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House of Commons Hansard
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Social Workers
13 March 2018
Volume 637

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution to society of social workers.

It is an honour to serve under you, Mr Hollobone, and a real pleasure for me to call this debate in Westminster Hall. I would like to record for Hansard that the room is heaving and that the Public Gallery is packed, with standing room only. Alas, I cannot, because there is an important debate on statutory instruments on the Floor of the House. A number of colleagues from both sides of the House would have wanted to be here, were that not happening.

This subject has been close to my heart for the better part of a decade. I came across the extraordinary work that social workers do on first coming to work in Parliament, about a decade ago. I confess that until then I had been largely sheltered from the world in which they work, and indeed from the people they help. In the intervening 10 years I have never ceased to be amazed by their extraordinary passion, professionalism, stamina and commitment to helping people in some of the most difficult situations in which any citizens in our country find themselves. In the words of one social worker I was speaking to the other day, it is “a bloody hard job, but it’s bloody rewarding.”

I have been lucky in my career because I have had the opportunity to visit about 50 local authorities in the past 10 years, and everywhere I have gone I have seen great innovation and determination to help improve the lives of the most unfortunate.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I have dealt with social workers for a number of years and I agree that often they are undervalued and that when something goes wrong, they carry the blame. We often wonder why they do it, given the circumstances they find themselves in, with particularly difficult families, to say the least. They also see many things such as child abuse and pensioner abuse, for which they are on the frontline. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that society should do more to show that we value their contribution?

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I completely agree; the hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully. I have come to see social workers as the fifth emergency service, although I got in trouble for saying that many years ago—I got an angry letter from the coastguard—so I have ceased to say that. Social workers are one of our emergency services, but unlike the others, the majority of people never come into contact with them, and most people do not even know someone who has. It is therefore easy for misconceptions to grow about their role in society, the job they do and the way in which they do it. Part of the importance of this debate is to recognise the true nature of their job.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I know he has a deep interest in and a real passion for social work, and children’s services in particular. Has he seen Unison’s briefing for the debate? It tells us that half of social workers feel that their case load is over the limit, and they blame staff shortages for that. Also, 60% say that Government cuts affect their ability to best support vulnerable people, and most work for free for 10 hours a week. Does he agree not only that we need to train and recruit more social workers into the system, but that we need the cash to support and pay them, and that we should reward them individually with a good pay rise?

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I was grateful to Unison and the British Association of Social Workers for the briefings they sent me in advance of the debate. I understand that the survey reported in the Unison briefing represents some challenges for the profession and its working environment. I will always be found looking to Government to provide more resources for vulnerable people. I would say on behalf of the Government—although I am sure the Minister can defend the Government perfectly well without me—that, according to the Library, since 2014-15 the money that has gone into children’s social work has gone up by 2% in real terms. We can always look for more, but I am glad that it is moving in the right direction.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I had not intended to be here but I found myself with a little extra time, so I am glad to contribute. As he rightly said, many people do not come into contact with social workers, but I grew up with a mother who was a social worker in Muirhouse in Edinburgh—some may know it as the area on which the film “Trainspotting” was based—during the heroin explosion and HIV crisis in the ’80s. She went on to be a social work manager and lecture at university. So, I grew up with a great sense of social justice and the very difficult but ultimately rewarding job that social workers do. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should have a national day to recognise social workers—unless we already have one that I am not aware of?

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I think for the people in this room, every day is national social worker day. I am sure we celebrate the work they do in our daily lives and in our jobs.

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On that point, I do not think we have a social worker day, but, as patron of the Social Worker of the Year awards, I inform the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) that this coming Thursday there will be a reception on the Terrace for all the winners, and she is more than welcome to come along, meet them and pay her tribute in person.

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Unbeknown to us, national social worker day is later this week—what we have achieved in the debate already! Most of my remarks will be confined to children’s social work as it is the area that I know best. That is in no way to denigrate the extraordinary work that adult social workers do. Indeed, on Friday I was with some of the adult social workers in Essex, who were absolutely impressive in their determination to make things better for local people. They were full of new ideas—they have developed an interesting new programme to support newly qualified social workers, which had seen recruitment increase substantially—and I am pleased to know that vulnerable adults and elderly people in my constituency can rely on them.

