Tim Loughton insists he is prepared to trust social workers and free them from central controls – even in the face of high profile mistakes.
The shadow children’s minister maintains a Conservative administration would not engage in “knee-jerk reactions”, as he claims the current government did after Baby P.
Cynical observers will point out that such promises are easily made when in Opposition but more difficult to keep when faced with a baying media out for blood over the death or horrific abuse of a child.
However, Loughton maintains that if they win an election, the Tories are prepared to face up to the risks and the public resistance that will inevitably accompany freeing social workers from data collecting, meeting key indicators and trusting their judgement.
“Cases like Baby P and Khyra Ishaq are always going to come along,” he says. “However, I would prefer that when they do, that it has happened after social workers and other professionals have spent quality time assessing the situation, had complete information at hand and made a value judgement call. Social workers will always make mistakes, just like any other person, but I think those mistakes are less likely if we maximise the amount of face time social workers spend with families.”
After a high profile failure Loughton would want to know three things: Was the wrong decision made because of a lack of ability, because of false information or because of a failure by agencies to provide the links in the chain?
He pledges to empower social workers by enabling them to set up social work practices – a policy he says is in tune with the party’s desire to give responsibilities to teachers, doctors and nurses: “The same should be happening with social workers – it’s just that the perception of the standing of social workers has got to be seriously rehabilitated before people will accept that we’re going along the right lines.”
Interest in the current pilots has been lukewarm so far but this, Loughton maintains, is not because social workers are lacking enthusiasm but because councils and unions have vested interests in seeing the pilots fail.
He says Eileen Munro, the Professor of social policy at the London School of Economics poised to review the sector for the party, will look at whether “in those authorities that are consistently underperforming, in safeguarding in particular, it should be mandatory to start using social work practices”.
But he admits that social work practices are a long term vision for the Tories. The short term reality, he says with refreshing honesty, will largely consist of fire-fighting.
“It’s definitely a case of manning the barricades for the foreseeable future,” he admits. He is philosophical about the likelihood that preventive services will be cut just to maintain statutory services around child protection and is careful to make no promises around money.
If the Tories get in “every budget across the government will be reviewed for value for money,” he says. Nothing beyond the NHS or international development will be ring-fenced or protected from possible public sector cuts.
No extra money and more children going into child protection sounds like a recipe for a vicious spiral of disaster but Loughton is convinced the current increase in referrals are at least part in result of the recession: “It has combined with the cumulative effect of years of not valuing the social care workforce with all the associated problems of high vacancy rates and then we’ve also got the aftermath of Baby P.”
He insists the Tories’ plans to attract more and better quality social workers and cut bureaucracy and the end of the recession will create more capacity and he is convinced that the current high levels of referrals are an abnormality.
“I’m not convinced it’s a long term trend, we can already see that referral rates have dropped from their height and there is some evidence that judges are rejecting care applications for not meeting thresholds.”
Much seems to depend on his conviction that current rates of child protection referrals and care applications are a blip. Only when they start to drop can the role of Cafcass be evaluated. “It would be unfair to try and judge it at this stage when there’s this surge but they obviously have some serious questions to answer if they don’t bring the ship under control soon,” he adds.
This article is published in the 11 March 2010 issue of Community Care under the heading ‘More face time, less red tape’