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.
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.
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.