As I said, I came to this subject relatively recently in my career, and I did so by accident. I had started out working on education, and through good fortune and strange circumstances I ended up working for my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has graced us with his presence. That was back in 2008, and at that time social workers were in particularly difficult circumstances. Their public reputation had taken a hammering following the Victoria Climbié case and soon after I started that job the awful case of Peter Connelly—Baby P—broke in the newspapers. Very unfairly, for a while social workers alone took the blame for the mistakes made in those cases. It was symptomatic of a society and a news environment that did not understand child protection in the round and was searching for the easiest scapegoats.

By the time I joined my hon. Friend—my then boss—he had already written what turned out to be a seminal paper, called “No More Blame Game,” which sought to set aside the myths that had grown up in the public imagination and to give social workers the respect, training, resources and professional autonomy they needed to do their job properly. It was my great pleasure to work alongside him and at the Department for Education in those next few years to see that programme bear fruit. The most substantial part of it was the Munro review of child protection, which was launched in 2010 and reported in 2011. It intended to put a renewed focus on frontline social work—not on national statutory guidance or defensive systems designed to protect organisations from reputational damage, but on the frontline experience of the children being helped by a professional social work body.

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One of the difficulties that social workers have is that they must deal with different agencies and sometimes get the agreement of different agencies, certainly when they are dealing with child abuse. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

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Very much so. Part of the work that was pioneered by a number of local authorities and pushed by central Government around 2010 was a multi-agency approach. It is now very common in local authorities to see experienced social workers in an office alongside representatives from the local police force, local mental health services and a range of local agencies, so they can have those professional conversations and should not get tied up in a bureaucratic process where people push a difficult case off their desk into somebody else’s hands and hope it goes away.

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The blame game.

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Indeed. Instead of building a system that could, at its worst extent, be one of professional buck-passing, we have seen the development of collaborative working in the truest sense. Where that has happened, we know that vulnerable children and families are most likely to be getting the support they need.

During the course of our work in those days, we came across a number of obstinate problems that were holding professional social workers back. Anybody working in social work at the time will remember the integrated children’s system, ICS, which was an extremely well-intentioned central Government computer system, designed to capture data and help social workers to analyse it. The only problem was that it had not been designed in consultation with social workers; it had been designed by IT folk with other interests.

I remember—I shall never forget—sitting in an office with about 20 social workers one day and hearing with complete incredulity that it took them eight hours to fill out the form for one visit. The visit with a child and a family might have lasted 45 minutes, but it took eight hours to do the paperwork for it. The enormous burden that that placed on the social work community was incapacitating. We met social workers who were taking time off work in order to do their work. They were taking holiday so that they could get the time to fulfil their paperwork as the system required them to.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the necessity of consulting with professional social workers. Another area that the National Association of Social Workers talks about is the current adoptions system and the acceleration to get children adopted as quickly as possible. The NASW has some real concerns that the system, because it is accelerated, might not be looking after the best interests of the children. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to listen more to social workers, particularly their concerns about adoption and the system currently in place, so that we can ensure that children get the best outcome?

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The Munro review of child protection emphasised very strongly the need for a systems learning model. That means that everyone who is involved in the child protection system and in looking after vulnerable children must be able to voice their concerns and opinions and have a fair hearing. It is only by listening to different people operating in different parts of the system that we can get the most effective working of that system. For a long time, certainly on the ground in many local authorities, social workers felt that their opinions were not being heard by senior management, that senior management—particularly some directors of children’s services way back in the day—were entirely unconnected to the vulnerable population they were supposed to be serving.

We saw children’s services departments that were almost solely focused on education and saw the vulnerable children as an add-on—a small part of their business. We also met directors of children’s services who took the time to go out and go bowling with all their children in foster care, to hear their views. We have to remember that children themselves are part of the system, and it is through hearing their voices, and their views of the services and support they and their parents are receiving, that we can make the improvements that are so necessary.

We often talk, quite rightly, about a child-centred, or child and family-centred, system, but often, with those most vulnerable families, the only way of getting to that centre is to have professional social workers or teachers working alongside them in schools. More recently, since the Munro review reported in 2011, some fantastic additional changes have been brought in by the Department for Education.

