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Child Protection and the Trade Union

John Stevenson, Branch Secretary UNISON City of Edinburgh, Chair of UNISONScotland Communications & Campaigns Committee and practising Social Worker (Practice Team Manager, Children & Families Team, Muirhouse, Edinburgh).

Asking me to speak on Child Protection and the Trade Union is a dangerous thing because those who know me also know that I can bore at length on both at the drop of a hat.

But I will try to discipline myself to covering what I see as the three key issues that have faced us recently and will continue to do so in the future.

These are:

  1. Social Work professional issues are trade union issues because they are conditions issues.
  2. The Scottish Executive's pronouncements on Child Protection this week, while welcome in many ways, are still seeking to divorce themselves from the obvious reality - the lack of resources. But worse, they imply - and very often directly say - that the problem is practice and procedures. They blame us because they will not provide the tools.
  3. I want also to address four inquiries briefly both as part of the general thrust affecting all of these issues but also separately at the end.

1. Social Work Professional Issues

Professional issues are trade union issues because they relate to our members' employment.

They are trade union issues because the Child Protection Act and Professional Registration mean that if our members' professionalism is questioned, it could mean the end of their livelihoods.

And they are trade union issues because basically our members expect us to speak up for them and the services they provide. Nothing throws this more into focus than the massively supportive and encouraging responses I have had from members across not just Edinburgh but the whole of Scotland who were basically saying - thanks for speaking for us - thanks for giving us a voice. There is no greater responsibility on a trade union than to provide that voice.

Child Protection is a trade union issue because of all that, but also because child protection is about defending the powerless, it is about trying to help children reach their potential in life, to have opportunities and to find security. If those are not trade union principles, I don't know what are. And of course protecting children is everyone's job, not just the professionals.

Our representation of members in the O'Brien aftermath meant we had to help others' understand not only the practice context but also the legal context and the research context. We had to understand and communicate the professional issues so that we could represent our members.

When O'Brien glibly stated that there was a ‘culture' that children should be with their own families, we had to point out that the Children (Scotland) Act says they should be with their own families - that all the research shows that children do better in their own families than in corporate care - that the law does not require a parent to justify why they should take their own baby home from hospital. Most of all, the law does not state that because you have a drug habit or a brain injury, you cannot be allowed to look after your own child. Children have a right to family life, parents have a right to family life, that's the Human Rights legislation. Yes we have a role in ensuring safety, but the law is clear about that too when it talks not just of significant harm but also of the need to have evidence of that.

And then, at the end of it all, the Council's far more wide-reaching staff inquiry came up with the conclusion that no-one should be disciplined - only confirming O'Brien's statement that no individual was to blame.

However, we must not ignore that a child died and that lessons always have to be learned. The tragedy of that is felt more strongly by those involved than by anyone else. But it is important to recognise that any inquiry will uncover issues which need to be addressed. That does not mean that any of those issues directly contributed to the child's death.

To represent members through this we had to make professional arguments. We had to show why practices can build up to accommodate a chronic and long-standing lack of resources and we had to communicate those to the public and most of all politicians who we found were woefully ignorant of the statutory base of social work services, the range of those services and the enormity and complexity of the task.

We were even told we had 4,000 social workers (information from the Evening News) and many were shocked to discover we only had 115 in children & families services if fully staffed with just half qualified to do child protection.

My argument is that all of this demonstrates we cannot separate professional and employment issues, or political issues for that matter. We must be prepared to take on the professional arguments and the political arguments as well as the employment issues.

That means we need better research, better full time resources but also more practitioners being prepared to be stewards and activists and being welcomed for their professional knowledge as much as for their service conditions knowledge.

2. Scottish Executive Pronouncements

On Monday this week, the Scottish Executive told us we weren't doing a good enough job, systems needed to be fixed and by golly they'd be tough in making sure it happened.

They also told us resources weren't the issue, it was systems. Inquiries, they said, confirmed this.

Well, I'd like to know what inquiries they were reading. It couldn't have been Laming because it was accepted that workers in Haringey were carrying over the recommended limit of cases. In that case it was 19 instead of 13 or 14. 19 is the standard in Edinburgh and they plan three years to get it down. But in many other areas of Scotland I know caseloads are even higher with less controls than were already in place in Edinburgh.

