By Matt Bee
A fortnight after Channel Four’s Dispatches aired in which ‘Vicky’ went undercover at Birmingham children’s services, and the uproar is still yet to die down. Was it a violation of trust? Yes, undoubtedly. But was it the right thing to do?
Most of the profession appears to think not. You have to wonder how we’ve arrived at this point. Then again, if you’re a social worker who has ever tried to raise concerns within an organisation, you might not wonder so much.
Of course, there are whistleblowing policies, but these appear to be about as useful as the lookout on the Titanic. Practitioners report being bullied, lied to and sidelined altogether for daring to use them.
Putting on a positive front
And then there is the inspectorate. Ofsted regularly gauge the quality of our children’s services. But they’re not perfect – and they do have a history of missing key warning signs, such as at Haringey and Rotherham. Who can blame them, though, when public services go to such lengths to win a favourable report? One team manager I interviewed last year simply laughed when I asked if she was open with inspectors. Instead, she is guarded. After all, with a government poised and ready to come down like a ton of bricks, it’s hardly in the interest of a local authority to draw attention to its failings.
Towards the start of the Dispatches programme, Birmingham’s cabinet member for children’s services, Brigid Jones, admitted the difficulties Birmingham children’s services had faced – but on the whole she provided a positive overview of the progress that had been made.
Baring the reality
By prodding a camera into the service, that public front is punctured and we see a reality of high caseloads, social workers unable to cope, and managers overwhelmed and openly admitting they don’t understand the rationale for decisions being made. And then we see some of the decisions that are made, like bringing together a multi-disciplinary team into the same room and then instructing them to only speak on the phone.
All of this has been going on in a children’s service and without that camera, that portal, that social worker, ‘Vicky,’ we’d have never known.
Confirming what we know
Except, really, all she has done is confirm everything we’ve been saying all along – and not just about Birmingham, or even children’s services, but about our profession as a whole. Social workers can’t cope. They aren’t supported. Countless surveys have told us this, and now here it is on a TV screen broadcast to the nation. ‘I can’t do it,’ says one practitioner in the programme; ‘you can only go so far.’
Critics worry that, had the social worker been aware of the camera, she wouldn’t have made that admission. And that’s my fear, too. Because it was a powerful image and one, I think, the public needed to see.
Strapping cameras to ourselves and going undercover can hardly be an answer to our problems, but at least it casts our problems in a whole new light.
Into the nation’s living rooms
‘Vicky’ has shown us nothing new, nothing we didn’t know before, but she has gone about it in dramatic fashion. Instead of an open letter to the PM – and let’s face it, when does he ever write back? – or an online petition or even a protest march, this was a slab of primetime TV dropped in the living rooms of the nation like an anvil. Inescapable, irrefutable evidence of everything we’ve been saying. Public services are breaking apart. Social workers are struggling. Many are walking out.
It was all there.
So here, I thought, was gold dust for anyone wanting to demonstrate exactly how dire the situation has become in the wake of the cuts. And what did we do with it? We criticised ‘Vicky’ for betraying our trust and Dispatches for focusing too much on Birmingham and not enough on the wider picture.
An open goal missed
What better opportunity could we have had to argue that public services need proper funding, less red tape, and social workers the correct support? In footballing terms, this was an open goal. But instead of capitalising, we became embroiled in a debate about the rights and wrongs of a social worker going undercover. And once we’ve dusted our hands of that, we’ll probably go back to writing open letters to the PM which he’ll put in the bin.
Politicians only respond to public opinion, and for a brief moment a fortnight ago we had the public’s full attention. ‘Vicky’ handed it to us on a plate and had we run with it, had the public listened, had the politicians been forced to act, we’d all be lauding her as a hero. But instead we were all too horrified at the idea of a social worker poking about the place with a secret camera.
The rights and wrongs of her actions do need to be considered, but what a chance this was to show the public the reality of our work and to campaign for change. And how we wasted it.
Matt Bee is a social worker and freelance writer based in North East England