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The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. We should pay a little bit of tribute to the previous Minister, Mr Timpson, the former Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who lost his seat. About four or five years ago I did a lot of work with him, because he was looking at the issues not only at local authority but at regional level. He did a lot of good work because he understood the problem, and I was very impressed by him. We should give him a little bit of credit here.

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Absolutely; Edward Timpson was an excellent Children’s Minister. He had a lot of respect in the sector, and rightly so. He came from a family that had first-hand experience of fostering, and he brought a huge wealth of real-life experience to his role. It is good to hear that he was respected on both sides of the House.

One of the things brought in at DFE after 2010, as I was saying, was the innovation programme, which again gave local social workers, local authorities and people working on the ground with children and families the opportunity to come up with new ideas and bid for Government money in order to prove their model. It is good to see that fund rolling on; I think only last year the Government committed a further £36 million to the initiative, which has been warmly welcomed by local authorities and social workers across the country.

At the moment the Department is putting into practice the contents of its strategy paper, “Putting Children First”—an enormous programme of social worker development, from recruitment all the way through to ensuring that more experienced social workers are up to speed with the latest techniques and theories, and that the social work community is talking to itself and learning from itself. It is a really valuable programme, which will help to upgrade the profession in the most constructive and productive way possible.

Things are tough in some local authorities; I spend enough time talking to people in children’s services to know that that is true. I also know that, even where things are financially tight, there is still great appetite for innovation and people are finding new ways of working and of helping children and families. I was talking to some social workers on Friday who had found that, simply by putting in a new package of support for newly qualified social workers, they were getting more young recruits through the door and building a vibrant, young, energetic team.

I have also been lucky enough to see how the Government’s great troubled families programme has been integrated into the main body of social work practice in some outstanding local authorities, where we have seen the development of a continuum of care, going from children’s centres open to all at one end, all the way through to the most severe child protection cases, with the troubled families programme helping those in the middle. That is the group I will talk about as I bring my remarks to a close.

One group that has been neglected in public discourse until this point is children in need—children who are not fully in care but on the edge of care; who are on social services’ radar but who do not receive all the services that somebody who is fostered or has been adopted might. It is a large group: there are about 400,000 children in need at any one time, and during the course of a year about 750,000 children are in need. Their outcomes are terrible, and are often worse than those we see for the looked-after population, as we might expect, because these are the children who are left at home in disrupted, complex families, whereas their contemporaries who have been taken into care will have, if they are lucky, the stability of long-term fostering or an adoptive placement and will see their outcomes improve.

It is extremely important that we turn our attention to that group. I believe that, as a result of our bringing our social work profession into the 21st century and helping it to develop, social workers will have the skills, the appetite and the determination to help those people. I am delighted that the Department for Education is undertaking a review of the outcomes of children in need, as we announced in the Conservative party’s general election manifesto last year.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case for working with even more children, but that actually requires more people as well. I know he is impressed by the increase in money that the Government are putting in, and local authorities are also raising more, through council tax. However, does he agree that, in order to achieve the things that he wants, we need in the system more social workers with smaller workloads?

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I certainly see the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. The point I was making, which is not completely dissimilar, is that the troubled families programme brings with it a large budget. I have been pleased to observe over the past few years that the proportion of families on the troubled families programme with a child in need has risen and risen, as more local authorities take that budget and apply it to those families who need it most. We have a much more responsive and particular system now than a few years ago.

We all aspire to having the most professional, best informed, most inspired and inspiration social workers anywhere in the world. I believe that we are heading in that direction, but it is not something that can be achieved overnight and it is not something that can be taken for granted. However, I am sure we all agree that, without the contribution that England’s social workers make to vulnerable children and families, the world would be a considerably worse place.

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I am obliged to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.7 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party spokesperson, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s official Opposition’s spokesperson and 10 minutes for the Minister. I will invite the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) to sum up the debate after the Minister has concluded his remarks. Until 5.7 pm, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has the Floor.

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I had not intended to speak, but such has been the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) that I feel impelled to complement his wise words. I first declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I repeat my interest as a patron of the Social Worker of the Year awards, as is the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on what is an unfashionable subject that we hear little of in this place—that has been a problem for many years. Not only was he well-schooled when he arrived here 10 years ago, but his experience then included, as he has mentioned, his time working as an essential part of the Munro review, before moving on to Barnardo’s and then becoming the deputy Children’s Commissioner. He has vast experience, which he has already brought to bear in his short time in this place. I am glad that he has done so again today.

