UNISON SOCIAL WORK CONFERENCE
GLASGOW 24 MARCH 2004
Child Protection and the Trade Union
John Stevenson, Branch Secretary UNISON City
of Edinburgh, Chair of UNISONScotland Communications &
Campaigns Committee and practising Social Worker (Practice
Team Manager, Children & Families Team, Muirhouse, Edinburgh).
Asking me to speak on Child Protection and the Trade Union
is a dangerous thing because those who know me also know
that I can bore at length on both at the drop of a hat.
But I will try to discipline myself to covering what I
see as the three key issues that have faced us recently
and will continue to do so in the future.
- Social Work professional issues are trade union issues
because they are conditions issues.
- The Scottish Executive's pronouncements on Child Protection
this week, while welcome in many ways, are still seeking
to divorce themselves from the obvious reality - the lack
of resources. But worse, they imply - and very often directly
say - that the problem is practice and procedures. They
blame us because they will not provide the tools.
- I want also to address four inquiries briefly both as
part of the general thrust affecting all of these issues
but also separately at the end.
1. Social Work Professional Issues
Professional issues are trade union issues because they
relate to our members' employment.
They are trade union issues because the Child Protection
Act and Professional Registration mean that if our members'
professionalism is questioned, it could mean the end of
And they are trade union issues because basically our members
expect us to speak up for them and the services they provide.
Nothing throws this more into focus than the massively supportive
and encouraging responses I have had from members across
not just Edinburgh but the whole of Scotland who were basically
saying - thanks for speaking for us - thanks for giving
us a voice. There is no greater responsibility on a trade
union than to provide that voice.
Child Protection is a trade union issue because of all
that, but also because child protection is about defending
the powerless, it is about trying to help children reach
their potential in life, to have opportunities and to find
security. If those are not trade union principles, I don't
know what are. And of course protecting children is everyone's
job, not just the professionals.
Our representation of members in the O'Brien aftermath
meant we had to help others' understand not only the practice
context but also the legal context and the research context.
We had to understand and communicate the professional issues
so that we could represent our members.
When O'Brien glibly stated that there was a ‘culture' that
children should be with their own families, we had to point
out that the Children (Scotland) Act says they should be
with their own families - that all the research shows that
children do better in their own families than in corporate
care - that the law does not require a parent to justify
why they should take their own baby home from hospital.
Most of all, the law does not state that because you have
a drug habit or a brain injury, you cannot be allowed to
look after your own child. Children have a right to family
life, parents have a right to family life, that's the Human
Rights legislation. Yes we have a role in ensuring safety,
but the law is clear about that too when it talks not just
of significant harm but also of the need to have evidence
And then, at the end of it all, the Council's far more
wide-reaching staff inquiry came up with the conclusion
that no-one should be disciplined - only confirming O'Brien's
statement that no individual was to blame.
However, we must not ignore that a child died and that
lessons always have to be learned. The tragedy of that is
felt more strongly by those involved than by anyone else.
But it is important to recognise that any inquiry
will uncover issues which need to be addressed. That does
not mean that any of those issues directly contributed to
the child's death.
To represent members through this we had to make professional
arguments. We had to show why practices can build up to
accommodate a chronic and long-standing lack of resources
and we had to communicate those to the public and most of
all politicians who we found were woefully ignorant of the
statutory base of social work services, the range of those
services and the enormity and complexity of the task.
We were even told we had 4,000 social workers (information
from the Evening News) and many were shocked to discover
we only had 115 in children & families services if fully
staffed with just half qualified to do child protection.
My argument is that all of this demonstrates we cannot
separate professional and employment issues, or political
issues for that matter. We must be prepared to take on the
professional arguments and the political arguments as well
as the employment issues.
That means we need better research, better full time resources
but also more practitioners being prepared to be stewards
and activists and being welcomed for their professional
knowledge as much as for their service conditions knowledge.
2. Scottish Executive Pronouncements
On Monday this week, the Scottish Executive told us we
weren't doing a good enough job, systems needed to be fixed
and by golly they'd be tough in making sure it happened.
They also told us resources weren't the issue, it was systems.
Inquiries, they said, confirmed this.
Well, I'd like to know what inquiries they were reading.
It couldn't have been Laming because it was accepted that
workers in Haringey were carrying over the recommended limit
of cases. In that case it was 19 instead of 13 or 14. 19
is the standard in Edinburgh and they plan three years to
get it down. But in many other areas of Scotland I know
caseloads are even higher with less controls than were already
in place in Edinburgh.
