Councils are “wrongly” citing data protection and human rights legislation to prevent parents from recording meetings with social workers, a group of lawyers has claimed.
The Transparency Project, set up by a group of family lawyers to promote understanding of the court system, sent a Freedom of Information request to all councils in England and Wales for their guidance around parents who record meetings. They found most did not have a policy in place.
‘Incorrect legal analysis’
Of those that did, most authorities said they would not permit parents to record meetings, citing the Data Protection Act and human rights legislation.
The Transparency Project said it believed these policies were based on “incorrect legal analysis”.
Barnet and Bradford councils had formal policies stating they would not allow parents to record meetings.
The Transparency Project, in an online post sharing the findings, said: “We are concerned the Barnet policy does not give clear reasons other than the anxiety of social workers, and that there are risks it will be interpreted by parents as deliberately hostile or obstructive.”
But a Barnet council spokesperson said: “We are content for meetings to be recorded between families and social workers, as long as this is approved in advance by both parties. This guidance should only be used when a prior agreement has not been made.
“The guidance is a response to several cases in the past when recorded meetings were edited out of context and placed on social media. We believe our guidance protects our social workers and families from risk of their private and confidential conversations being taken out of context.”
The lawyers said there were fears a blanket ban on recording would lead to social workers behaving defensively and interpreting parents’ recording as hostile or as a failure to engage.
Annie, a mother who has been subject to safeguarding proceedings and author of the blog Surviving Safeguarding, said she believed meetings should be recorded more regularly to build trust and promote transparency.
“There are instances where you read a social work report of a meeting you have attended, and that report bears no resemblance to what you experienced within that meeting,” she said.
“While I acknowledge each person attending a meeting could report something different as a result of their own values and agendas, parents feel disempowered because social workers are seen as professionals and therefore their report of a meeting is given higher status.
“I have personally experienced a social worker losing her temper with me in a meeting and banging her fist on the desk. However, this was denied by the social worker and could be taken no further as it was my word against hers.”
Of 166 councils in England and Wales responding to the request, 162 said they did not have a policy and 130 of those said they had no intention of developing one.
No formal policy
However, 11 councils, despite saying that they did not have formal policies, went on to detail how they would deal with requests or attempts by parents to record meetings.
The Transparency Project, in its analysis of the findings, said those councils that said they had no policy but went on to describe how they would deal with the issue or advise their workers were leaving families exposed to the risk the “un-policy” would be inconsistently applied.
East Sussex, despite saying it did not have a formal policy, stated: “Recording devices are not allowed owing to the potential for confidentiality breaches.”
Cardiff told The Transparency Project it opened child protection meetings with a disclaimer that recording is strictly prohibited and stated covert recording is in breach of a child or young person’s human rights.
Several others had informal policies stating recording was not permitted without consent or if it may intimidate others, or referred to the Data Protection Act.
Individual recordings for personal use are exempt from the Data Protection Act. If a recording is about a younger child and the person making the recording has parental responsibility for them then they may make the decision to record in their best interests.
Section 36 of the Act states: “Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes) are exempt from the data protection principles.”
‘Nothing to fear’
Cafcass was one organisation the Transparency Project flagged as having a good approach. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service said in its guidance social workers should have nothing to fear from covert recording.
“Our attitude should be, ‘I am doing my job and I have nothing to hide. I can explain why I said what I said or why I did what I did’,” the guidance said.
“We should always be transparent in our work. In this sense, we should expect that everything we say or write could become public knowledge.”
Lucy Reed, one of the Transparency Project’s founders, said she planned to use these findings as a springboard to produce guidance for councils and parents.
But concerns from the sector remained around parents who record meetings without telling the social worker, or planned to share the material with the media or online.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services said: “Trust should be the basis of all relationships during care proceedings, but when we reach the stage of covert filming it undermines this trust.
“There have been instances where recordings have been added to hate websites identifying social workers by name, which is very concerning, and this might explain some of the resistance in the sector to this practice to date.
“However, we know that the best way to protect our social workers, to ensure that the views of parents are being reflected correctly and to expose poor practice where it exists, is to have a culture of transparency and mutual respect. And where filming is taking place for all parties to be aware of this and be willing to be held to account for their conduct.”
Cafcass’s guidance said if a social worker found out they had been recorded without their knowledge, they should make sure the court knew the recording had been made covertly and could ask to see a transcript before it was presented as evidence.
British Association of Social Workers professional officer Nushra Mansuri said there was a danger that social workers could not be sure what would happen to the recordings after the meeting. It was when parents or carers went on to share the recordings publicly that problems arose about data protection and confidentiality arose.
“It’s one thing to make recordings for your own personal use but the test is whether you can then legislate against families sharing recordings on the internet,” she said.
She added social workers need to be confident with policy and legislation not just to protect themselves, but to be able to advise their service users where sharing recordings of a particular meeting might put them in the wrong legally.
“If it is something a parent feels gives them a little bit of power in a very difficult situation then that’s understandable. But individual social workers also understandably feel they are going to be very vulnerable and may become targets.”
She said the most important thing was that authorities have a consistent approach so everybody knows the legal framework and what good practice is in this area.
“The answers aren’t straightforward but it is something that needs a lot more interrogation by everyone involved, rather than being defensive.”