DCS: bullying highlighted in TV investigation ‘no longer tolerated’

Herefordshire director responds to highly critical Panorama programme and sets out plans to increase number of permanent social workers and drive down caseloads

Darryl Freeman, director of children's services, Herefordshire Council
Darryl Freeman (credit: Herefordshire Council)

A local authority criticised in a BBC Panorama investigation has said a “culture of bullying” in its children’s services department is no longer being tolerated.

The half-hour film, broadcast on 16 May, focused on a series of court judgments from 2018 and 2021 that severely criticised practice and management at Herefordshire council, and included critical quotes from social workers who had recently left the authority.

One unnamed practitioner said in the documentary: “It’s a culture of bullying, it’s a culture of control […] it’s not safe for families and it’s not safe for social workers.”

In an interview with Community Care following the programme, Herefordshire’s director of children’s services, Darryl Freeman, said there “clearly was a culture of bullying” at the authority.

But he said that he and chief executive Paul Walker had now made it clear that “bullying will not be tolerated”.

“We’ve called it out, we’ve challenged it where we’ve experienced that and it is not tolerated, it won’t be tolerated, it is just unacceptable.”

Caseloads in high 30s ‘was not uncommon’

Another former Herefordshire council social worker who spoke to Panorama said they had a caseload of 36 when they left after being told the target was 20, which meant “cutting corners and ticking boxes”.

Freeman, who joined the council on an initially interim basis last autumn, said caseloads had been high and rose sharply in the autumn of last year “when there was a real spike in demand”.

“When I took on the interim DCS role at the end of September, it wasn’t uncommon to see some workers with caseloads in the late 30s and 40s,” he said.

Average caseloads down to 21 with target of 18

But he said average caseloads now stood at 21, with only five social workers responsible for more than 25 cases and no one with more than 30.

“Our goal is to get to an average caseload of 18 before the end of the summer and to keep driving down further,” he said.

“We are really clear that if you have a manageable caseload you can have a better relationship with families, you can have much more effective practice.”

Documentary given permission to name social workers

Last month, the High Court granted Louise Tickle – the journalist who made the documentary – permission to name social workers involved in one of the cases it covered, despite Herefordshire arguing this could impede its ability to recruit practitioners.

Freeman said it would have been okay for the documentary to have named himself and Walker “if necessary” but the authority had tried to maintain the anonymity of frontline workers working with current cases primarily to “protect the wellbeing of our staff”.

In the end, Tickle did not name any social workers in her film and Freeman said the production team had been “sensitive” to Herefordshire’s concerns over doing so.

Concern at Panorama’s effect on recruitment

Freeman said managers had been briefing social workers at the council prior to the programme about what they expected the Panorama programme to include and “put in place mental health first aiders and lots of welfare support”.

Nevertheless, Freeman said the response to the documentary had been “sombre” and that he was concerned of a possible negative effect on recruitment and retention.

“There’s always a concern it will have an impact on recruitment and retention in what is already a difficult and challenging recruitment environment,” he said.

Loss of most social workers in past year

As of September last year, Herefordshire had a full-time equivalent (FTE) children’s social work vacancy rate of 19%, above the national average (16.7%) but down from 24.8% the previous year. However, its FTE agency social worker rate had climbed from 19.2% to 32.5%, double the national average.

The documentary said that, in the past year, Herefordshire had lost most (50) of its permanent children and families social workers and that 75% of its child protection practitioners were either less than two years’ qualified or agency staff as of March this year.

Freeman said some of the social workers who left had either retired or took promotions or other jobs elsewhere. But he admitted that some practitioners did leave as a result of a damning court ruling last year that questioned the council’s children’s services’ “fitness for purpose”.

“It was 50% of the overall permanent workforce that existed in April last year and that was across the whole year. That is certainly a higher proportion than you’d like, anyway, but not everybody just left in one go,” he said.

However, the relatively high number of agency staff, Freeman said, was due to the council’s addition of seven extra social work teams last year “focused on reducing caseloads and improving practice”.