It couldn't have been Laming because he pointed to the
disgrace of London boroughs spending LESS than their grant
allocation on Social Work.
Perhaps it was the O'Brien Inquiry. O'Brien noted that
no worker before the inquiry mentioned being overloaded
with work. However, O'Brien also noted that the inquiry's
remit did not cover resource issues.
It couldn't have been the Edinburgh Inquiry. That said
that there should be a choice in placing young people in
residential units. To ensure that choice, units had to operate
normally with vacancies. Since then in Edinburgh we have
LOST over 20 places in units.
The main reason is not stingy councils but a Scottish Executive
whose forecasts still say we need fewer and fewer places
when anyone working at the coal face will tell you we need
more and better places - but most of all we need choice
and a place at the time the child needs it, not when they
have built up a tariff harm or offending.
It couldn't have been the Scottish Executive's own reports
because they point out that there is not enough staff. It
was they who brought in the fast track trainees. It was
they who put all the extra money into ring fenced short
term projects that pulled more and more staff away from
the core high priority child protection tasks.
And it couldn't have been their own statistics that show
that just about every local authority in Scotland has to
spend well over the Scottish Executive's GAE funding in
Social Work just to tread water. In Edinburgh this amounts
to £20 million.
If it couldn't have been all these things, then what was
Perhaps it was what affects everyone when it comes to child
protection. That syndrome we know as "It wisnae me,
so blame the social worker".
Maybe I'm being guilty of having a bit of a knockabout
and I do accept there are serious issues in the Scottish
Executive's strategies I would want to highlight.
- Yes, we want quality assurance. That way we can expose
the problems and share the responsibility and risk.
- Yes, we want inspections. That way we can make sure
nobody can claim they didn't know what was happening.
- Yes, we want clear and defined standards because we,
the people doing the job, have been demanding them for
years and years.
The trouble however is that what has been published so
far are really principles, not standards. Principles are
fine, you cannot argue with them, they are mum and apple
pie. But they cannot be measured. We need clear expectations
and clear ways of measuring if they are being met.
We are not afraid to have our practice examined, so long
as the scandal of the lack of resources we are having to
work within is also examined.
Never let us forget that inquiries happen because a child
has been abused who should not have been abused or a child
has died who should not have died.
The Edinburgh Inquiry was the worst scenario to face any
social worker. That children were systematically abused
by people who called themselves social workers shocks us
But even in that, systems that gave such low respect to
residential workers were bound to attract the wrong people.
Systems that treated children in care as second class citizens
were bound to have at least the potential for abuse. But
the bottom line is that people abused these children and
that should not have happened.
But the inquiries that have caused so much public denigration
of social workers have been the more recent ones. But even
then, let us not forget - as indeed Caleb Ness's own mother
told the press - it was not a social worker that killed
Caleb Ness. Sometimes you would be forgiven for thinking
In the O'Brien Inquiry, the majority of recommendations
applied to Health Services and other agencies but all of
the vilification was reserved for the social workers.
After O'Brien, social work in Edinburgh has reviewed its
procedures and audited all its child protection cases. We
were pleased at an 85% pass rate which I suspect many other
authorities would be pleased with if they did the same exercise.
Whether Health would be pleased or not will depend on when
they actually get round to doing their own review. I don't
see that splashed across the press.
These two inquiries, along with the Carla Bone inquiry
have come up with amazingly similar findings. Those are
the need for better communication within Health and
Social Work Services and between Health and Social
Yet, Edinburgh's response has been to plan to merge Children
& Families Social Work into Education and that small
insignificant little service called Community Care would
be taken over by Housing. The latter may not happen now
that councillors have at last spotted what Community Care
services do, how extensive they are and the fact that they
don't just cover people in Council Housing. What they plan
for Criminal Justice is strangely obscure.
Such a reorganisation will not learn one single lesson
from any of the inquiries in the last five years.
Worse still, it will fly in the face of some recommendations
and increase the very risks identified by inquiries.
One of the key issues identified by inquiries has been
the need to ensure joint working and information sharing
between Community Care, Children & Families and Criminal
Justice. How do you achieve that by splitting them into
That, at the moment, is an issue for Edinburgh but it may
well become an issue for all of Scotland.
