The shadow children’s minister has branded the government’s Children and Social Work Bill “one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation” she has seen as an MP.
Speaking at the National Children and Adult Services Conference today, ex-social worker Emma Lewell-Buck told sector leaders that barriers social workers face would not be addressed by the ‘power to innovate’ clause in the bill currently making its way through the House of Lords.
The clause allows the education secretary to grant councils exemptions from statutory duties under children’s social care for an initial period of three years, subject to parliamentary approval. Lewell-Buck said removing duties set out in law was unnecessary.
“I remember all-too-well the frustrations in practice but many of the things that social workers find inhibitive, such as excessive case recording, are in secondary legislation, guidance or part of the custom and practice of their local authority. All of which can be changed without primary legislation,” she said.
Lewell-Buck said ministers were not getting the “basics” right on social work reform. Reducing caseloads, preventing social workers from leaving the profession and training social workers holistically were all things the government had failed to do, she argued.
“One of the overriding problems is that the government seem unable to tackle the crisis in social work because they can’t address how to deal with the significant increase and the sheer number of people needing the service,” she said.
“To do that they would have to admit what many of us in this room know, closure of Sure Starts, removal of Early Years Help and family start. Punitive welfare policies, austerity measures are impacting everywhere and nowhere more starkly than in children and families social work.”
The government has been “unable” to explain where the demand for exemptions from social care legislation, contained in the bill, has come from, she added.
“This is poor legislation at its best. [It’s] making dangerous and fundamental reforms to children’s social work without consultation, any evidential base, any robust assessment. Worst of all, it’s a bill about children and social workers with no input at all from children or social workers.”
The government has said that the exemptions powers will be used to enable councils to test new ways of working in children’s services. In an effort to allay concerns over a lack of safeguards in the bill, it has tabled an amendment which would introduce a requirement for an expert panel to vet any application made by councils for exemptions so that the potential impact on children and families is assessed.
The chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, has previously said the exemptions offer an opportunity to trial changes to a system that is currently “overly-bureaucratic”. She said most people agreed with the 2011 Munro review’s assessment that social workers were not being given enough time to do direct work with families.
“If we don’t support this power we can no longer complain that the system is too bureaucratic and that we were hamstrung by legislation,” she said.