My hon. Friend mentioned social workers as the fifth emergency service. We used to refer to them as the fourth emergency service—we do not want to downplay them. Their difference from the other emergency services is that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Too often, they are subject to tabloid newspaper headlines that complain if they have the temerity to step in and take a child into care, particularly if the child is from a middle-class family who one would not expect to face action. They are damned if they do not step in early enough and take a child into care who subsequently becomes a Baby P, a Victoria Climbié or one of the many other high-profile cases, which are just the tip of the iceberg.

I am sure the Minister sees this now, but in my previous role as Children’s Minister, the most depressing start to the week was going through an audit of the new cases of severe child abuse and child fatalities that had come in during the previous week and what progress they had made in the courts or whatever. I am afraid that the cases we saw in the headlines were just a fraction of what was going on, day in, day out. I think the situation is better, but there are still, and always will be, people who do terrible things to vulnerable children. Too often, it is only social workers who stand between those people and the welfare—indeed, the lives—of those children.

I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned “No More Blame Game”, which was a really important piece of work back in 2007, before the whole Baby P issue blew up. It was all about trusting social workers, rather than just pointing the finger of blame, as I am afraid had been the default position of too many people in positions of responsibility. Time and again, I found myself reminding people, during media interviews and elsewhere, that it was not the social worker who killed that child. It was the parents, carers or others close to that child who actually did the damage. The social workers desperately tried to avoid that.

The job of the social worker is to try to detect early where a child is vulnerable and to try to make a judgment about an appropriate intervention. It is not a science. That is why one of my big mantras regarding social workers was that I wanted to give them the power and the confidence to make a mistake. There had been numerous child protection Bills since the Victoria Climbié case, and all were exceedingly well-intentioned, but their net result was to add to the rulebook—to add more regulations. By 2010, the “Working Together” manual ran to something like 760 pages.

Unison revealed that social workers were spending more than 80% of their time in front of computers filling in process forms, rather than spending time face-to-face with those children. The net result was that they were constantly ticking boxes to comply with the rules, rather than using their gut instinct, their judgment and their training and professionalism to say, “Something isn’t quite right here. I’m going to step in and do something.” Occasionally, they will be wrong—as I say, it is not a science—but usually the decent social workers, as the vast majority are, will be right to do so. However, they lacked the confidence to step in because it was all about following the rulebook and ticking the boxes. That was a huge problem with the profession that caused them to lose confidence in doing the professional job that we wanted them to do.

Our review back in 2007 was an important start in saying that we need to trust social workers. We first flagged up the need to have a chief social worker to give the whole profession gravitas—a public face; somebody who was trusted—and to make sure that social worker training was integrated with other training as well. Some of the best safeguarding I have seen is when a social worker is sat next to a GP, who is sat next to a teacher, who is sat next to a police officer, in the same room, being taught from the same manual. Hot-desking is now often the favoured way forward in children’s centres and other multi-agency safeguarding hubs, which is absolutely right.

The Munro review was important. It was the first Department for Education review launched by the new Government in 2010. It was nothing to do with education; it was actually all about child protection and social work, which was not a fashionable subject in those days. The Munro review—Eileen Munro’s work was outstanding and respected, I think on all sides politically, and certainly throughout the profession—was all about how we peeled back some of the rules that were standing in the way of allowing social workers to get on with their job and use their professionalism and instincts to make the right judgments. It was a really important review.

My hon. Friend referred to children in need. It has been estimated that the cost of child neglect each and every year in this country is some £15 billion. That is £15 billion for not getting things right. Just think what we could achieve if a fraction of that were spent on prevention and ensuring that neglect became a thing of the past, or certainly a much more minority occupation. The Munro report was therefore very important.

The rewriting of the “Working Together” document, which was slimmed down from more than 750 pages to below 100, was also very important, because it set out the basic principles and then said to the social worker, “That is what you need to achieve. Now go out and do it. Use your professional talents to decide how you execute it in individual cases and, above all, spend time snooping around. Go into people’s homes. See people face to face. Eyeball those whom you suspect may be up to no good. Speak to the children—get the child’s voice and the child’s view on this.” That was so important.