It couldn't have been Laming because he pointed to the disgrace of London boroughs spending LESS than their grant allocation on Social Work.

Perhaps it was the O'Brien Inquiry. O'Brien noted that no worker before the inquiry mentioned being overloaded with work. However, O'Brien also noted that the inquiry's remit did not cover resource issues.

It couldn't have been the Edinburgh Inquiry. That said that there should be a choice in placing young people in residential units. To ensure that choice, units had to operate normally with vacancies. Since then in Edinburgh we have LOST over 20 places in units.

The main reason is not stingy councils but a Scottish Executive whose forecasts still say we need fewer and fewer places when anyone working at the coal face will tell you we need more and better places - but most of all we need choice and a place at the time the child needs it, not when they have built up a tariff harm or offending.

It couldn't have been the Scottish Executive's own reports because they point out that there is not enough staff. It was they who brought in the fast track trainees. It was they who put all the extra money into ring fenced short term projects that pulled more and more staff away from the core high priority child protection tasks.

And it couldn't have been their own statistics that show that just about every local authority in Scotland has to spend well over the Scottish Executive's GAE funding in Social Work just to tread water. In Edinburgh this amounts to £20 million.

If it couldn't have been all these things, then what was it?

Perhaps it was what affects everyone when it comes to child protection. That syndrome we know as "It wisnae me, so blame the social worker".

Maybe I'm being guilty of having a bit of a knockabout and I do accept there are serious issues in the Scottish Executive's strategies I would want to highlight.

  • Yes, we want quality assurance. That way we can expose the problems and share the responsibility and risk.
  • Yes, we want inspections. That way we can make sure nobody can claim they didn't know what was happening.
  • Yes, we want clear and defined standards because we, the people doing the job, have been demanding them for years and years.

The trouble however is that what has been published so far are really principles, not standards. Principles are fine, you cannot argue with them, they are mum and apple pie. But they cannot be measured. We need clear expectations and clear ways of measuring if they are being met.

We are not afraid to have our practice examined, so long as the scandal of the lack of resources we are having to work within is also examined.

3. Inquiries

Never let us forget that inquiries happen because a child has been abused who should not have been abused or a child has died who should not have died.

The Edinburgh Inquiry was the worst scenario to face any social worker. That children were systematically abused by people who called themselves social workers shocks us all.

But even in that, systems that gave such low respect to residential workers were bound to attract the wrong people. Systems that treated children in care as second class citizens were bound to have at least the potential for abuse. But the bottom line is that people abused these children and that should not have happened.

But the inquiries that have caused so much public denigration of social workers have been the more recent ones. But even then, let us not forget - as indeed Caleb Ness's own mother told the press - it was not a social worker that killed Caleb Ness. Sometimes you would be forgiven for thinking they had.

In the O'Brien Inquiry, the majority of recommendations applied to Health Services and other agencies but all of the vilification was reserved for the social workers.

After O'Brien, social work in Edinburgh has reviewed its procedures and audited all its child protection cases. We were pleased at an 85% pass rate which I suspect many other authorities would be pleased with if they did the same exercise. Whether Health would be pleased or not will depend on when they actually get round to doing their own review. I don't see that splashed across the press.

These two inquiries, along with the Carla Bone inquiry have come up with amazingly similar findings. Those are the need for better communication within Health and Social Work Services and between Health and Social Work services.

Yet, Edinburgh's response has been to plan to merge Children & Families Social Work into Education and that small insignificant little service called Community Care would be taken over by Housing. The latter may not happen now that councillors have at last spotted what Community Care services do, how extensive they are and the fact that they don't just cover people in Council Housing. What they plan for Criminal Justice is strangely obscure.

Such a reorganisation will not learn one single lesson from any of the inquiries in the last five years.

Worse still, it will fly in the face of some recommendations and increase the very risks identified by inquiries.

One of the key issues identified by inquiries has been the need to ensure joint working and information sharing between Community Care, Children & Families and Criminal Justice. How do you achieve that by splitting them into separate departments?

That, at the moment, is an issue for Edinburgh but it may well become an issue for all of Scotland.