“Most of that additional capacity by its nature is locum and agency or project teams for periods of time,” he said. “We will see that reduce because we won’t need all that extra capacity in a year’s time.”

£11.5m focus on boosting permanent workforce

Herefordshire’s recruitment of agency social workers last year was partly funded by a grant from the Department for Education (DfE).

The council has now drawn £11.5m from its reserves to continue improvements to its children’s services and make some of the newly created agency roles permanent.

“That puts us in a very strong position to maintain the additional capacity we have put in place over the past six months or so for the rest of this year and to really push now on reducing our reliance on locum and agency workers as we go forward and increasing the proportion of the workforce that is permanent,” said Freeman.

According to council documents, the £11.5m should pay for 122.75 extra full-time staff in 2022-23 then reducing to an ongoing increase in staffing numbers of 82 from 2023-24, a combination of social workers, managers, business support staff and a few other roles. As of September 2021, the council had 103 FTE children’s social workers.

Freeman said Herefordshire had some agency social workers that it had worked with for up to 12 months and that they had developed good relationships with families, but said it was less expensive to employ permanent staff.

Disputed figure

One figure he disputed in the documentary was that the council had spent £133,000 on two interim senior managers in the first two months of the year.

Freeman said the number was “odd” but was likely due to “a clumsy response to a freedom of information request”.

“I can certainly say that amount of money wasn’t paid to two senior interim members of staff during that period of time,” he said.

“But employing interim social workers and managers is more expensive than employing permanent social workers and managers and that’s another reason why we want to increase the proportion of the workforce that’s permanent going forward. It’s good for families and it’s good for the public purse as well.”

Gearing up for next Ofsted inspection

Herefordshire was rated as ‘requires improvement’ in its last inspection in 2018 and is currently working with a DfE-appointed independent adviser, Gladys Rhodes White, and improvement partner Telford and Wrekin council.

Freeman said the council said he expected another inspection before the end of this year but would not say what grading he expected to achieve.

“They will find us as they find us, but it will comes as no surprise to anybody that there are still some challenges for us,” he said.

“We are doing the right things now to improve practice and to improve the support for our social workers but it is still going to see a bit of time before they see that consistently reflected in improved outcomes for children and young people.”

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15 Responses to DCS: bullying highlighted in TV investigation ‘no longer tolerated’

  1. Credenhill June 6, 2022 at 9:28 am #

    A DCS who is serious about not tolerating bullying wouldn’t just put in measures for “staff wellbeing” in response to a television programme but would be active in the muck of dealing with his bullying managers daily until he got rid of them or got them to behave honourably. Care to tell us the minutiae of how bullying is being addressed? Asking not for a friend but for my own security as one of the potential victims.

  2. Anne Anderson June 6, 2022 at 10:21 am #

    Common practice in LA’s…bullying
    I’m an agency worker so have worked plenty of places over the years and observed lots of oppressive and bullying of colleagues…it astounds me given that we are in a caring profession and goes against our professional ethics 😳

    • Nicola June 6, 2022 at 2:43 pm #

      Agree if your face doesn’t fit your given no support, lots of cases oppressive practice currently witnessing a service manager crumble a service! These bullies love power and control so very sad an inadequate in their practice.

      • Ruth Cartwright June 7, 2022 at 10:25 am #

        That last sentence sums up the background to much bullying – people who are not truly competent so pick up colleagues on small matters like being on time, and constantly niggle and harass rather than support with the major practice issues frontline workers may be facing. If bullying has been dealt with here, how many members of staff have been identified as bullies and sacked or disciplined?

        • Alison June 7, 2022 at 7:55 pm #

          None.

  3. Concerned June 6, 2022 at 12:08 pm #

    What do Exit interviews say?
    No comment made in response to very recent whistle blow.
    Easy to lay blame to judgements, real rot set in post all of these clearly.
    Blinded by unwillingness to really listen and understand, grabbing onto any chance to lay blame elsewhere.
    Hope those responsible are asking questions and really looking for factual evidence, and talking to social workers and partners regularly.

