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Response to the Scottish Parliament Education Committee's call for evidence on Child Protection.

March 2004

Executive summary

UNISON Scotland is pleased to be able to respond to the Education Committee's inquiry into child protection and to pass on our views regarding the progress of the recommendations contained in the report "It's Everyone's Job To Make Sure I'm Alright".

  • UNISON Scotland is disappointed at much of the recent ill-informed comments regarding Social Work. We believe that the simplistic approach to criticism of Social Work stems for a lack of knowledge among politicians and the public about the range, complexity and inter-dependence of Social Work Services.

  • We believe that our elected representatives especially, as well as the media, should recognise that social work staff are employed in difficult circumstances with the most vulnerable people in the community. UNISON Scotland believes that politicians and the media would be better served challenging these negative portrayals of the service and promoting a positive understanding of the role of social workers.

  • We believe that one of the priorities within social work should be to ensure that workers at the front line of child protection have the necessary resources, support and management that they deserve to do their jobs.

  • However, UNISON Scotland feels that the key issue of 'resources' has not been sufficiently addressed by those responsible for driving forward the outlined recommendations.

  • Whilst the Children (Scotland) Act, new standards for assessment, joint investigation etc have rightly increased general child protection expectations, UNISON Scotland believes these have not been matched by the resources to effectively deliver these expectations.

  • In addition, whilst UNISON Scotland recognises that there has been increased investment through the Changing Children's Services Fund and through Youth Crime initiatives, we are of the opinion that these have been at the expense of core child protection and child-care services.

  • This is partly because the funding is ‘ring-fenced', partly because staff in core services have been attracted to these new initiatives with no new recruits to ‘back fill' and partly because similar increased funding has not been available for core child protection functions.

  • It is clear to UNISON Scotland that current minimum staffing levels are insufficient to deliver the quality of service required. Staff availability in Children & Families services has in many areas actually reduced over the last 10-12 years when the expectations on such staff have vastly increased.

  • UNISON Scotland members in Social Work can testify to the extent, which Children & Families Social Work services are under pressure all over, Scotland, largely because of the difficulties in recruiting staff to social work posts. While some of this is being addressed by the Scottish Executive in the form of training initiatives, UNISON Scotland is concerned that these will take time to filter through and that there are still several years of critical difficulties ahead of us.

  • UNISON Scotland also believes there is a key issue in understanding the concept of working with risk and what is meant by risk assessment. Staff working in this difficult area need to have the support of the Executive in articulating and assisting a public understanding of working with risk (see under Recommendation 12).

  • UNISON Scotland believes it is difficult to make long term plans about the delivery of child protection services without addressing the fundamental problem of resources, training and remuneration, particularly in social care services. As such priority must be given to a Scottish-wide review of social care addressing resources, training, structures, remuneration and career progression.


UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 145,000 members working in the public sector. UNISON Scotland represents workers from social work services throughout Scotland, with members employed as social workers, residential care workers and others administrating and supporting the social work team.

We welcome the opportunity to comment on the issue of Child Protection and the wider concerns of our members who work within Children & Families Social Work services throughout Scotland. We believe this inquiry to be timely, particularly given the current problems in recruitment, retention, job status and pay, along with the increasing pressures facing social workers in Scotland.

This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's response to the to the Scottish Parliament's Education Committee call for evidence on Child Protection


Recommendation 1

UNISON Scotland believes that there should be clearer guidance on the application of the Data Protection Act and issues of patient confidentiality to assist medical and other staff in deciding when they can disclose information where a child may be at risk.

The situation tends to be clearer when the child is the patient, however there are complications when the patient is the parent. This can be particularly difficult in cases of unborn children where there are known risks from other adults, or where the parent's drug use or mental health may be a risk factor and other agencies need access to this information in order to assess risk.

The O'Brien Report in particular but also Lord Laming's report both refer to these problems.

Recommendation 2

UNISON Scotland believes that an inherent weakness of CPC's is their detachment from practice on the ground. Many of our members regard CPC's as a senior management concept that is unresponsive and lacks real interaction with those employed in frontline social work.

As such, we believe that during the current review of CPC's, the Executive should be exploring methods for ensuring that CPC's retain a greater level of engagement with social work practice on the ground.

Recommendation 3

UNISON Scotland welcomes the concept of audits and quality assurance. However, we also believe that the resource implications of this recommendation have not been properly addressed.

In addition, it is the experience of UNISON Scotland members within social work that formal audits are time consuming and remove staff from service delivery tasks, further adding pressure on resources.

UNISON Scotland believes that in scrutinising public services it should be recognised that there is a wide range of factors, which determine the performance of public services. These include the funding available, access, the service environment and relationships with users and the wider community. As such, we believe that the performance management outlook used by the private sector is not directly compatible with use on public services.

Recommendations 4 and 5

Child Protection Committees have a key role in bringing together the agencies and departments responsible for child protection. However, it is still the case that in most areas they do not have the power to demand levels of service or practice from individual agencies. UNISON Scotland believes that this situation is to the overall detriment of effective child protection in Scotland and must be addressed in the current review of CPC's.

UNISON Scotland also believes that the current review should look closely at their ability of CPC's to deliver both at corporate or strategic level and at local/community/neighbourhood level. It should also examine the capacity of CPC's to fully involve the practitioners at the level of social worker, health visitor, general practitioner, local police services, local education services, housing and voluntary organisations. This is where the key communication lines are most critical.

An examination of the role of Child Protection Committees should also take into consideration other strategies for dealing with inter-agency co-operation such as Children's Services Forums examine how joint information on practice and guidelines could be facilitated for practitioners.