It is also important that politicians and civil servants should have experience of that. I spent a year back in 2011 being a social worker in Stockport. I was going out on cases with real social workers—and gosh, they took me to some of their most challenging cases to see it like it is. My hon. Friend mentioned the former director of children’s services in Harrow, one of the most outstanding directors of children’s services that we had, who each week would take a group of children in the care of Harrow Borough out bowling and engage with them and hear from them exactly what was going on. In the Department for Education, we set up four panels of children: one of foster-children, one of children in residential homes, one of recent care leavers and one of children who had been adopted. They came along and told us, without the carers, managers and officials there, what was actually going on. That is where I learnt some of my best information, as I did by going out with social workers on patrol, without directors and managers—their bosses. That is very important. I think and hope that in that time we re-established some of the credentials and confidence in social workers.

Alas, there is still a lot to do. Money has been protected for child safeguarding, but clearly, financial pressures are considerable at the moment. The number of children coming into the care system has continued to rise. That may be a good thing. I do not know whether we are taking too many or too few children into care. What I am concerned about is that we are taking the right children into care, at the right time, and looking after them properly once they are in the care of the state.

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I have a friend who has a leading role on a safeguarding board. She tells me that the workload has increased, particularly as there have been more case reviews and, because more children have been dying, there have had to be specific inquiries. The work is tremendously resource-intensive. Is the hon. Gentleman convinced that there are sufficient resources for people to do that work effectively?

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There will never be enough resources for social work, as with so many things. Adult social care also faces serious challenges.

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Priorities.

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It is a question of priorities and of intervening at the appropriate time; that is why I was a big fan of the early intervention fund, which was set up in the Department for Education. However, getting things wrong is the most costly outcome of the lot, and previously an awful lot of money was being wasted on the system and constraining social workers, rather than letting them get on with their job. The consequence was huge vacancy rates, too many locums filling the places and a lack of continuity, and the cost was that much more. The most costly thing of all was when things went really wrong, as they did with Baby P, Victoria Climbié and the other high-profile cases. The cost of putting that right was considerable, so it is a false economy not to be doing the things to which we have referred.

The all-party parliamentary group for children, which I have the privilege to co-chair, produced a report on the state of children’s social care last year, and we are doing an update on that. What it showed, above everything, was huge disparities between outcomes and experiences in different parts of the country. For example, a child in Blackpool has a 166-in-10,000 chance of being in the care system, while an equivalent child in Richmond in London has only a 30-in-10,000 chance. Richmond and Blackpool are very different places, but are they so different that more children get taken into care? We found huge differentials around the country on a whole range of thresholds, and we desperately need to learn from that. We need to learn from social workers why those different experiences and outcomes are happening.

At the end of the day, I found that those of our failing children’s services departments—we have a large number in special measures at the moment—that were turned around most effectively were not those with some new structure, process, trust or whatever imposed on them, but those where an inspirational leader, director of children’s services, went in and trusted his or her staff. And ultimately, many of the successful, recovering children’s services authorities came through with the majority of the social workers they had started with.

I remember that one director of children’s services who gave evidence to our inquiry said that he went into the county, got his social workers together and said to them, “Name all your cases.” When it got up to about 15 or 16, they could not remember the others, so he said, “Well, that’s probably about the case load you should have, isn’t it?” and that was what he put into effect. It is now one of the best-performing—I will not name it—children’s services departments in the country and is spreading that good practice to other counties and authorities around the country.

It is not rocket science, but it would be much more difficult without the dedicated social workers whom we have in this country. We do not value them enough—I think we value them more than we did—which is why it is essential, when we have opportunities such as this, that we say thank you to social workers for the outstanding job they do despite all the challenges they face every day.

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If the Minister starts his remarks at 5.17 pm and I split the time between now and then, that gives both Opposition spokespeople five minutes each. I will set the clock to assist them to achieve that task.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for securing the debate and for his summary of the subject. I agree with him that we have to learn from people with experience of care, and that is happening in Scotland. The Who Cares? Scotland “1000 Voices” manifesto is about a pledge to listen to 1,000 young people with direct experience of care. That is very welcome.

As we have heard, social workers play a vital role in our society by standing up for the most vulnerable children and adults and ensuring that they are safeguarded from harm or supported to live independently. The work falls into the remit of a number of Departments—Education, Health, employment, social security and potentially others such as the Home Office and Justice—and it can often be multi-agency. Similarly, social workers work in a variety of settings, supporting individuals, families and groups within the community and working in homes, schools, hospitals or the premises of various public and voluntary organisations.

