McTernan on politics

Social workers in Scotland have good cause to feel under siege.
They, alone among public sector professions, appear to have no
political friends. The publication of a recent inquiry report into
the death of Caleb Ness, an 11-week-old child who died at the hands
of his father, has made them feel even more beleaguered. The
inquiry team concluded that there had been serious failures of
systems and individual practice in both Edinburgh Council and
Lothian Health Board.

Yet accountability – as expressed in public and media anger – has
only been channelled at the city’s social work department. The
director Les McEwan has resigned and the convener Councillor
Kingsley Thomas is currently facing a sustained campaign –
orchestrated by the local evening paper – calling for his
resignation. Despite the fact that the health board’s failings were
manifest their chairperson Brian Cavanagh, himself a former
chairperson of social work, remains unchallenged and uncriticised.
All this is against a backdrop of a sustained assault by the
Scottish executive’s ruling parties on the children’s hearings
system – the jewel in Scottish social work’s crown.

North of the border youth crime has become the hot button issue.
Members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) working in tandem with
tabloid newspapers have manufactured a campaign of moral outrage
against Scottish young offenders – termed “neds” in slang.
Collateral damage in this pointless posturing may well be
children’s panels. These are alleged by leading politicians to be
“soft” on offenders. For all the evidence of their effectiveness –
and the European-wide admiration for them – children’s panels may
end up being reformed beyond recognition because they lack any
substantial support among Scottish parliamentarians.

All this should have made the annual conference of the Scottish
Social Services Council a sombre meeting. But it was the opposite.
Keynote speaker Professor Walter Lorenz in a survey of standards
across Europe pointed out the powerful position of the profession
in Scotland – indeed the UK – one of the few places in Europe where
social work has a statutory regulatory body.

There was a real buzz among those attending. Many of the challenges
– from providing long-term care to an ageing population to the
first minister’s aspiration to attract substantial immigration –
will increasingly need social work and social care skills. With a
powerful regulatory body raising standards and a demand for skills
spreading across the public services the truth is that the
profession’s future is in its own hands – not those of politicians.
As the conference title had it, there is a world to win.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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