MP Marcus Jones (third from left) meets social worker Jemma Fordham (far right) and foster parents Ruth and Aidan Haddon during his tour of Warwickshire social services department
Community Care is inviting newly elected MPs to spend a day with a frontline social work team to learn more about the vital work they do first-hand. A visit from Marcus Jones MP to Warwickshire Council came as a pleasant surprise for some practitioners. Daniel Lombard reports
MPs are often photographed meeting teachers and nurses, but how often are they seen with social workers or heard to champion the work they do? Marcus Jones, the newly elected Conservative member for Nuneaton, is hoping to help dismiss this impression by becoming the first MP to take up Community Care’s challenge to spend a day with social workers in his local authority.
Initially, news of his visit raised eyebrows among long-serving practitioners, who have been on the receiving end of so many reforms. But Jones, a solicitor by trade and former councillor, was warmly greeted by practitioners when he arrived at the children’s and adults’ services office in West Midlands town of Nuneaton.
While giving him a tour of her department, Sera Bailey, a team manager in the older people and physical disability service, told the MP: “When I told colleagues you were coming they were so surprised, they said ‘what, an MP coming to see us and what we do?’. Some of them had been working here for 20 years and it is the first time it has happened.”
Jemma Fordham, a children’s social worker, hopes visits such as these will help put social work on an equal footing in politicians’ minds with healthcare workers, police officers and other professions.
“It feels as though there’s a complete lack of understanding in wider society about the job we do,” she says. “Misconceptions are created and maintained by the media and politicians seem to passively go along with this without challenging it, which makes our job harder.”
Recalling the period in December 2008 during the national outcry over the Baby P case, Fordham, whose team covers Nuneaton and Bedworth, says the effect on service users’ attitudes towards social workers was frustrating.
“Families would throw it back at you and say ‘it’s disgusting’ as if each individual social worker had to take personal ownership for what happened,” she recalls.
During Jones’s visit, social workers tell him about the financial and social factors that added to the pressures of the job.
Liza Bennett, a practitioner in adults’ services, says the biggest challenge in providing care for older and disabled people was the uncertainty over budgets available to her, which has got progressively worse in the past six months.
“Sometimes we can just do the bare minimum and that’s just a sticking plaster,” she says. “You know the case will rear its head again in a few weeks. It leaves you feeling disappointed as a professional.”
Practitioners in children’s services are facing shortages of foster placements for teenagers and insufficient access to therapeutic interventions, according to Fordham.
Jones is sympathetic but can only say: “It is a matter for government and local authorities to work very closely to support these services which are crucial to the outcomes and aims of this government.”
As a Conservative, Jones strongly believes that community initiatives are vital to repair the “broken Britain” of his party’s political narrative, and wants social workers to help raise aspirations among families in his Nuneaton constituency.
“We have a number of communities where people are second and third generation unemployed, young people growing up in those households where they’ve never known anyone who has worked,” he says. “We have to support people at an early age to raise aspirations and make those communities stronger.”
Fordham, who works in a team specialising in care proceedings and adoption cases, agrees with the assessment of the problems in the north of the county, adding that many of the cases she sees involve drug and alcohol misuse.
The problem of spiralling caseloads in children’s social work was powerfully highlighted by a BBC Panorama programme in one of Warwickshire’s neighbouring authorities, Coventry Council, last November.
Fordham says this was an “accurate picture of what’s happening in social work teams across the country”, but it is not one she recognises in her team, which is now fully staffed.
The authority has gradually moved away from relying on agency staff, as it did when she joined the council as a newly qualified social worker in 2007, although Fordham now says “there are issues about the level of experience among our team”.
The biggest change she would like in children’s services is strengthening partnerships between children’s social care and other agencies such as SureStart.
“Perhaps if we were working from the same building things might be easier and families would understand our role better than they do now,” Fordham says. “Hopefully, we’d be more accessible and less scary to families.”
But for all of the difficulties of the job, Sera Bailey did not hesitate to describe how much she enjoyed serving the community as a social worker in Warwickshire.
After qualifying 10 years ago, she has not worked anywhere else, and says she feels “part of a big family”.
“All the staff are immensely supportive to me and to each other and do a fantastic job every day,” Bailey says. “Although it can be a tough job at times, particularly dealing with the unexpected, I wake up each morning for work with excitement for the day ahead because every day is completely different from the last.”
The enthusiasm of Bailey and her colleagues clearly leaves an impression on Jones.
“I was aware that social workers perform an important role in making sure we support the most vulnerable people in society, but the visit has really opened my eyes,” he says at the end of the visit.
“The social workers I spoke to all seemed very dedicated and very focused on improving outcomes and making sure they get the best results for children and older people. I was also intrigued to meet the foster carers and seeing the wonderful work they do to support vulnerable young people.”
Before dashing off to another meeting, Jones adds his full support to Community Care’s initiative of bringing politicians and practitioners closer together.
“It’s important for MPs to become involved in social services departments and get out and see what social workers do and what value they add.”
● Serves population of 535,100
● 593 looked-after children or 11 per 10,000 children (this is lower than the national average of 55 per 10,000 children)
● 482 children are subject to a child protection plan (nine per 10,000 children, less than the national average of 25 per 10,000).
● The council employs 170 social workers in children’s services and 136 in adults’ services. A recent Ofsted inspection found staff in children’s services, including newly qualified social workers, were well-managed and received high-quality supervision. However, there was inconsistent practice between teams and the quality of initial assessments was found to be variable, while high vacancy levels in the long-term team in one district have led to “very high caseloads in the duty team”.
MPs with social work pasts
Very few of the 650 Westminster MPs have a social work background. A study for the House of Commons library in 2005 showed the most frequently cited backgrounds for MPs before taking up their seat included business, law and other jobs within politics such as political organisers. Although the main political parties were unable to provide comprehensive information, the following MPs were once social workers:
● Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend
● Tessa Jowell, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood
This article is published in the 22 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “The day the MP called”