  4. Carol June 6, 2022 at 10:14 pm #

    “No longer tolerated” means was tolerated. SWE anything to say? ADCS anything to say? Silence is collusion though it seems it might get you an MBE. Anyone remember Herefordshire encouraging us to take a knee? Anyone remember Herefordshire staff holding crayon dribbling Ubuntu pledges? I do. I left. Hypocracy is debilitating.

  5. Opal Lady June 7, 2022 at 12:36 am #

    Anne – Same here through choice I have been an agency worker for 18 years. Suffice to say, same story different local authority ANYWHERE in the UK. (Hampshire was the best local authority I worked for).

    One of the main factors which should be addressed is ‘self appointed’ team managers/how and why this happens? In my career I can count on ONE hand how many decent and genuinely caring TM’s I have met or would work for again/recommend to other workers!

    As previously stated power, control is
    definitely the name of the game for many I have met. They wouldn’t stand a chance working on the front line as they are sooo out of touch with reality and of course ‘Don’t want to get their hands dirty’.

    When we consider that they have worked in isolation with vulnerable individuals and families it is incredibly worrying.

    I feel before (and during) the process of ‘becoming a tm’ they need to undergo vigorous training in aspects such as managing staff and ‘keeping their hands in practice’.

    TM’s/their relationships with staff along of course with unbiased and child focused decisions is vital to the service we provide.

    Interestingly, during the recent ‘recommendations’ from the reports of Arthur and Skye tm’s barely feature or appear to be accountable; Why is this?

  6. Alec Fraher June 7, 2022 at 5:19 am #

    Manipulation, embarrassment and cajole are the real bedrock of senior management; reputation management is always the first priority in any power to threat scenario. This isn’t new.

    So, what are the threats about, really? Is there an absence of any freely and recursively advocated learning expectations on the model of supervision used over the past 15 yrs?

    I always favoured the Hawkins-Peulet and Heron models, I ask because CC has been running articles on bullying, again and again, over the same period.

    It’s odd, I find, that the relationship between beliefs, attitudes and behaviour as assessed against knowledge, skills and values aren’t covered more often.

    Maybe it’s because the various training providers are now in competition with each other?

    Threats, eh?

    I, genuinely, can’t believe that training and supervision have been brutalised so much; both have become sales pitches and for the sole purpose of economic advantage.

    I also find it very odd, from a competency perspective, that commercially sensitive data and the FOIA are talked about so glibbly, and by a DCS, then it’s his budget and he must know, right?

    I do though wonder, comparatively speaking, what the Financial Conduct Authority would make of how DCS’s, as a whole, are operating and who with and to what end.

    And, what, indeed, do the Councils s114 Officers have to say? And why haven’t Elected Members made more of their LGA s111 powers to scrutinise senior officers and their use of delegated powers, afterall, they’re the corporate parent too. I suspect they’re scared of what they’ll find or conversely be found out. This sketch map isn’t the whole picture but it is an ordinary landscape for a field social worker.

    Social work is tough because it involves a potential for the professional violation of ontological boundaries that impacts the Council as a whole. Is the current epistemology of social work out of whack with its own ontology and inevitably its major employer, the Local Authority? How can social workers do the job if Council’s are increasingly creating the conditions which cause harm. This is by design, right?

    Reflexivity, especially in senior management, is a must demonstrate competency. Trust in supervision the first requirement of this competency.

    Whether Social Work becomes a politically restricted profession must be asked at some stage. Initially, though, I would be getting the s114 and s151 Officers to keep an eye on who’s signing off on what. Council’s when acting as a whole can and do create the elusive holism of wrap-a-round services. DCS’s often fail to see this treating invitations to learn as threats to their budget control. Bullying is systemic when such myopia sets in.

  7. Maria June 7, 2022 at 7:56 am #

    Well we all know that management bullying, harassment, intimidation, victimisation & discrimination is rife in LA children’s social care hence why they can’t recruit or retain SW’s!

  8. Ossie June 8, 2022 at 9:41 am #

    A tetchy and a tad defensive response there from the DCS. So what was the £133,000 spent on?

