Social work caseloads will be explicitly addressed in a government-commissioned independent review of children’s social care in Northern Ireland, launched last week.
The terms of reference for the 16-month review say caseloads should be examined to identify whether other professionals could be introduced into teams largely staffed by social workers currently.
This is against a backdrop of growing waiting lists, high staff turnover and large numbers of inexperienced staff, and rising numbers of children in need and on the country’s child protection register.
The social work academic appointed to lead the review, Dr Ray Jones, said: “Workloads are pretty busy, the workforce is not as stable as it might ideally be and some of the trends in terms of increasing numbers of children and young people coming into care reflect what’s been happening in other UK nations as well.
“So, some of the issues in NI will be similar to what’s happening elsewhere but how to address them might not necessarily be the same.”
The review will also look at the case for overhauling service structures that currently pass children and families between teams and practitioners as their level of need increases and separate disability from care and protection teams. This will be based on the impact on both children and families, and staff, of working in this way.
It will also look at whether the existing delivery of children’s social care through the five health and social care trusts is the most efficient and effective way of doing so.
Social work practice focus
Alongside this focus on service structure, the review will have a separate strand on social work practice, said Northern Ireland’s Department of Health.
This will look at the region-wide implementation of the Signs of Safety model, including the relevance of shortcomings with the model identified in research into its implementation in England.
A final strand will look at the experiences of children, young people and families and the outcomes delivered for them.
The stated aims are to ensure that Northern Ireland’s children’s services are:
- capable of responding to current and potential future pressures and the level and complexity of need;
- effectively meeting the needs of the children, young people and families with a range of vulnerabilities and sufficiently and supportively engaging them in decisions affecting their lives; and
- adequately supporting staff and carers in their duties and during their caring responsibilities.
Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann announced Jones’ appointment last week, along with judge Patricia Smyth, academic Pat Dolan, and Marie Roulston, former director of social care and children at the Health and Social Care Board, as members of the advisory panel.
The review, the first of its kind in Northern Ireland for more than a decade, comes with a separate inquiry into children’s social care in England already underway and due to report later this year.
Jones claimed his review would have greater independence from government and stronger engagement with children and families than the English inquiry chaired by Josh MacAlister.
‘Essential’ to be able to ask for more money
The professor emeritus of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, drew a contrast between his ability to ask for more funding and that of MacAlister.
The UK government has said MacAlister cannot assume additional government funding to implement his recommendations. MacAlister has said he is likely to recommend increased spending “in the medium term” with costed savings elsewhere, which is not ruled out by his contract with government.
The Northern Ireland review’s terms of reference state that its recommendations should be, as far as possible “specific, realistic and time-bound”, with costs identified. The current annual investment in children’s services in Northern Ireland is £260m, over a third more (£81m) than five years ago.
But Jones said he would not hesitate to recommend greater investment in children’s services, and it was “absolutely essential” that he was able to do so without having to find savings elsewhere in government as with the English review.
“If we are to be serious about doing the best we can for children and young people and their families, then we have to look at what’s available in terms of resources for those children and young people and families,” he said.
“To put blinkers around that and to say that’s outside the scope of the review is not something that I would see as sensible and not something that is seen as sensible by the civil servants and the minister in Northern Ireland.”
Jones said there were no financial restrictions placed on him in terms of what he could recommend at the end of the review but added that he would be “practical and pragmatic”.
He said that this would remain within his judgment rather than being dictated by Swann or anyone else in government.
“It’s not something that’s going to be limited by what civil servants or the minister thinks,” he said.
“I’m not going to be stupid and silly in terms of my expectations of what’s achievable,” Jones added.
“But at the same time I am not restricted by having to say it has all got to be managed within the current finances that are available.”
‘Greater independence than English review’
Jones also said that civil servants in Northern Ireland would “be kept informed of what’s happening” through the review process but that they would “not themselves be involved in the review process”.
“Unlike in England where there is a requirement, as I understand it, that different government departments are ingrained within the review process, the expectation is this will be outside and separate from government and the civil servants in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Jones was asked to lead the review by the chief social worker for Northern Ireland, Sean Holland, but said that it had been made explicit that the recommendations would be Jones’s independent view.
He has pledged to donate his fee from leading the review to a university scholarship programme that helps children from care or disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university.
MacAlister met UK government figures including education minister Nadhim Zahawi and children’s minister Will Quince in November last year to ensure they understood his initial ‘case for change’ report from June as well as the ‘three dilemmas’ he said the review faced in September.
He also plans to share some “initial thinking” with government to “help them get ready” for the recommendations just before he publishes them in late spring this year.
Recommendations ‘won’t be shaped by ministers’
Speaking to Community Care in November, MacAlister said: “Everything that will be published from the review will be my own words and will not be determined or shaped by what ministers may want.
“But part of my responsibility is to make sure ministers in the departments across government go on a journey will the review so when we get to the end of this, they understand the recommendations that are being made.”
Jones said neither he nor civil servants would recruit young people and parents and carers to take part in the review, as was the case in the English review, with the process being managed independently by the Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) and Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI) instead.
He said VOYPIC and CiNI have both got “strong track records” of working with children, young people, parents and carers to help “represent their views”.
“That’s different from England where as I understand it the initial recruitment of young people to be involved with the review was undertaken by civil servants with the review chair,” he said.
A spokesperson for England’s care review said: “Congratulations to Ray Jones on his appointment to this important role.
“The independent review of children’s social care is focused on developing recommendations that will bring about lasting and positive change for children, informed by the thousands of people with lived and professional experience of children’s social care we have heard from, both directly and by partnering with respected organisations.”