Social workers frequently work unsocial hours, and in making a positive difference to other people’s lives find themselves under considerable pressure and strain. Figures supplied by Unison highlighted the fact that 80% of its social worker members experienced

“emotional distress during the day”

and almost half felt “over the limit” with the volume of cases for which they were responsible. There can be no doubt that the role is challenging at the best of times, and of course if something does go seriously wrong, it can attract a huge volume of negative media coverage, significantly adding to workers’ stress levels.

Last year, Scotland’s Social Work Services Strategic Forum found that the public actually have a more positive view of social services than social service workers and institutions perceive. Overall, people in Scotland are positive about social services’ impact on society and believe that those services perform an important public role. Indeed, 73% of the public agree that social services play an important role in supporting the most vulnerable people in communities. That is a good statistic and one that we should not tire of telling people about.

I am pleased to say that that has also been my experience. My constituency is fairly typical of the demographic challenges faced across many parts of the country. That means that the role of social workers becomes ever more important in supporting people living with dementia and their family carers. When family carers, who are often advanced in years themselves, become ill, it is often to the social work service that they turn.

The recent bad weather—two weeks ago—brought knee-deep snow across my local area. I am aware of social workers going the extra mile until the situation stabilised. There are many examples of social workers going on foot from their own home to the homes of service users living in their neighbourhoods, and providing help with personal care when the social care providers were unable to get through the snow. I am aware of staff from children’s services in the Falkirk Council area, for example, staying on for double shifts and staying overnight at colleagues’ homes to ensure that they were ready and able to be back in work the next day. As a result, all the children and young people were cared for by a consistent residential care staff, despite the snow and freezing conditions. I am grateful for their efforts and commitment to the role.

Similar examples occurred in the West Lothian Council area, where staff went above and beyond to ensure that residents who rely on them for care were supported during the bad weather. Staff turned up for shifts when not scheduled to work, to ensure care could still be provided if colleagues were unable to come in due to the conditions, and helped out in other areas. To give just one positive example, a member of staff who went to pick up a prescription for a service user was told by the chemist of other vulnerable people unable to collect prescriptions, and delivered the lot. That kind of commitment above and beyond is often overlooked.

I take this opportunity to publicly put on record my thanks to all who helped out during those difficult days a few weeks ago, but social workers play a vital—sometimes thankless—role throughout the year. The recent inclement weather conditions simply helped to highlight how essential that role has been to members of our community.

In conclusion, social workers are highly qualified and professional individuals, who contribute greatly to our society and to the protection of our most vulnerable citizens. We must therefore ensure that they are not working under undue strain, and that they are adequately resourced to support the public services and meet the demands we place upon them.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for securing this important debate ahead of next week’s World Social Work Day.

There is a general misunderstanding of what social workers do. As a result, they are often treated with suspicion by not only the general public, but many politicians in this place. True to type, when something is not understood by politicians, they seek to over-regulate and control it. This Government are treading that path too.

There are over 114,000 social workers in the UK. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was proud to be one of them, working in the field of child protection. Each of those social workers works a demanding week of approximately 46 hours in a physically, emotionally and mentally demanding job. I recall being regularly assaulted, punched, spat at, needing security escort and being held in victim support. It is therefore vital that the Government support and value the profession, but they do not.

The problems social workers face are not of their own doing or by their own design. Many people in the profession tell me that things are not getting better; things are getting worse. That should be no surprise to anyone following what the Government are doing to services and the most vulnerable in our country. Sure Starts and early years services have been decimated. We have heard a lot today about the Munro review. It is a real shame that the Government did not implement her suggested legal duty to provide early intervention services. Labour Members understand that that is vital; it is a shame the Government do not.

Disability benefits have been slashed. Public sector job losses have occurred on a massive scale. We have record levels of in-work poverty. Support and advice services are shutting. Mental health services have been stripped to the bone. Our NHS is creaking at the seams and our adult social care system is broken.

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My local authority, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, has suffered a 52% cut since 2010. It now spends 57% of the money it has on social care. Is my hon. Friend aware of this happening elsewhere in the country, and does she wonder, like I do, how councils are managing to deliver what they do deliver?