I don't want to dwell on a local issue, but let me just let you know about why this came about and what the so-called evidence is.

It follows Lord Laming's report that called for better liaison between agencies. The Government's Green Paper in England then translated this into childrens services trusts or departments. Everyone struggles with how it made that link. Eight English authorities piloted this, all but one said it wasn't working and one, if not two, backed out completely.

Brighton created a merged service and is held up as a model by Edinburgh's administration. Held up as a model when it was one of the lowest performing social work services in the latest government audit.

Haringey has ‘unmerged' its social work service from Housing in light of the Laming Report. The tragic death of Victoria Climbie took place, as Laming said, in a context where people ‘took their eye off the ball' during an unsettling reorganisation.

So clearly, the UK Government response is not learning lessons and the Scottish Executive, although their work has been far better researched in my view, has to guard against making the same mistake.

The Carla Bone Inquiry brought up so many evidenced and perceptive recommendations. It was a genuine attempt to look at how things could have been done better even in a context when everyone knew that this tragedy was largely outside any protective system that could have been in place.

Real practical recommendations like better admin support, defining terms like ‘risk' and ‘protection', better support systems for health visitors, and an identification of the need to keep councillors informed of the issues in child protection rather than just sanitised statistics.

The Edinburgh Inquiry in 1999 stressed the need for the care of children to be a corporate responsibility across departments. Crucially it demanded a clear statement that social workers work with risk - a concept rarely understood. I tell anyone who wants to listen that if there is a 90% assessment that a child will be safe, there is still a 10% risk they will not be. That cannot be eliminated it can only be managed - and mostly that needs resources.

To Edinburgh's credit, they made that statement about risk in 1999. They seemed to forget it in 2003 but they have reiterated it in a council report only last week.

O'Brien unfortunately let all these reports down.

I cannot overstate the anger of those who voluntarily went to that inquiry to give their best efforts to describe what happened and to genuinely want to be part of a process to learn lessons if lessons had to be learned.

For their efforts, these committed professionals working with children day in day out were treated with a lack of courtesy bordering on rudeness with an adversarial culture throughout that made the exercise seem more like an inquisition than an inquiry. Many then faced vilification in the press and months of stress under a further internal disciplinary investigation, thankfully to be cleared at the end.

The O'Brien report often contradicts itself, it accepts evidence it has already rejected and it draws conclusions about some staff without even calling them to the inquiry. It chooses to believe evidence from some witnesses with no corroboration, yet rejects evidence from some witnesses despite corroboration. It, in some areas, makes recommendation based on no evidence apparent in the report. It called for an investigation of a manager who spoke to a witness before the inquiry. A manager giving genuine support to an employee was ridiculously tarred by an allegation of coaching - thankfully when the real evidence was heard he was not only found to be innocent - he was in fact following good management practice to support staff. Just one more example of the flaws in understanding in this report.

The report is often inaccurate and displays a lack of understanding or cognisance of the law relating to child protection and the child protection procedures. In one statement it criticises for not following child protection procedures, yet in another it contradicts the existing child protection procedures.

As the report itself indicates, it only selectively quotes the transcripts. This has led to some witnesses having comments or answers published without the full context of their evidence. It is also full of value judgements and a literary tone that would be more at home in a tabloid than a serious report.

It is clear that several conclusions made by the inquiry are not based on its own evidence and are unfair on the people concerned.

For example, the Inquiry even accepts a witness's evidence that a case conference minute was inaccurate when it also finds that the minute was not in fact circulated to that witness.

I could go on for ages. In a perverse way I am almost disappointed the Council did not attempt to discipline someone because I would have liked to have heard the Inquiry account for itself at an Employment Tribunal.

But worse still were the councillors of all parties who became experts on the report without clearly having had the time to read it. I mean, who needed to read it when you could get a fair summary in the press?

All this points to the need to have a proper and standing system for such inquiries as opposed to the ad hoc arrangements.

We need good internal review systems when a child known to social work dies. And we must accept that children will die. Not all deaths are avoidable. The actions of adults are not necessarily predictable. Society and politicians have to address that reality.

What is the way forward?

We need a national system that inquires into these consistently with a full understanding of the social work context, allied to health service and police issues - with an understanding of the law, and mostly with a willingness to look at the fundamental role of resources.