I don't want to dwell on a local issue, but let me just
let you know about why this came about and what the so-called
It follows Lord Laming's report that called for better
liaison between agencies. The Government's Green Paper in
England then translated this into childrens services trusts
or departments. Everyone struggles with how it made that
link. Eight English authorities piloted this, all but one
said it wasn't working and one, if not two, backed out completely.
Brighton created a merged service and is held up as a model
by Edinburgh's administration. Held up as a model when it
was one of the lowest performing social work services in
the latest government audit.
Haringey has ‘unmerged' its social work service from Housing
in light of the Laming Report. The tragic death of Victoria
Climbie took place, as Laming said, in a context where people
‘took their eye off the ball' during an unsettling reorganisation.
So clearly, the UK Government response is not learning
lessons and the Scottish Executive, although their work
has been far better researched in my view, has to guard
against making the same mistake.
The Carla Bone Inquiry brought up so many evidenced and
perceptive recommendations. It was a genuine attempt to
look at how things could have been done better even in a
context when everyone knew that this tragedy was largely
outside any protective system that could have been in place.
Real practical recommendations like better admin support,
defining terms like ‘risk' and ‘protection', better support
systems for health visitors, and an identification of the
need to keep councillors informed of the issues in child
protection rather than just sanitised statistics.
The Edinburgh Inquiry in 1999 stressed the need for the
care of children to be a corporate responsibility across
departments. Crucially it demanded a clear statement that
social workers work with risk - a concept rarely understood.
I tell anyone who wants to listen that if there is a 90%
assessment that a child will be safe, there is still a 10%
risk they will not be. That cannot be eliminated it can
only be managed - and mostly that needs resources.
To Edinburgh's credit, they made that statement about risk
in 1999. They seemed to forget it in 2003 but they have
reiterated it in a council report only last week.
O'Brien unfortunately let all these reports down.
I cannot overstate the anger of those who voluntarily went
to that inquiry to give their best efforts to describe what
happened and to genuinely want to be part of a process to
learn lessons if lessons had to be learned.
For their efforts, these committed professionals working
with children day in day out were treated with a lack of
courtesy bordering on rudeness with an adversarial culture
throughout that made the exercise seem more like an inquisition
than an inquiry. Many then faced vilification in the press
and months of stress under a further internal disciplinary
investigation, thankfully to be cleared at the end.
The O'Brien report often contradicts itself, it accepts
evidence it has already rejected and it draws conclusions
about some staff without even calling them to the inquiry.
It chooses to believe evidence from some witnesses with
no corroboration, yet rejects evidence from some witnesses
despite corroboration. It, in some areas, makes recommendation
based on no evidence apparent in the report. It called for
an investigation of a manager who spoke to a witness before
the inquiry. A manager giving genuine support to an employee
was ridiculously tarred by an allegation of coaching - thankfully
when the real evidence was heard he was not only found to
be innocent - he was in fact following good management practice
to support staff. Just one more example of the flaws in
understanding in this report.
The report is often inaccurate and displays a lack of understanding
or cognisance of the law relating to child protection and
the child protection procedures. In one statement it criticises
for not following child protection procedures, yet in another
it contradicts the existing child protection procedures.
As the report itself indicates, it only selectively quotes
the transcripts. This has led to some witnesses having
comments or answers published without the full context of
their evidence. It is also full of value judgements and
a literary tone that would be more at home in a tabloid
than a serious report.
It is clear that several conclusions made by the inquiry
are not based on its own evidence and are unfair on the
For example, the Inquiry even accepts a witness's evidence
that a case conference minute was inaccurate when it also
finds that the minute was not in fact circulated to that
I could go on for ages. In a perverse way I am almost disappointed
the Council did not attempt to discipline someone because
I would have liked to have heard the Inquiry account for
itself at an Employment Tribunal.
But worse still were the councillors of all parties who
became experts on the report without clearly having had
the time to read it. I mean, who needed to read it when
you could get a fair summary in the press?
All this points to the need to have a proper and standing
system for such inquiries as opposed to the ad hoc arrangements.
We need good internal review systems when a child known
to social work dies. And we must accept that children will
die. Not all deaths are avoidable. The actions of adults
are not necessarily predictable. Society and politicians
have to address that reality.
What is the way forward?
We need a national system that inquires into these consistently
with a full understanding of the social work context, allied
to health service and police issues - with an understanding
of the law, and mostly with a willingness to look at the
fundamental role of resources.