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My hon. Friend is spot on: this is happening in other councils right across the country; it is not confined to his own. In fact, there is a reported funding gap of £2.5 billion by 2020, with more than 400,000 people no longer able to access social care.

Children’s services are grappling with the highest numbers of children in care since the 1980s and facing a funding gap of £2 billion by 2020, as referral rates continue to rise at a staggering pace. The fact is, social work simply cannot be separated from the wider environment. Social work is interlinked with wider societal and economic issues. If one part of the system is depleted, the other is depleted, and it is social work clients who suffer.

Social workers know that all too well, because they see it every single day. Entering their eighth year of a pay freeze, 60% of social workers have stated that they feel Government austerity has had a dramatic impact on their ability to make a difference. The Government certainly have the profession in their sights. Since 2010, there has been an aggressive focus, which, as noted by the National Audit Office and a number of cross-party groups, is yielding no positive results in the reform of social work or social work assessment and accreditation, giving a clear signal that this Government feel the problems are with social workers, not the system.

With that in mind, can the Minister can shed any light on the hash that has been made of the new accreditation for social workers? After an embarrassing climbdown, accreditation will now only be of 4% of social workers by 2020, as opposed to the planned 100%. Since there is a groundswell of opposition from the profession, does the Minister not think it is about time to scrap this nonsense altogether?

Social Work England, another Department for Education initiative born out of zero discussion with the profession, has also been subject to some backtracking, after the Government thankfully failed to secure direct regulation of social workers. Will the Minister explain when the regulations will be produced for Social Work England? Clarity is needed regarding transition from the Health and Care Professionals Council, and social workers need some assurances that they will not be hit with exorbitant fees. Both of those developments signify to the profession that the Government have little faith in them and feel they need to be regulated and subjected to state control to a much higher degree than any other profession. Will the Minister please explain why that is?

In spite of all that, the profession survives. Excellent social work happens every single day in all areas of our country. Children and adults are protected from harm and their lives are improved. If the Minister really believes that our children, adults and families need the very best, he is in a position where he can actually deliver on what our profession is crying out for. I wonder if he will commit to that today and offer more than just warm words.

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Let me begin by tackling the issue of funding, which has been raised a couple of times by colleagues here. We are keen to understand the sector’s concerns about funding and the demand on children’s services. We are currently consulting on the fair funding review. We have heard the sector’s concerns about the fairness of current funding for their local authorities and the challenges that children’s services in particular are facing in managing demand. The Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have commissioned independent research to inform the fair funding review. We are very much cognisant of that fact.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I have a lot to say about Social Work England and the accreditation and assessment, so I would like to make some headway. Maybe, if I have time, I will come back to the hon. Lady.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing this important debate. Listening to him speak, the sheer depth of experience he has in this hugely important area soon becomes clear. From the world of think-tanks, the Eileen Munro review, the charity sector, the Children’s Commissioner, and more recently as a constituency Member of Parliament, his experience is considerable and wide-ranging. So too is the experience of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I could listen to them all day and I have been taking note of everything they say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar focused his contribution on the work of children and family social workers and I will respond accordingly, but before I do so, I should place on record the valuable work done by those in the adult social care community. When I speak of the value to society of social workers, I very much include all social workers.

Above all else, we agree on a single unarguable point: social workers have a vital job in ensuring that vulnerable adults, children and families receive the best possible support to help them to overcome the challenges they face, and to enable them to look positively towards their future. I have only been Minister for children and families for a few months, but so far, from my visits to children’s services across the country, I have seen a dedicated and passionate workforce. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham described what is needed in one word: leadership. When we see good leadership, we see good outcomes for children. Every day, social workers deal with complex and challenging situations. The one thing they say to me is that the real magic sauce—whether it is the trust in Doncaster that has turned it around, or in Hackney, which had a turnaround—is consistent leadership: people they can refer to and teams they can work with, knowing they will be there the next day.

Social workers play a unique role in supporting people, often at the most difficult times in their lives. To do that successfully, they require a distinctive set of skills, knowledge and values. To do their job well requires compassion, empathy, analytical thinking and an understanding of the positive impact they can have in people’s lives. They work with complexity, uncertainty and conflict within a complex legal framework. They are required to use sound professional judgment in balancing needs, risks and resources to achieve the right outcomes. Done well, social work can improve people’s opportunities and quality of life, enabling them to lead the lives they want to lead.

