The government has been accused of making radical changes to child protection policy without considering the evidence by a Liberal Democrat former shadow children’s minister.
Baroness Walmsley told an NSPCC fringe debate at the Lib Dems’ conference in Liverpool that the abolition of the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit was one example of this.
“What is important about the new government is that we don’t only have new ideas but we test them out with people who know on the ground whether there are any pitfalls or unintended consequences,” she said.
Walmsley, co-chair of the party’s education, families and young people backbench committee, said she could understand the rush to make changes early on in government. “But that mustn’t become entrenched in the coalition. We must be a listening government,” she added.
She recognised that the Conservatives’ flagship Big Society concept could present opportunities in child protection, but expressed misgivings that it could be used as a cheaper alternative to existing services.
“It’s important that we don’t see volunteering as a substitute for good quality professional services,” she said. “We mustn’t use financial concerns as a reason to put inappropriate pressure on volunteers to do jobs that should be done by professionals.”
Walmsley was optimistic that the Munro review into child protection could reduce barriers faced by social workers but she warned that spending cuts would mean that they continued to face huge demands. She insisted some low-cost solutions were available to ease the burdens on the profession.
“In the situation we are in, we are unlikely to be able to reduce the size of caseloads,” she said. “I see no reason why the quality of training of supervisers shouldn’t be improved – that shouldn’t necessarily cost more.
“It’s up to people like me who understand the importance of early intervention to encourage the government to go just for outcomes that are good for now in the short term but produce good outcomes in the long run, making a difference to people’s lives.”
Diana Sutton, the NSPCC’s head of public affairs, expressed misgivings about the coalition’s work so far.
“The early signs aren’t encouraging – the scrapping of the NSDU and removal of the word ‘children’ from the name of the department and just having the name ‘education’: that doesn’t bode well for putting child protection at the centre of policy,” she said.
Although Sutton said that the Big Society could provide “eyes and ears” to protect hard-to-reach children, she believed there were limitations to the concept on the ground.
“I know that communities are reluctant to take action,” she said. “0They are worried that they will be seen to interfere and they are worried that their concerns won’t be acted on.”
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