who is still in care said:

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