New Clause 2

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 3rd July 2008.

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Chief Social Worker

‘(1) The Secretary of State must appoint a Chief Social Worker to fulfil the functions mentioned in this section.

(2) The Chief Social Worker shall be responsible to the Secretary of State.

(3) In fulfilling his functions the Chief Social Worker shall, to the extent he considers it appropriate, consult and take advice from—

(a) relevant government employees and agencies;

(b) representative bodies of social workers;

(c) local authorities and other providers of social work services; and

(d) such other persons as he considers appropriate.

(4) The Chief Social Worker shall make recommendations to the Secretary of State on issues concerning—

(a) the provision of social work services across the country;

(b) the terms and conditions of social workers;

(c) such other matters as the Secretary of State may direct.

(5) The Chief Social Worker shall publicise and promote examples of good practice in social work and be answerable for other aspects of social work practice.’.—[Tim Loughton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Welcome back to the Chair for the last leg of this Committee, Mr. Pope. So far it has been conducted in an exceedingly amenable, friendly and constructive manner. I am sure that today will be no exception. However, as we are likely to be interrupted this afternoon by a number of votes and a number of new clauses have been tabled by hon. Members across the Committee, I will try to get through those in my name as quickly as possible this morning.

New clause 2 proposes the creation of the post of chief social worker. It resulted from the Conservative party commission on social workers that I chaired and which reported last October. That commission has been mentioned in the Committee several times. As everybody knows, we have a chief medical officer, who is currently Sir Liam Donaldson. He appears frequently on the media as the face of the health service who advises the Secretary of State. We also have a chief veterinary officer. Many people will remember Debby Reynolds,  the former holder of that post, who is a little more familiar than Nigel Gibbons who took over from her. We do not have a post of chief social worker.

In this Committee, on Second Reading and in other debates, we have touched on the problem that we all acknowledge faces social workers of their perception in the press, the constant torrent of negative stories about them and the lack of reports on their many positive achievements. I have described social workers as potentially the fourth emergency service. They should be viewed as no less important than teachers, police, nurses and doctors. Their work is integral to sustaining vulnerable families, keeping them together and providing crucial support. However, for some reason they do not get the same recognition and respect among the general public.

Too many people view social workers as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The first contact many people have with social workers is when there is a knock on the door, which may be the beginning of proceedings that lead to a child being taken into care. Many social workers would like to intervene much earlier and work on a preventive basis to keep vulnerable families together. It would be good if they had the opportunity to do that, but this problem exists because of the pressures on the system and the high vacancy rates which are at 20 per cent. in some parts of the country.

Our commission recommended that the Government create the post of chief social worker. To quote from our report, a family barrister, Jessica Lee, who was one of our witnesses, wrote of social workers:

“Due to resource pressures, they are now seen as ‘bad guys’ who only appear to intervene and remove children rather than be able to offer the supportive role that they feel they used to be able to provide to families.”

A representative of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering said:

“Their work demands the deepest understanding into the nature of the human condition and the personal cost to them of doing so can be high. In the public eye, social workers have become too easily identified with the problems of their clients.”

The General Social Care Council stated that

“social work is often seen as the poor relation in a professional world; ‘only 40 per cent. of the population see the contribution of social workers to society as very important’.”

There was plenty of evidence to suggest that there is a problem with the way that social workers are perceived. That will be all too familiar to Committee members who have followed that profession. That inevitably has an impact on their ability to do their job.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I am listening with interest and it is not that I am unsympathetic. Will the hon. Gentleman give me an idea of the scale of the office that might be set up around the chief social worker?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I shall come to that in a minute. The hon. Lady makes a good point. Obviously, some of the roles are set out in the new clause.

My other point is that the commission found that of some 76,000 social workers registered with the GSCC, only 11,000 belonged to the British Association of Social Workers. There is a problem, therefore, regarding a strong voice for the profession, and the head of the  BASW in giving evidence admitted some of the shortcomings of the current situation. In contrast, the British Medical Association represents the interests of 70 per cent. of doctors and the Royal College of Nursing represents 60 per cent. of nurses. There is not a big body that speaks up for social workers.

