Should councils be more open about the impact of cuts on their ability to deliver social work services?

Sharon Shoesmith and delegates at Community Care's Baby P conference debated whether more councils should follow Birmingham's lead and admit when they have become 'unsafe'

By Rachel Schraer

Birmingham council is right to admit it is no longer able to deliver adequate child protection services, an audience of social workers heard at Community Care’s Baby P conference last week.

Sharon Shoesmith, the former Haringey director who was sacked by the council following the death of Baby P (Peter Connelly), suggested local authorities should be more honest about their inability to guarantee certain frontline services in the face of deep cuts.

“If there’s some challenge to police funding in a certain area or a certain aspect of policing, they’ll just say ‘we can no longer guarantee we can deliver on this’, on crime rate for example,” said Shoesmith.

“We feel unable to do that. We feel unable to say – if we have this number of cuts to our budget, we’re not going to be able to deliver the service that we would want to deliver.”

Delegates discussed Birmingham’s situation following a speech by Shoesmith about the nature of public accountability.

Birmingham’s children’s services department has had a troubled history dating back to 2008, when a serious case review found the death of Khyra Ishaq could have been prevented. Pressure on the council mounted until, earlier this year, its director of children’s services finally told councillors: “The immediate position is unsafe for children.”

Some delegates were concerned that Birmingham only admitted this as a way of absolving itself of future blame. One person claimed Birmingham was, in fact, “ok, because it’s unsafe”.

However, a delegate from Birmingham hit back at this: “Believe me, it’s not ok. We are at the moment, like a lot of local authorities, in a very bad place. But we are working our way through that. We’ve got a more accurate and self-reflective view about where we are right now.

“We have said that we’re unsafe, and we’ve been very clear about that and put it in the public domain, because we think that it’s incumbent on senior managers to know the service and understand what the issues are.”

What emerged from the discussion was a sense that, if other councils followed Birmingham’s lead rather than struggling to make ends meet, there might be a move towards greater public understanding of the pressures on child protection services – and away from scapegoating individuals.

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