Amid the controversy surrounding the Children and Social Work Bill, Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), is keeping an open mind.
Asked what he thinks of the row over the legislation, he responds: “Which row?”
Well, quite. The government has run into trouble on several fronts. The fiercest opposition centres on two proposals – a plan to allow councils to request exemptions from social care law to test new ways of working, and moves to increase government influence over the way social workers are regulated and the standards they need to meet.
When we meet at the National Directors of Children’s and Adult Services conference, the government is scrambling trying to allay fears the exemptions proposals will threaten key safeguards for children ahead of a key vote in the House of Lords.
That vote took place this week. The government suffered a damaging defeat and the exemption clause has been removed from the bill, at least for now. Ministers may look to re-insert the measures when the bill reaches the House of Commons but the perceived need for the clause, and its path to becoming a reality, has become far murkier.
Hill, speaking before the Lords debate, says directors can see both potential benefits and reasons for caution in the exemption proposals.
“We can see that if you want to try something a little bit different that having some freedoms to do that could be a good thing. We’re not down on the principle of that, and we can think of really good examples.”
However, he holds some concerns over how the impact of these freedoms would be measured.
“Say they gave you a freedom for three years, how would you be sure at the end of three years that that freedom had made a difference or not? It seems to us that if you were going to go along that path, there had to be a really clear evaluation about whether the freedom was the ‘x factor’ that made the difference.”
The regulation proposals are in better shape, he says, thanks to the decision by ministers to rethink their original plans to bring social worker regulation under direct government control. A new independent regulator – Social Work England – will be set up instead.
This change was something directors had suggested to ministers earlier in the year, says Hill, and he welcomes the fact they listened.
“We were very keen to have a social work specific regulator. We were worrying [though]: it’s got to register social workers, it’s got to regulate social work training courses, but it’s also got to deal with the issue of de-registration.
“You would have the government striking off social workers, and that just seemed to be much too close a connection.
“To have the government both setting the standards, which is perfectly fine and reasonable, but then also being the people who are making the individual judgements about individual social work cases, just seemed to us to be entirely wrong.”
A thread running through all children’s services debates currently, and a key topic at the conference, is how services manage the influx of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
A report published by the ADCS last week found government funding only covered half of what was needed to support the children, with local authorities being expected to meet the rest of the costs.
Hill has nothing but praise for local authorities responding to the challenge.
“I think local authorities have been quite extraordinary in coming up with offers for kids who are coming into the country. I think the problem is the system we’ve got set up, the National Transfer Scheme, has been set up to take 9 or 10 kids a week across the whole country.
“At that rate the system was kind of working fine, the trouble is the moment you say let’s take quite a few hundred, that system is going to really creek because we haven’t got enough to meet demand. We are really going to struggle.”
The funding pressures on councils are high on the conference agenda, with several calls for the government to use this month’s autumn statement to release some more cash for frontline services. Does Hill expect Theresa May’s new-look administration to find any cash to help alleviate the struggle facing children’s services?
“I’m not holding my breath,” he replies. The scepticism is partly explained by Hill’s role as a director of adult’s and children’s services at Essex council. An “absolute crisis” is engulfing social care for older people, he says, and in need of funding desperately. He also says there is evidence in children’s services that improvements to care aren’t always linked to high spending.
“In the Ofsted annual report in June, I thought they made some very interesting observations. They couldn’t find any correlation between spend and quality. It wasn’t the case that the Tri-Boroughs, or us [Essex], or Leeds were good or better because they were spending loads more money.
“In fact there is some emerging evidence which Ofsted commented on – they were a bit careful about the wording – [but] they did say there does seem to be a correlation between the good or better authorities and an efficient use of resources.
“If you unpack that a bit further I think what they are talking about is getting early intervention – and what I tend to call ‘firefighting’ – in a better balance.”
Balancing the early support services with more high-end services is one of Hill’s key aims to see less children taken into care.
“I think people understand children need to be in their own families, I think what happens is the child deaths are so horrible that politicians and practitioners all end up responding in a defensive way rather than a way that’s about balancing risk properly.
“It’s a bit like creating all of your rules for flying an airplane based on the airplanes that crash. You’d end up being more and more careful to the point you’d end up not flying an airplane.”