The post of chief social worker may be occupied by somebody who is already in the Department of Health. There will be a slight anomaly and a split between adult social workers and children social workers. Whether the chief social worker would be equally responsible to the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health is to be determined. For example, in the Department of Health we have David Behan, who is well known to many of us as director general for social care—he was previously chief inspector of the Commission for Social Care Inspection. He is exceedingly well respected and highly qualified. The proposal may mean re-badging somebody like David Behan, if not David Behan himself.

I am not talking about an enormous upheaval in structures, creating a whole new department within the Department of Health or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, but about having a higher profile for a lead person who is recognised as the chief social worker. I shall summarise their roles, as set out in the new clause. They would be the face of social workers in the media, in particular when there was a big case. They would also carry the can in the public eye when there seemed to be something wrong with the system, and they would oversee the promotion of the social worker profession and better recruitment campaigns, and would advise the Secretary of State or the Secretaries of State on technical matters to do with social workers. If we give that sort of status to a chief social worker, hopefully there will be a trickle-down effect on the status, standing and recognition of all social workers.

I do not pretend that this is a universal panacea, that overnight people will say, “Oh, now that we have a chief social worker, I am going to let my social worker over the threshold more often.” It is a question of building up those images and perceptions. I shall give the example of New Zealand, where as part of our study I had a long conversation with Marie Connolly, who is the chief social worker in that country. The post was created some years ago because they had the same problem there with the perception of social workers. They thought that it would be helpful to create the post of chief social worker. Marie appears frequently in the media. She told me that she had been offered her own regular newspaper column, to report on the life of social workers and on things going on in the profession. The innovation was generally judged to be successful, and we can learn many lessons from it.

Another thing that came up in our study—it seems a flippant suggestion but it is not—was that there should be a soap opera or a popular television programme centred on social workers. We have such programmes on doctors, nurses and teachers, and even forensic pathologists have become part of the culture of popular TV. Yet when social workers appear in soaps, in “EastEnders” for example, they are terribly stereotyped and portrayed in a pretty derogatory way as interfering, which only reinforces some of the misperceptions that many members of the public have. If we saw social workers in a different light, as human beings trying to  do a difficult job—in many cases a very difficult job—in difficult circumstances with restraints on resources, people might come to appreciate their role more.

It is an important point of principle. If the Government were to adopt the idea, we could work on how to create the position. I do not intend it to be another bureaucratic structure within Government. It is largely a question of how we focus on one of the most important sets of people working with vulnerable families. Creating the post of chief social worker would send out some very positive messages to the profession, but perhaps more importantly to the public, who might come to appreciate social workers better. Social workers may then be able to do their difficult jobs more easily than they can at the moment. I commend new clause 2 to the Committee.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families; Minister for the North West), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children and Youth Justice) (and Minister for the North West)

Let me start by saying that I understand completely the sentiment behind the new clause. I shall declare an interest as having trained as a probation officer on a post-graduate social work course. For some years I taught others to become post-graduate social workers at Manchester University, so I share the sentiments that social workers have a vital role promoting the best outcomes, particularly for vulnerable children. Social workers are often misunderstood and get an unfair press. They deserve our support and gratitude. While their mistakes make headline news, and rightly so, their many successes go largely unreported and unappreciated. I am with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s new clause. It is good to see the Conservative Party sharing those sentiments about social workers now. I recall that it was not always the case.

Some time ago we started to recognise social workers’ valuable contribution, and the need to support the work and improve its quality, with a £73 million programme for social work improvement over the next three years, which the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West is leading. That will increase the capacity, skills and numbers of social workers. Specifically to support newly qualified social workers, we are piloting a newly qualified social worker status and strengthening initial social work training. We are developing a professional development framework for social workers, so that there are better career pathways, and supporting experienced staff to remain in practice and act as mentors. That will build on the existing post-qualifying framework for social workers.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham says, is it equally important to promote a positive public image, which we are trying to do through a major national targeted marketing and communications campaign.