    • Alec Fraher June 9, 2022 at 1:44 pm #

      Paying off a loan, maybe or drug debt ? I jest but with some seriousness too; the political and economic environment within which Social Work is nested is, now, entirely Machiavellian in nature. Councils aren’t insulated from this and the truth is that Social Services as a Council institution never have been. Its always been about what could be gotten away with which, incidentally, includes collusion with drug dealing. This ain’t new.

      for cpd see the late Bernard Stiegler, pedagogical philosopher and former armed bank robber; his ‘state’ approved role in transforming family and community regen is, I find, where the thinking is at

  9. John Stephenson June 9, 2022 at 8:17 pm #

    Oh please ! 23 years as Complaints and Quality Assurance manager I have commissioned numerous investigation into allegations of bullying,not once has the bullying manager been sanctioned.Nothing ever chances the powerful look after their own.

  10. Alec Fraher June 10, 2022 at 9:38 pm #

    Maybe ,John, it’s because the actual statutory operating model, as opposed to the one espoused, advertised and recruited against, is a derogation of s70 Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994?

    For adults this has always been evident since 1990 when s7(e) of LASSA allowed for 3rd Party delegation of statutory functions, especially in respect of Drug and Alcohol Services. But also more recently in The Contracting Out (Local Authorities Social Services Functions, England) Order 2014 (SI. 2014/829), latterly becoming s78 of The Care Act 2014.

    For Children’s Services and the Working Together framework, s70 of the, afore mentioned, Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, shows up as, s11 and s16a-16d of The Children Act 2004 and in the The Child Safeguarding Practice Review and Relevant Agency (England) Regulations 2018.

    Combined these SI’s modified Schedule One of LASSA to that which existed under the Health Visitor and Social Work (Training) Act 1962, which itself became, because of economic and competitive interests from within the sector, subject to the requirements of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994.

    In a case I brought against the Information Commissioner, and lost, it was said, in a 400pg legal submission, that there is no obligation for a Council to hold information it would ordinarily hold if the direct provider when using 3rd Party providers. The stated and advertised position, through Working Together, is just advertising. Modern selling, eh!

    The legal definition of ‘hold’ frankly beggars belief. The use of s2(3)b of the FOIA to challenge evasion of duties under the information act completely subverts any and all ordinarily required statutory reporting requirements of the source legislation for both children and adults.

    The upshot is that any DCS can, in effect, do what they want. Bullies only bully because they can get away with it. A culture of systemic grooming is the consequence.

    It would be useful if BBC Panorama, as a follow up, used the FOIA to request all the Reg 84 and Reg(30)6 of the Public Procurement Regulations 2015, with the legacy of the, then, 2006 regs, that apply to Children’s Services, and for all Councils and Children’s Trusts.

    Due diligence is a corner stone in Social Work decision making and asking for help is too. Let’s apply the skill set.

    Come BBC start joining the dots.

    Ask why when you covered two child deaths in Sunderland in 2014 there wasn’t a national outcry about the decision to appoint contractors who, knowingly, couldn’t do the job.

    Ask why the lessons from the death of Toni Ann Byfield have been ignored and if that’s not enough ask why a police command area, having agreed to be an exemplar for post Soham good practice in joint working and information sharing, ignored critical risk and incident reports.

    Evasion of the standards in public life isn’t a new topic. The deliberate subversion of the standards is.

    for cpd see Prof Henry Tam on Machiavelli, available on You Tube or via The Documentary Film Makers Cooperative and Dr Nicolette Burford de Oliveira circa 2014. Henry has also written about his time in Government in a fictional account titled Whitehall Through the Looking Glass.

  11. Ed June 11, 2022 at 7:19 am #

    Bullying behaviour by operational & senior managers is surprisingly frequent in social work & the bullying happens at all levels. Driven by fear in some cases, as a mask for incompetence in others. However, it’s no surprise that Ofsted, the State sponsored bully is in the mix. An organisation that has destabilized social work & racked up £billions in additional costs in the last decade, is a key ingredient in the development of fear-driven working environments.

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