And UNISON should be campaigning for the real lessons, the evidenced lessons to be learned. We should be prepared to stick our necks out and say what we think is the best way forward. That means speaking out clearly and saying:-

  1. The key issue is a long term chronic lack of resources. With appropriate resourcing, many current systems can deliver all that is required from recent inquiries and Scottish Executive reports. This must be the number one priority.

    It is impossible 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.

    No service can operate with 40% to 50% shortfalls in staffing which is not unusual across Scotland. To talk about systems and procedures in that context has a feel of fiddle and burning to it.

    This can only be addressed by a Scottish-wide review of social care addressing resources, training, structures, remuneration and career progression. A review that lifts the profile of this crucial job we do and improves the way all social work services are valued. UNISON has been calling for this for almost three years.

  2. More work is needed on integrating the roles of Children & Families, Community Care and Criminal Justice in all aspects of child protection, community safety and youth crime to provide for a consistent partnership with Housing, Health and Police etc.

  3. We need better political understanding of the law regarding child protection, the management of substance abuse and on thresholds in the law and in society for 'good enough care'. This has already been raised by Cllr Maginnis in Edinburgh and goes alongside the guidance in 'Getting Our Priorities Right' and findings of the Carla Bone report. That report says that the Child Protection Committee has the key role and "should debate the need to develop guidance for staff in all agencies to identify a common understanding of what is meant by the terms ‘in need',' vulnerable', ‘neglect' and ‘requiring protection'." (See 1.1-1.4, pages 44-45).

  4. Much of the ill-informed comments about Social Work and the simplistic criticism stem from a lack of knowledge among politicians and the public about the range, complexity and inter-dependence of Social Work Services. The Carla Bone Inquiry recognises this widespread problem and recommends: "36. We recommend that wherever possible Chief Executives and senior managers of other services should explain to elected members, Health Board members and the wider public, the tasks of their staff and the way in which they try to carry out their responsibilities. (See 11.5-11.6, page 70)".

  5. Individual specialisms and professional identities must be retained to provide the highest quality service - they must not be diluted into a one size fits all culture. Social Work professionalism is a bulwark against the worst political decisions that remove liberties and freedoms, and rights to care and self determination.

    Co-located (but not merged) joint working, particularly with Education but also with Health needs to be built on while retaining individual specialisms and professional lines for the benefit of children.

  6. There should therefore be a re-invigoration of Child Protection Committees or other measures like childrens services forums or other initiatives to:-
    • Make links between agencies more robust
    • Create systems that allow agencies to demand information and involvement in child protection cases, with lines of accountability to address any problems
    • Facilitate more formal joint working across agencies.
    • Facilitate more joint training across agencies.
    • Foster exchange initiatives for staff to directly experience working in partner agencies.
    • As recommended by the NECPC report, existing Child protection Committees should take seriously their role in alerting politicians at local and Scottish level of where resource issues are affecting child protection.
    • Local Neighbourhood Child Protection Committees or other forums to foster closer co-operation, joint working and joint training at local level to really allow the people delivering the services to work together, rather than just paper policies.

Most of all, we have to challenge the blame culture. We have to communicate what working with risk means and we have to make sure we have the information, the training, the backup and the systems to represent our members when they are under attack.

We are the voice of social care staff in Scotland. We must not be afraid to use that voice with all the resources at our disposal.


UNISON Edinburgh Submission to full Council 18 March re Social Work initiatives

UNISON Statement on Edinburgh Social Work Staffing Inquiry

Submission on Edinburgh Child Protection Audit

Updated Comments and Report - O'Brien Inquiry


A report on the future organisation and management of Edinburgh's Social Work Services

The Laming Report on the Victoria Climbie Inquiry

North East of Scotland Child Protection Committee (NESPC) review of the death of Carla Nicole Bone

The O'Brien Report into the death of Caleb Ness

UNISON Edinburgh: Interim Comments - December 2003 Preliminary Report on the O'Brien Inquiry

"It's everyone's job to make sure I'm alright" Report of the Child Protection Audit and Review Scottish Executive

Scottish Executive 'Getting our Priorities Right': Good Practice Guidance for working with Children and Families affected by Substance Misuse