A baptism of fire. That’s how Emma Lewell-Buck remembers her introduction to child protection social work. It was 2007 and the woman who is now Labour’s shadow children and families minister had just joined Sunderland City Council.
She barely had time to get her feet under her desk before being landed with a “phenomenal amount of court cases”.
“My first ever care proceedings was just a few months after I qualified and I had fourteen parties to the proceedings,” she recalls over the phone from her office in Parliament. “I remember just being stood thinking I haven’t been qualified for five minutes and here I am getting battered by one barrister after another for six hours a day, five days a week.”
Her caseload included a violent family and after working with them she became a go-to social worker for similar cases. The constant stream of cases involving violent and intimidating families took its toll.
“The reality is that it breaks you after a while because there’s only so much of that kind of constant violence and fear and intimidation you can take on a daily basis,” she says. “I’m a pretty tough cookie but at one point I ended up off sick for about a month.”
“There was a parent who chased me from the car park to where our office was, which was a good ten-minute walk. Parents used to chase us and try to assault us on a daily basis,” she says with a laugh that underlines that it was anything but funny.
“I had police alarms in my house. I was getting taken to court with police protection and held in victim support suites and rolled out to give my evidence and then taken back.”
Not that her time as a social worker was all terrible. One time an adoption worker showed her a photo of some children she worked with until they were placed for adoption one year on. “I didn’t recognise them,” she says. “The adoption worker said: ‘You did that. Look at the colour in their cheeks and their hair.’ The whole time I worked with them they had sallow skin and sad eyes. When you see things like that you think, yeah, wow.”
Lack of understanding
Today Lewell-Buck’s social work days are behind her. In 2013 she became the MP for South Shields and was recently appointed as Labour’s shadow children and families minister.
If her pre-Parliamentary career was a crash course in the reality of frontline social work, the problem with her new workplace is an ignorance of that reality.
“I don’t want to be rude to anybody but there is a big lack of understanding in Parliament about how social work operates on the ground,” she says.
Part of the problem, she says, is that social workers cannot tell the world about the good work they do because that would involve putting children at risk and compromising their anonymity.
“Victims will go in the paper and say thanks to the police, but no four-year-old child is going to go to the press and go: ‘My social worker stopped me from being hurt or being abused every week.’ The parents are never going to go to the press and say a social worker rescued my child from the hell they were living in because they are sometimes the ones perpetrating that hell.”
Frontline social workers are also too busy to have the time to go around banging the drum for the work they do, she adds.
But the lack of understanding about social work that results from this means successive governments have acted in ways that make social workers’ jobs harder, she says.
“Politically there’s always been this knee-jerk reaction to when something goes wrong to straight away condemn the social worker and then completely change legislation to make the social workers’ job even more difficult, which actually takes them even further away from families. It’s this never-ending cycle where the only solution is to legislate or put more restrictions in place.”
Too much of her and her former social work colleagues’ time was consumed by form filling and other red tape instead of working with families, she says. Not that she sees the “exemption clauses” in the Children and Social Work Bill, which would let the government temporarily exempt local authorities from duties they have under social work law, as a solution.
“I’m very concerned about this,” she says. “If something is going to be exempt that is there to actually protect a child then that’s not helpful because all that does is mean that child is at risk. They say it’s only going to be for three years. Well, three days for a kid who is living in a vulnerable environment is a long time. In three years you could be talking about them being seriously harmed or child deaths.”
She says the government has been “incredibly vague” about what laws could be exempted and which local authorities want these exemptions and why.
If the government insists on pressing on with these plans rather than dropping them, she wants stronger safeguards and transparency on the process put into the bill. She also worries that the measure paves the way for outsourcing child protection from local authorities.
“I might be wrong but there is something about it that doesn’t ring right,” she says. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of vague things being said which makes me worry because if people are being like that what are they hiding? What is the end game?”
Other changes Labour wants to see in the bill is the inclusion of a national offer for young care leavers that would improve their access to benefits, including housing benefit and the working tax credit, and an exemption from council tax.
The proposal, made by a cross-bench peer, was defeated by just nine votes in the House of Lords on 18 October and so she is continuing to push for its addition to the bill.
Lewell-Buck doesn’t object to everything in the bill. The ethos behind the measures designed to improve help for care leavers are positive she says. There’s an important ‘but’, however: “It’s good and well saying things and putting them in legislation but if you are not going to resource it properly then it’s just nice words on a piece of paper and it doesn’t mean anything.”
As for what she would do for social work if she replaced Edward Timpson after the next general election, a top priority would be implementing the parts of the Munro Review that have yet to be adopted. She also wants to address some of the “boring stuff”, like the poor quality computer systems that social workers have to put up with.
“A lot of local authorities are still working with the IT systems that are cumbersome and take time and slow work up,” she says. “If you got rid of some of that and refreshed some of that you’d actually find that social workers had a lot more time to do their jobs and when social workers are doing their jobs children are protected.”
She wants central government to help local authorities get out of the contracts that have lumbered them with these systems.
“The usual answer is there’s no money but when you look at the recent National Audit Office report that analysed child protection right across the country, it said everything this government has done – and they’ve thrown a lot of money at child protection in the past six years – hasn’t yielded the relevant results. They are putting money in the wrong place and making changes in the wrong places.”
Social workers’ voices
A strategic vision for social work that goes beyond a focus on adoption and fostering is required, she says. The voice of frontline social workers and the children they support also needs to be properly heard by government.
“I know there’s been review after review where they say they have spoken to social workers and had roundtables with them and all the rest of it,” she says.
“But I know myself that when you’re working in a department and you know someone is coming to visit and ask you questions about your job, there’s always that pressure to not portray the true picture because you don’t want to make your organisation look bad or you haven’t got time to delve into things. Children’s voices and sector voices always seem to be missing from a lot of this.”