Editorial Comment: Good idea or diversion?

Although much of the substance of the very welcome looked-after children green paper was heavily trailed, it contains a few surprises. One of its most radical ideas is the proposal to introduce independent practices of social workers, along the lines of the GP model.

But what are we to make of it? At first glance it appears to be yet another example of tinkering around with structures to give the illusion that something is being done to tackle a resource problem. It is one thing to argue that social workers will be freed from the shackles of local authority bureaucracy, but where does it leave the emerging children’s services departments whose corporate parenting role the rest of the green paper seeks to strengthen?

GPs and social workers are from very different tribes and it’s by no means clear that sufficient numbers of social workers will rush forward to offer their services as social entrepreneurs in this new role. It is also not clear whether setting up independently really will lead to a sweeping away of the tide of bureaucracy in the way the green paper envisages. Those working in the new
social work practices would still be subject to inspection and would have to think about staff issues, cash flow and all the other practicalities and risks attached to running a business.

That’s not to say that the idea is entirely without merit. Certainly many community nurses who have gone down the route of becoming social entrepreneurs have said it has helped give them the space to think creatively and get things done because decisions can be made quicker. However, their support for the idea has been qualified by concerns about the hassles that come
with the freedom of going it alone.

The plan for independent social work practices is no doubt born out of the best of intentions but there are serious questions about accountability under the new structure that could undermine a lot of the good ideas set out elsewhere in the green paper.

So yes, let’s have a look at the new proposal – but let’s not lose sight of reality.

The most pressing issue is tackling the recruitment problems in children’s services. More manageable caseloads would go a long way towards enabling staff to dedicate more time to the children who need and deserve it.

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