In the past there has been little love lost between the Tories and social workers, but shadow minister for children Tim Loughton is aiming to change all that, finds Andrew Mickel
Conventional wisdom says that Conservatives like social workers about as much as social workers like Conservatives. But the Tories might be headed for government – and with the party talking about families and the vulnerable, someone has to make both sides work together.
Tim Loughton, the shadow minister for children, is giving it a crack. This time last year he unveiled No More Blame Game, a pro-social worker report that called for a major recruitment campaign. He’s about to push a number of interesting amendments in the Children and Young Persons Bill report stage. He is also launching a review into youth justice, due next year.
But is the party coming with him? There is a sense that while it is changing its attitudes on social work, Loughton remains something of a pathfinder.
“I’ve tried to take a more positive view – much more than any other Conservative frontbencher for many years – that social workers are important,” says Loughton. “There’s nothing to fear under the Conservatives, and everything to gain.”
The Bill amendments he is about to push contain indications of life under the Tories, a mix of new ideas and similarities with the current government’s ambitions. A big area is kinship carers: Loughton wants funding to be made available for training this group.
Like the government, he is also keen to increase flexibility over ages to leave care – “initially 18 to 21” – and he also wants to cultivate the ability to re-join the care system later on if necessary.
He is most enthusiastic, though, about workforce plans, and first in line is the creation of a chief social worker post. “We should have someone who can speak up for social workers and be an identifiable face, and advise the government.
Child abuse scandal
“When there is a child abuse scandal, rather than some deputy officer from some local authority sheepishly coming on, we need someone to stand up and say: ‘we’ve got a shortage of social workers and this is not what is supposed to happen’.”
Loughton refers to the Bill as a “belated but good attempt” to help children, but one that puts responsibilities on local authorities without giving them the means to fulfil them. So, if the Conservatives were in charge, would there be more funding?
“It’s a question of investing to save. We have got to make a case to George Osborne and Co to invest in services for kids in the care system, on the basis that it’s cheaper and more effective to keep a family together.”
So what other policies can be anticipated under the Tories? He supports the principle of GP-style social work practices, as provided for in the Bill, but is more enthusiastic about Finnish-style pedagogues.
“What they [the Finns] say to us time and time again is, why is what you do in your country so risk-averse? That’s part of the reason that social workers get such a bad press – they may intervene far too early. Pedagogy is about empathising with your charge, as opposed to being the custodian.”
To facilitate this he’s looking to reduce bureaucracy, and to launch a high-profile recruitment campaign to allow reduced caseloads and more focused work.
“We’re trying to get back to the original concept of social workers, the job that I believe they joined to practice – early intervention for families, and not being characterised as child snatchers.”
That’s an unfortunately similar phrase to that used by his then-boss Andrew Lansley at the 2006 party conference referring to “snatch squads of social workers, taking children into care”. But Loughton says it is the current government that vilifies social workers, and work such as the 1989 Children Act shows the Tories are not the enemy.
“Doing the No More Blame Game report was a very serious attempt to address the relationship between us and social workers. But if we are to follow through on our policies on families and children, then we need to convince them that we think they are crucial,” says Loughton.
For Tim Loughton’s plans on overhauling the youth justice system click here