The difficulties with the new clause at this time, and I stress “at this time”, are threefold. The hon. Gentleman alluded to some of it. We already have an arguably overcrowded infrastructure for the support and development of social workers. As he mentioned, we have the General Social Care Council, which publishes codes of practice to set the standards of conduct and promotes social work. We have also established the Children’s Workforce Development Council, which embraces social work as part of its work across the whole children’s workforce, including social care. The current chair of the board is Michael Leadbetter, a former director of social services in Essex, and he has wide experience in the social work sector. The Association for Directors of Children’s Services  and the Association for Directors of Adult Services are also playing a role in driving improvements in quality and practice. The National Children’s Bureau is hosting a new centre, working with key partners including the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

Within the Department, the Chief Inspector for Education, Children’s Services and Skills has a duty to inform the Secretary of State of the quality of children’s services generally. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, David Behan, the director-general for social care, is in the Department of Health, but has a cross-government role none the less. The director for social care leadership and performance reports to him. That post-holder must be a qualified social worker and in that capacity provides professional leadership and advice to Ministers about the profession. My hon. Friend, and I before him, worked closely with the relevant Minister in the Department of Health on all these matters relating to social work practice and social care. There is quite a crowded field already.

Secondly, to pick up a couple of points that the hon. Gentleman made, to compare this post with other chief officer posts is not necessarily a valid exercise without considerable discussion. Take the example of the chief medical officer. That post is rather different from that which I would envisage here. That is because the structure of those organisations and the way in which the professionals are employed within them is very different. The NHS is a central body, directly managed by the Department of Health. The chief medical officer post and the chief nursing post, among others, provide input directly to assist that management. Here, of course, social workers are employed by local authorities, without that central management structure.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a comparison with New Zealand. We are not necessarily talking about the same kind of structure and would a chief social worker post offer the same as it may seem to do in New Zealand? Social care there is like the NHS and the Department of Health here; it is the province of a central Department which discharges all the social work functions. Here social workers are employed by local authorities, which are responsible in law for those social care functions. The post of a chief social worker does not translate that easily.

Finally, the most important reason for me is that we set out in our children’s plan our ambition to have a world-class children’s work force. To help us implement both the changes we have already made and those we want to make, we have established an expert group to support us in developing a long-term strategy for the work force, including social work. We will publish that in the autumn. The expert group, and the strategy team that is supporting it, are looking at six themes: work force capacity, excellence in practice, purpose and roles, improving joint working, what interventions work and developing and managing work force reforms.

One the of the key things the group is looking at is whether the delivery infrastructure for different parts of the work force, which I sketchily outlined and suggested was already very crowded, makes sense now. The expert group is deep into considering that evidence at the moment. I would not want to pre-empt its considerations  by adding in another post now. A chief social worker post may be an interesting idea as we reform that infrastructure. I am happy to ask the expert groups specifically to examine that proposal, but I do not feel able to accept the amendment now, because we are in this process with experts from the profession advising us how we might make some long-term and more radical changes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that assurance, recognise that we will ask our expert group to give his proposal consideration and therefore not press his new clause.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 9:15 am, 3rd July 2008

I am grateful for the Minister for her comments, although she spent almost as much time knocking down the idea of a chief social worker, as I spent trying to set it up. That was slightly churlish, considering the positive way in which it was put forward. I have been attending Association of Directors of Social Services conferences for many years, making many positive and constructive speeches about the role of social worker, often in contrast to Secretaries of State, who have gone to ADSS and similar conference pointing a finger of blame at social workers, which they have found extremely demoralising.

This work on the commission set up by the Conservative party was the culmination of many years of wanting to do something more constructive and help the whole role of social worker. We were able to attract a heavyweight panel of experts, professionals and academics, some of them members of the Labour party, who were prepared to come along and contribute positively to what they saw as a very good cause. They have all engaged in the process and our report has been greatly welcomed. I would be delighted to make that report available, either in the hard copies that remain in my office or by downloading it from the Conservative party website, to the expert group to which the Minister referred.

I understand the three reasons the Minister gave for why it is not suitable to take on the post at this time, although I think that the long list of various different structures that she trooped out indicates that that is part of the problem. It is a crowded system and the line management is confused, and I think that it causes confusion within the industry, let alone the public. I would rather see a reorganisation and overhaul of all the different bodies and posts to streamline them into a more recognisable, appreciated and acknowledged group of posts, and the chief social worker would make a major contribution to that streamlining.

I hope that the Minister will feed the discussion into the expert group she has set up, which is due to report in the autumn, and that the outside world will see that as a constructive suggestion. On the basis that she was not overly churlish, has acknowledged the positive parts of the proposal and said that the Government would not be prepared to take it on “at this time”, which suggests that there might be opportunities for it later, I am perfectly happy not to press the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.