A Labour Child and Family Social Work Service: Briefing from LSWG (2021)

This briefing from Labour Social Work Group to Labour MPs, councillors and policy makers:

  1. makes detailed suggestions on immediate action Labour should be taking to protect child and family social services and pave the way for more comprehensive policies  
  2. summarises the context of child and family social services following 10 years of Tory cuts and ideologically based attacks on democratically accountable services.

What Labour could be saying and doing now

Labour national and local politicians, policy makers and social workersmust take every opportunity to change the narrative about social work with children and families and work towards bringing adult and children’s social workers together within Local Government Social Services Departments. Links with measures to combat poverty are as necessary now as they ever were.

The essential components of an integrated approach and a new narrative:

  • Reject the Tory government-imposed fragmentation of political accountability for vulnerable people who need social services assistance and appoint  a Shadow Minister and team for Adults and Children’s social services, working closely with the Shadow Housing, Communities and Local Government (DHCLG), Health, Home Office, Justice, Social Security, Health, and Equalities teams.
  •  Privatisation costs. It costs more andyet provides poorer services.
  • Challenge the terminology of the  social work industry’. Social work is a public service
  • Call for a move away from the discourse of  monitoring and surveillance of children and families through child protection processes and procedures, and ‘interventions’
  • Social workers could and should be a source of help rather than threat to children and families.
  • Rather than remote monitoring and surveillance, embedding social workers in communities where they are recognised as a resource, where they get to know children and families and networks, and also build trusting working relationships with others such as teachers, doctors, health visitors and neighbourhood police officers, can start to turn the ship away from more and more children being taken from families and with fewer families left without help or hope.
  • Foster and residential care provided within communities and neighbourhoods by local councils and with family services and centres to help and assist families when the going is tough.
  • A well-trained, more stable and more experienced workforce –moving away from too fast and too fragmented initial social work education and training promising quick promotion into management and maintaining a focus on retention and post-qualifying development
  • Whenever we speak about austerity we should say ‘politically-chosen austerity’ as it does not have to be this way. It would, for example, also be sensible and correct to speak about track and trace in England as not ‘NHS Track and Trace’ but ‘Serco Track and Trace’.
  • Always refer to us as children and families social worker NOT child protection social worker.
  • Speak about community social work to reclaim what have  become the too fragmented organisational structures within many children’s social services, with children being passed between workers and teams.

Why this approach is necessary and urgent

Keir Starmer, in his 2020 Conference speech, set outa narrative for a Labour government, linking it with Labour’s past achievements and emphasising the centrality of family and community. Labour created the rights-based welfare state including social services provided by democratically accountable local authorities. The 1989 Children Act, which had cross-party support was strengthened during the Labour years of 1997-2010. Alongside the reduction of child poverty, services to young families were strengthening through the highly successful Sure Start Children’s centres, improvements were made to services for children and families in the community and for children in care.  But since 2010, Tory austerity policies have seen the numbers of children living in poverty escalating, and year on year growth of children in need of social work services and needing to be protected or to come into care. These have also been years when damage and fragmentation of child and family services caused by vicious cuts to local government funding have been compounded by ill-though-through ‘initiatives’ to support government ‘innovations’ and experimentation usually involving ‘outsourcing’ to private businesses. Local authority services and social work expertise have been reduced, especially in the ability to provide its own residential and foster care services. In house research, training and human services teams have been replaced by consultants paid ‘over the top rates’ for their ‘off the cuff’ solutions barely adapted to the particular circumstances of each local authority.   

There is every indication that the Tories will continue this direction of travel:

  • Fail to even look for, a system for adequately funding local government; continue to substitute adequate and reliable funding to all local authorities with one-off ‘innovations’ grants to reward ‘compliant’ authorities and ‘punish’ those who struggle (usually those in areas of deprivation) by imposing new models of ‘governance’ such as ‘Trusts’.
  • Continue, against all the evidence, to maintain the stance ‘public sector bad private sector good’ by running down directly provided local authority services and replacing them with lower quality and more expensive private-for-profit run businesses.
    –   The 2014 changes in statutory regulations created the platform which now allows any statutory children’s social work services to be contracted out to private commercial companies. International consultancy firms have been in discussion with the DfE about how they can be encouraged to take on children’s social work.
    –  Almost 40% of foster care placements in England are provided through private for-profit foster care agencies with ownership and profit-taking frequently transferring between opaque international venture capitalists with no commitment to the UK or to its children.
    –  And three quarters of children’s residential care in England is now provided by profit-making private companies with a third of local authorities directly providing no children’s homes themselves.
  • Use the proposed ‘care review’ to rewrite the 1989 Children Act to fit with their service-shrinking agenda by removing the rights of parents, children and carers to a quality and carefully regulated social work and care service.
  • Manipulate the character of the social work profession through selective funding of social work qualifying and post qualifying education so that those providing services become technicians and no longer have the public service ethic, motivation, knowledge and skills to help those who need their services to insist on their rights and challenge unfairness and discriminatory practices.

    Discussed with Labour Shadow Education team February 2021

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