When Tim Loughton was unceremoniously ousted in last September’s ministerial reshuffle, shock was quickly replaced by a sinking feeling for many in children’s social care.
For the ex-children’s minister – who held the shadow brief for seven years – had become one of those rare beasts in modern politics, a minister who actually knew what he was talking about. Even critics of his policies respected the fact that he’d done thorough research and understood the issues in the sector.
Speaking to Community Care nearly six months on, it’s clear Loughton is still passionate about his former remit, saying he intends to be “vociferous” on a range of children’s social care issues, “particularly anything I think is looking most vulnerable”.
‘Effective campaigning backbencher’
Perhaps this is why he was so frustrated when the children’s social care agenda was hijacked by the coalition’s schools agenda, something Loughton tackled head on when he appeared before an education select committee hearing last month.
Indeed, his knowledge and fearless criticism of his own government means he is fast establishing himself, according to the Spectator, as an effective campaigning backbencher on social care.
One issue he does not believe he needs to be vociferous about yet is the government’s slow progress to implement all the Munro recommendations for child protection. “Clearly the Munro report was very attached to me,” Loughton says. “It was the first thing I did when the government took office and I had a vested interest in making sure it worked.”
‘No reason to think government downgrading Munro’
But he has “no reason” to think the government is deliberately downgrading its importance. “I might have been more on the heels of people to get things going, perhaps, but I have no reason to think Edward Timpson is any less committed.”
Many have pointed out the apparent conflict between the Munro reforms and Gove’s main priority – adoption reform. One aimed to free social workers from bureaucracy and targets, while the other seems bent on increasing targets and data collection.
Again, Loughton is measured. “Obviously the adoption agenda is very high on the secretary of state’s priorities – perhaps understandably given his own personal link to it – but I don’t see it necessarily conflicting with Munro. I think the greater conflict is that adoption is getting more focus than the issues surrounding all children in care.”
‘Targets necessary to change social work mind-set’
Besides, he insists increased targets and transparency were a necessary evil to get local authorities to admit there were problems with their former approach to adoption.“We had councils telling us there were no problems with adoption. But when they started asking questions of their departments, some did have the good grace to admit there were issues.”
“Mostly it was about the mind-set of social workers who regarded adoption as the option of last resort. So, because it was a mind-set issue the government had to be forceful on it.”
He is, however, unhappy that the focus on adoption could eclipse other safeguarding issues, like child sexual exploitation. Despite wide publicity, including an ongoing criminal trial, he says the government’s relative silence is, “deeply worrying”.
Silence on sexual exploitation is ‘deeply worrying’
What needs to be done? Local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) are “absolutely key”, Loughton says, adding that the government needs to ensure they are funded sufficiently for this work.
“The better they are at bringing all the agencies together, the safer children will be. We’re asking a lot from them and LSCBs need to be taken seriously. For that they need a certain amount of resourcing and this is something I intend to watch closely.”
As the children and families bill gears up for its passage through parliament, Loughton is preparing himself for battle with a list of amendments. Foremost among these is legislation to force councils to undertake serious case reviews. The numbers commissioned by LSCBs has been falling, while the number of incidents meeting SCR thresholds has stayed steady.
‘Government needs power to compel councils to carry out SCRs’
While some of this could be attributed to the transition to full publication, Loughton is certain we are beyond that stage now. “LSCBs have to publish them in full, but they don’t have to commission them in the first place. The government has no powers to compel a council to undertake a SCR.”
Whatever happens, Loughton – who has always demanded full publication of SCRs – does not intend to let the issue go now. “A minister could ring up a LSCB and demand they do a SCR, but they could tell us to go stick it and sometimes they did. I think it is a serious flaw and I intend to raise it as the children and families bill goes through parliament.”
One gets the sense Loughton, adjusting to the unfettered life of a backbench MP and armed with knowledge, contacts and belief in his cause, is beginning to enjoy being a thorn in the government’s side.
Social work guide to serious case reviews