And UNISON should be campaigning for the real lessons,
the evidenced lessons to be learned. We should be prepared
to stick our necks out and say what we think is the best
way forward. That means speaking out clearly and saying:-
- The key issue is a long term chronic lack of resources.
With appropriate resourcing, many current systems can
deliver all that is required from recent inquiries and
Scottish Executive reports. This must be the number one
It is impossible to make long term plans about the delivery
of child protection services without addressing the fundamental
problem of resources, training and remuneration, particularly
in social care services.
No service can operate with 40% to 50% shortfalls in staffing
which is not unusual across Scotland. To talk about systems
and procedures in that context has a feel of fiddle and
burning to it.
This can only be addressed by a Scottish-wide review of
social care addressing resources, training, structures,
remuneration and career progression. A review that lifts
the profile of this crucial job we do and improves the
way all social work services are valued. UNISON has been
calling for this for almost three years.
- More work is needed on integrating the roles of Children
& Families, Community Care and Criminal Justice in
all aspects of child protection, community safety and
youth crime to provide for a consistent partnership with
Housing, Health and Police etc.
- We need better political understanding of the law regarding
child protection, the management of substance abuse and
on thresholds in the law and in society for 'good enough
care'. This has already been raised by Cllr Maginnis in
Edinburgh and goes alongside the guidance in 'Getting
Our Priorities Right' and findings of the Carla Bone report.
That report says that the Child Protection Committee has
the key role and "should debate the need to develop
guidance for staff in all agencies to identify a common
understanding of what is meant by the terms ‘in need','
vulnerable', ‘neglect' and ‘requiring protection'."
(See 1.1-1.4, pages 44-45).
- Much of the ill-informed comments about Social Work
and the simplistic criticism stem from a lack of knowledge
among politicians and the public about the range, complexity
and inter-dependence of Social Work Services. The Carla
Bone Inquiry recognises this widespread problem and recommends:
"36. We recommend that wherever possible Chief Executives
and senior managers of other services should explain to
elected members, Health Board members and the wider public,
the tasks of their staff and the way in which they try
to carry out their responsibilities. (See 11.5-11.6, page
- Individual specialisms and professional identities must
be retained to provide the highest quality service - they
must not be diluted into a one size fits all culture.
Social Work professionalism is a bulwark against the
worst political decisions that remove liberties and freedoms,
and rights to care and self determination.
Co-located (but not merged) joint working, particularly
with Education but also with Health needs to be built
on while retaining individual specialisms and professional
lines for the benefit of children.
- There should therefore be a re-invigoration of Child
Protection Committees or other measures like childrens
services forums or other initiatives to:-
- Make links between agencies more robust
- Create systems that allow agencies to demand information
and involvement in child protection cases, with lines
of accountability to address any problems
- Facilitate more formal joint working across agencies.
- Facilitate more joint training across agencies.
- Foster exchange initiatives for staff to directly
experience working in partner agencies.
- As recommended by the NECPC report, existing Child
protection Committees should take seriously their role
in alerting politicians at local and Scottish level
of where resource issues are affecting child protection.
- Local Neighbourhood Child Protection Committees or
other forums to foster closer co-operation, joint working
and joint training at local level to really allow the
people delivering the services to work together, rather
than just paper policies.
Most of all, we have to challenge the blame culture. We
have to communicate what working with risk means and we
have to make sure we have the information, the training,
the backup and the systems to represent our members when
they are under attack.
We are the voice of social care staff in Scotland. We must
not be afraid to use that voice with all the resources at
Edinburgh Submission to full Council 18 March re Social
Statement on Edinburgh Social Work Staffing Inquiry
on Edinburgh Child Protection Audit
Comments and Report - O'Brien Inquiry
MANAGEMENT OF SOCIAL WORK SERVICES IN EDINBURGH - UNISON's
PRELIMINARY RESPONSE TO CONSULTATION Children & Families
A report on the future organisation and management of
Edinburgh's Social Work Services
The Laming Report on the Victoria Climbie Inquiry
North East of Scotland Child Protection Committee (NESPC)
review of the death of Carla Nicole Bone
The O'Brien Report into the death of Caleb Ness
UNISON Edinburgh: Interim Comments - December 2003 Preliminary
Report on the O'Brien Inquiry
"It's everyone's job to make sure I'm alright" Report
of the Child Protection Audit and Review Scottish Executive
Scottish Executive 'Getting our Priorities Right': Good
Practice Guidance for working with Children and Families
affected by Substance Misuse