On 20th July 2022 Rachael spoke in the Westminster Hall Debate on Children’s Social Care Workforce. The full debate can be watched here.
I am saddened that Westminster Hall is not packed today. After 12 years, we must recognise that families are being failed, as are children, and our social work workforce is being set up to fail. We have around 80,000 children in social care—let us think about that number. If we do not change direction, in 10 years’ time that will be 100,000 children. If we put in the changes needed, we could see that number fall.
The crime is that we know what has to be done. We have had the report of 1,001 critical days. We have had Josh MacAlister’s report for the independent review of children’s social care. Today is the day on which the Minister must commit to pivot the system in order to invest in our young people. We know the trauma that being in care brings to children and families. Our social workers work so hard and are so dedicated. It is one of the hardest jobs—keeping children safe, keeping families together and acting as a corporate parent—but they are fighting a fire that will not go out.
We all know the constituency cases: the desperate situation where social workers are trying to keep a family together, but they remove a child and we question whether that was the right decision. It is hard. Perhaps parents can no longer cope because their charge is at significant risk of harm to themselves or others because they are so traumatised. That is the daily experience that social workers have to deal with. It is not just the shared pressure they are under, because of the volume of unsafe case work—they have so much of it and do not have the resources they need—but the emotional stress of the job that takes its toll That is why we need to look after our social workers and ensure that they have the support they need, because they want to break the cycles. They want to ensure that families are given that chance in life to stay together and have the support they need.
The independent review of children’s social care was an important moment. I really do thank Josh MacAlister and his team for the work that they did. They had so many children, young people and families with lived experience, and care-experienced people, leading that work, which is crucial to setting the path for the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston said, we need proper support for people who are newly qualified, with the five-year early career framework ensuring that people are working under supervision, with the opportunity learn, gain competencies, get knowledge and skills and focus on rebuilding families with the right interventions, which is a central part of Josh MacAlister’s report. They should not make those really difficult decisions until they have that experience. He suggests working with family helpers, bringing together early help and a child in need of support.
There should a multidisciplinary team wrapped around that, as opposed to pulling the child in so many different directions. There should be consistency in support around the child. As that practitioner gains experience to become an expert practitioner, there is a career path for them to gain and use that knowledge, so that they can have those sensitive conversations and deal with challenging situations. They analyse all the information and their experience in order to make the right decisions on behalf of a child and their family, and to deal with the courts. An observation that my colleagues in York have made is that dealing with the courts is challenging for social workers. We need to ensure that there is good training for judges, who are often quite removed from the real experiences of those social workers or the children for whom they are advocating. We need to look at the court system as well. We must ensure that we provide good support.
I say to the Minister that, although there is much churn in his party at the moment, we have to invest in these people. We have got to ensure that they get decent pay and recognition for the work that they do, rewarding the skills that they have and doing such an important job. Josh MacAlister’s report talks about a national pay framework, which is really important for the profession to stop the constant churn as social workers move to another authority because they pay that little bit more. That is destabilising the relationship with the child. The child should be central to all of this. We should ensure that there is a proper framework. In the NHS, we call it Agenda for Change and it is a good system of job evaluation that has lasted for 20 years, showing that it is sustainable as a mechanism for a pay and progression system.
I hope that the Minister looks at Agenda for Change and considers how it can be applied to social workers across the board, to ensure that caseloads are safe, which means that we need more capacity in the system. We need more social workers to carry out this crucial role and to get on top of the number of children who are at risk or who are presenting a need. If make an injection of funding, we can ensure that the eventual financial outcome will be far, far less. Fiscally it is a smart thing to do to invest at this point, because Josh MacAlister says in his report that it would mean that instead of having 100,000 children in care, that figure would go down to 50,000 children in care in 10 years’ time, which is certainly something we should fight for.
I have to agree with Josh MacAlister when he refers in his report to the “broken market” around residential care. I do not know whether the Minister heard the “File on 4” programme on BBC Radio 4 about this issue, but it was truly shocking; if he has not heard it already, I recommend that he listens to it. The programme is about the experience that children have in residential care. Profiteering from vulnerable children? It is disgraceful that that happens. We have to consider how we bring that care closer to the child, closer to the family and ensure that they both get the support they need; rather than making money out of these vulnerable children, we should invest in them and their future.
We must also invest in our social workers, supporting them to achieve their very best and to keep them safe. That is what we want to see, wrapping around them a multi-disciplinary team, including mental health services, education and even services related to play. Instead of services fighting against each other, they should work together.
What came out of Josh MacAlister’s report was a view that every child or young person must be in a safe, stable and loving environment. That is not the experience of children today, but we must make it the ambition. We do not have time to waste; these are lives that are vulnerable right now.
Consequently, I trust that the Minister will take that report and will ensure that we get a response to it. I do not know what timescale the Minister is thinking of; perhaps he can tell us today, because these children cannot wait—and Labour Members certainly cannot wait either.