Awfully nice ministers

It is a sign of the times that it took two secretaries of state
rather than the usual one to cover the social care brief at the
National Social Services Conference last week. As health secretary,
John Reid now speaks only for adult social care, having ceded
children and families policy to his education counterpart, Charles
Clarke. Clarke was at his emollient best, Reid at his anodyne
worst, but their respective speeches had the desired, if
unambitious, effect. Nobody had reason to feel that the prospects
for social care were any bleaker on leaving Brighton than when they

Clarke was at pains to reassure his audience that children’s trusts
would not result in the obliteration of social care by education
priorities. But outside the conference hall optimism about the
children’s green paper was harder to find. While Clarke was doing
his best to cheer everyone up, his children’s minister, Margaret
Hodge, seemed intent on doing the opposite. In one newspaper
interview, given on the eve of the conference, she appeared to make
up policy on the hoof by saying that failing children’s trusts
would be taken away from local authorities and given to the
voluntary or private sector. This is in spite of the fact that few
in the voluntary and private sectors are likely to be interested in
the job, or, in the case of child protection, qualified to take
over accountability.

Hodge also failed to reassure in her comments on one of the most
insistent criticisms of the green paper, namely its apparent
determination to rush ahead with new initiatives before they have
been tested. Her impatience with evaluating new concepts like
children’s trusts and identification, referral and tracking (IRT)
is worrying, especially when coupled with her harsh remedies for
failure. Cracks have already begun to appear in IRT, one of the 10
pilot schemes having failed to negotiate the legal and professional
pitfalls of sharing information. Children’s trust pilots,
meanwhile, are only now being set up. It is essential that the
government keeps a more open mind on both of these initiatives, as
well as on other points raised during the green paper consultation,
than Hodge seems willing to do.

Clarke told the conference that it was important to avoid
prescriptive approaches to reform, agreeing the principles and then
talking maturely about how to put them into effect. It is to be
hoped that it is this spirit of discussion that prevails in the
coming months.

Meanwhile, health secretary John Reid came over as a nice enough
chap in his first speech to the conference. He didn’t display a
great grasp of policy, but then he was appointed for his political
skills, to be brought to bear for foundation hospitals. His
anecdotes were certainly more engaging than Alan Milburn’s naming
and shaming bravado of two years ago, and last year’s “look I’m
being cuddly” effort.

But for all Reid’s warm words – the favourite one being “values”
which he used a mind-bending 34 times – it’s hard to get excited
about his announcement of a national director for social

The social care “tsar” will be on a par with a host of other roles
such as the director of primary care, implying social care is one
strand of care services rather than a fully fledged profession like
medicine or nursing. Social care professionals need reassuring that
this is really a powerful voice for social care, not a tsar tasked
with eliminating delayed discharges.

We must wait for the details but the initial feeling is that it
just doesn’t have enough clout. Certainly not enough to allay fears
that social care no longer has a voice at the top table. Let’s hope
that the rumours are true, and the soon to be announced director of
children’s services at the Department for Education and Skills –
which really is a position of power and influence – goes to someone
from the social care field who will fight our corner.

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