The handling of the Children and Social Work Bill has been shambolic

The damaging innovation clauses have fortunately been scrapped but there is plenty left in the bill to be worried about, writes Ray Jones

adult and child
Photo: Nadezhda1906/Fotolia (posed by models)

by Ray Jones

The Children and Social Work Bill has been something of a shambles. It has been badly drafted and, in parts, with controversial and dubious intent.

Yesterday the government confirmed it will scrap the damaging ‘innovation’ clauses. Before that, key planks of the legislation were defeated in the House of Lords. Yet throughout the bill’s parliamentary journey late additions have been made without warning or consultation including changes that promise to fundamentally undermine the social work profession.

No consultation

What lessons might be taken from this shocking experience? First, there is the importance of engaging with social workers and the social work profession, and with those who use social services and are concerned about their rights and protection.

The Education Select Committee, with a Conservative majority and chair, was explicitly critical about the Department for Education’s failure to consult before pushing ahead with disruptive and potentially damaging social work reforms. With the reductions in the civil service, those advising ministers and drafting policies and legislation are now often without the knowledge and wisdom to understand what is sensible and what is likely to cause chaos and confusion.

The ‘innovation clauses’ are a prime example. They would have given to one politician, whoever at the time was the secretary of state for education, the power to set aside the rights of children and the responsibilities of services local authority-by-local authority. This would create a patchwork quilt of varying legislation. Challenged by Eileen Munro, Lord Laming and Tim Loughton, the government belatedly yesterday withdrew the clauses.

The power of opposition

The second lesson is about the potential and power of coherent, concerted and collaborative opposition. A combination of more than 50 organisations concerned about the welfare and safety of children, and 107,000 members of the public who signed a petition, opposed the ‘innovation clauses’. They have, at last, had their significant fears heard and addressed by the government.

This has required energy and leadership. The roles, in particular, played by Article 39 and its chief executive, Carolyne Willow, and by the British Association of Social Workers, should not be underestimated. Nor should the continuing commitment of other individuals and organisations who have been working away, often behind the scenes, canvassing support from key politicians and others.

The political challenge to the innovation clauses has been ably led by Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour’s shadow children’s minister who herself was until just a few years ago a local authority social worker, and Labour and crossbench peers. However, Conservative MPs have also been active in challenging aspects of the bill and campaigning for improvements.

The chief social worker’s role

The third lesson concerns the role of Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker in the Department for Education. Although a civil servant, she has been at the forefront of publicly championing what has been politically and professionally controversial legislation.

Times may have changed. In the past politicians led the debates about contentious proposals. Civil servants would stay politically neutral and give their professional advice behind the scenes.

What’s more, the chief social worker’s vocal support for the ‘innovation’ clauses and plans for government control of a new social work regulator was in opposition to the overwhelming views of those within the social work profession. The government, eventually, backed down on both proposals.

Remaining concerns

There is a fourth lesson too. There is a need for continuing vigilance and vitality. The bill is still moving through parliament. The government continues to use it, quite inappropriately, as a vehicle for radical change, drip feeding in new clauses without professional or public consultation or forewarning.

Amendments introduced out of the blue about social worker accreditation, and the secretary of state being given control of social work education and who can provide it, again resurrect the scenario of the social work profession being politically controlled by the government of the day.

Not so long ago it was Michael Gove, as secretary of state for education, who argued that social work, and social work education, was distracted by concerns about the impact of deprivation and poverty. Just imagine what he would have wanted to do to the social work education curriculum.

Once again the chief social worker for children is central to shaping and promoting these changes, which are likely to undermine social work education within universities and place it into a market place of creeping privatisation and creeping government control.

The damaging ‘innovation’ clauses may be no more, but there remains plenty to be concerned about in the Children and Social Work Bill.

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7 Responses to The handling of the Children and Social Work Bill has been shambolic

  1. stuart March 3, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

    I think almost if not every social worker reading this will want to join in thanking all the above named, including Ray Jones him/your self for the excellent work in achieving the result so far.

    Everyone of course apart from the person mentioned in lesson three. As she’s now been well caught out for promoting a move that everyone now recognises was as a danger to our children she must surely “consider her position”.

    I’ve often wondered whether the ‘Chief’ social worker is actually a social worker and therefore bound to be registered as such with the hcpc but if not she should be and if she is she should be referred for sanction.

    Or expulsion.

  2. Londonboy March 3, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

    I think the problem is her job title as much as anything. She has symbolic value only for a Department that seems to have build no meaningful links with the profession and mistakes compliance for real engagement.

  3. Val March 4, 2017 at 9:40 am #

    Isabelle Trowler should do the decent thing and step down immediately to let others with real commitment to protecting vulnerable children step in – she is not representative of the social work profession

    Thank you to Lord Laming and prof Munro who hopefully will go further to get this Bill scrapped

  4. Phil Sanderson March 5, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

    This article is spot on. Evidently news of this u turn was made at 10pm at night!. The silence so far from the chief social worker is deafening. How can someone so out of touch continue to lead our profession?

  5. June Thoburn March 6, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    Great news that the ‘innovation clauses have been dropped’. But was it necessary for so many skilled and knowledgeable ‘person hours’ to be expended for DfE to get the message. Now attention needs to turn to ensuring that the new Regulator retains the independence from unnecessary govt interference -as applies currently with HCPC and with our sister professions. Of course Govt has an important role, but in consultation with the profession and the academy. Care also needed to ensure the continuing place of social work qualifying and post-qualifying education (in partnership with practice) within universities and a social work qualification that retains the rigour which has, till now, made it a world leader.

  6. James Webb March 7, 2017 at 8:03 am #

    So pleased these clauses have been scrapped but entirely agree with Ray Jones that we must remain vigilant. We certainly do not seem able to rely on our Chief Social worker to have the interests of children and families at heart. I was also very glad Eileen Munro changed her mind but remain entirely baffled as to why she supported the “innovation clauses” in the 1st place.

  7. Helen Wood March 7, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    Agree entirely about the role of the Chief social worker, however why was she in this bizarre position in the first place? Clearly she expected it to go through, and thought the political will was there to do so . We need to start holding our politicians entirely accountable. I don’t believe for a second that some rogue civil servants drove this. Local councillors who plan to implement this stuff are supposed to be acting as responsible parents to the children it will affect. That it got this far is the biggest abdication of political responsibility I’ve ever come across.