Recommendation 6

UNISON Scotland especially welcomes the recommendation that the Scottish Executive consult on the issue of Child Fatality Reviews. UNISON Scotland has long had concerns about the present ad hoc nature of inquiries and their varying quality.

UNISON Scotland believes that the Scottish Executive should facilitate a consistent approach to investigating, one which focuses on lessons to be learned and best evidence for affecting outcomes rather than a blame-based approach. It is our view that Local Authorities should also be encouraged to have defined internal procedures for reviewing and investigating cases involving the death of a child.

Recommendation 7

UNISON Scotland believes that a co-ordinated approach to collating and disseminating research and theory on child protection is essential to developing and improving the service.

However, it should be remembered that there are also resource implications. Whilst it may be quite a straightforward task to collate and disseminate, current workloads carried by core staff make it difficult to create the time for reading, researching and indeed training.

Recommendation 8

UNISON Scotland welcomes research in this area and believes that, where possible, this should directly involve practitioners.

Recommendations 9 and 10

UNISON Scotland strongly believes that allocation of resources is the key issue in Children Services Plans. We have commented on resources in terms of core practitioners but one of the most frustrating resource gaps for these practitioners is the lack of protective or preventative measures.

The shortfall in foster placements and the crisis in availability of residential care and education placements constitute a major difficulty for staff working with children. Placements that protect and contribute to the enhancement of children's lives are placements that are matched to their needs and available at the point they are needed, as clearly outlined by the Edinburgh Inquiry.

However, it is the experience of our members that in many areas access to placements is more often based simply on their availability at the time. This continues to mean that all too often children are left in risk situations, sometimes even with a Place of Safety or Child Protection Order, when there is no available resource.

This situation is obviously detrimental to effective child protection in Scotland and one which we believe requires a re-assessment by the Scottish Executive of the projections made about the level of resources needed in the future and the funding necessary to provide that.

Whilst UNISON Scotland welcomes the development of positive childhood initiatives, it should be remembered that they will usually rely on a network of services geared to enhancing childhood and family experience and which are also crucially geared to prevention of crises.

The general theme from our membership throughout Scotland is that preventative services are often not a statutory duty and therefore have been the first to be hit when resources have to be prioritised.

For example, Edinburgh has to spend some £20million over GAE to maintain its Social Work services. UNISON Scotland believes that there is a clear role for the Scottish Executive to back up its recommendations with the funding to make their implementation possible.

Recommendation 11

Joint funded initiatives are welcome, especially on the basis of matched outcomes. The key to assessing the effectiveness of services to children and families is an assessment of what works. All too often the assessment is made on the basis of questionable ‘common sense'. This is particularly important in relation to parents with drug use problems where the need for services extends beyond those directly aimed at children.

Recommendation 12

This recommendation is already best practice in many areas. It goes without saying that it needs to be matched by resources. Rarely are practitioners currently in the position of having an ideal plan and a contingency plan. All too often there can only be a pragmatic response based on the resources available.

Crucially, UNISON Scotland believes that their needs to be an understanding at all levels about what it means to assess and work with risk. Practitioners do not and should not think defensively. They must be given recognition for the fact they work with risk. One issue here is raised by the North East Child Protection Committee Inquiry into the death of Carla Bone, particularly in relation to resources and whether there is a common understanding across agencies of the concept of terms like ‘risk' and ‘concern'.

UNISON Scotland believes that an understanding of working with risk also requires corporate support for the people having to work with that risk. If there is an assessed 90% chance that a child will not come to harm, there is still a 10% chance that they will. There can be no absolute certainties and there will always be a tension between legitimate liberties, freedom and privacy and the need to protect children. UNISON Scotland believes that this needs to be formally recognised and articulated at the highest level.

The majority of evidence points to the need to have well resourced and organised risk assessment systems and therapeutic support after initial assessment and investigations. This is the phase when the real child protection work is done and the ongoing assessment and balance of risk becomes most important. UNISON Scotland believes that this area of social work needs to be addressed with more preventative services and community supports.

Recommendations 13 and 14

UNISON Scotland broadly supports the principles outlined. However, we also believe that the recommendations do not explicitly address the tensions inherent in ‘voluntary' and ‘compulsory' measures.

The concept of parents' co-operation probably leading to there being no need or justification for compulsory measures was poorly understood by the O'Brien Inquiry and is generally misunderstood by the public at large. UNISON Scotland believes that greater clarity is needed about guidelines and thresholds.

Recommendation 15

UNISON welcomes this recommendation and notes that Lord Laming's report made specific reference to information sharing and the use (or lack of availability) of shared ICT systems. However, as mentioned above, UNISON Scotland believes that there needs to be considerably more clarity about the legal context in which information gathered for one purpose can be shared for another. The lack of clarity remains a key problem for professionals in all agencies.

In addition, UNISON Scotland believes that the current proliferation of recording forms within Social Work Services to Children, currently three different sets of unrelated forms are required to be completed, is unhelpful.

In effect it means more form filling for records which has the ability to affect child protection work capacity. It is the view of our members in social work that a standard single record would be better suited to the task of child protection.

Recommendation 16

UNISON Scotland agrees that minimum training standards are required but also recognises that the reality of service delivery has to be addressed.

It is the experience of our membership that where local authorities have set down such standards, recruitment problems have made them very difficult to operate. Again, resources are a major issue and if unrealistic standards are set they may only serve to reduce the availability of staff in a sector that is already suffering significant staffing shortages.

Recommendation 17

UNISON welcomes a regular review of performance but, as we have outlined throughout this response, there is also a need to review this in the context of the resources available.

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For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX

Tel 0141-332 0006 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

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