In my constituency, I often hear from people in the social care system. It is overwhelming. To work closely, day in, day out, with such difficult and sometimes devastating cases requires exceptional passion and resilience. Members across Parliament will all be familiar with that from their surgeries. It is a job that a precious and extraordinary minority undertake and we must do all we can to support, empower and elevate the profession. As a Minister, I see this as one of my key priorities, and I will do my utmost to ensure that social workers get the recognition they deserve.

The debate is timely. As colleagues have mentioned, World Social Work Day is a week today and provides a moment to pause, reflect and celebrate the difference that social workers make. We in Government will be doing our bit to promote and champion the profession, both in what we say publicly and in how we support social workers.

All children, no matter where they live, should have access to the same high-quality care and support. That is about empowering social workers to excel even further in their practice, as well as building public confidence in the social work profession. One thing is clear: the quality of social work practice is, above all, the core of what we want to achieve. This is vital work and the reason we are prioritising social work reform. Social workers are not always given the right tools for the job, and can be held back by burdensome systems, which we have heard colleagues eloquently describe, including the horrendous time it takes to fill in a form.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar spoke with authority about the Munro review, about reducing bureaucracy and about empowering professional judgement. What he said is true, and while great progress has been made, more is to be done. Those entering the social work profession must have the best training possible. Teaching partnerships bring together universities and local authorities to improve the quality of social work degrees. Good continuing professional development is also essential, particularly at key stages of a social worker’s career such as the daunting task of moving from education to employment and when stepping up from the frontline to managing and supervising teams, and for those aspiring to be social work practice leaders. I believe that these reforms will have a positive impact for all and, most importantly, vulnerable children, families and adults in need of support.

I draw attention to two specific reforms mentioned by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). The first is the new accreditation scheme for child and family social workers. Through that innovative programme, we will introduce post-qualifying standards for child and family social work expertise, based on the current knowledge and skills statements, and offer voluntary assessment against them. The introduction of the standards will mean that employers and social workers will have a national benchmark to aim for, and learning and development can be planned in line with meeting the standard. If a social worker takes the assessment and becomes accredited, they may be offered career development opportunities, including promotion. I heard it directly from social workers who are involved in the early stage. We are doing this with social workers, rather than to them.

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Will the Minister give way on that point?

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I have not got much time, but let me see how far I get because I want to talk about Social Work England as well.

We are supporting local authorities and social workers to get ready for this new system in a unique way, working with early adopters. Rather than, as in the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, stuff being done to them by IT people who know nothing, we are co-creating the assessment and accreditation. We will be working with more than 150 children and family social workers. I am also delighted that Essex County Council is in discussions with the Department about becoming a phase 2 national assessment and accreditation system site from 2019.

The other major reform I want to highlight is establishing Social Work England. Focused purely on social work, this bespoke professional regulator will cover both children and family social workers and those working in adult services. Social Work England will have public protection at the heart of all its work, but it is more than just that. It will support professionalism and standards across the social work profession.

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I have two small questions. First, I agree with the need for ongoing professional development, but where will the time come from in social workers’ busy schedules to take this critical training? Secondly, does the Minister not agree that it is time that social workers got a decent pay rise?

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I dealt with funding at the outset. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar that funding has increased since 2010.

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Does the Minister share his predecessor’s view that local authority children’s services departments do not need any more money because they are not spending what they currently have appropriately? How on earth does he think it conceivable that any difference can be made, even if money is put into the system, when ongoing Government austerity is cutting every other service that impacts on children’s social services?

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I have already put on record what we are doing in terms of reviewing the funding for this area.

As a social care-specific regulator, Social Work England will develop an in-depth understanding of the profession. It will use that to set profession-specific standards that clarify expectations about the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours required to become and remain a registered social worker. Finally, it will play a key role in promoting public confidence in the profession, championing the profession and helping to raise the status of social work.

It is fair to say that creating a new regulator is no easy task, but we are making great progress. In December, we launched the recruitment of the chair and CEO of Social Work England. In February, we launched a consultation on Social Work England’s regulatory framework. I think that the hon. Lady mistakenly alluded to there being no consultation, but there clearly was. The consultation sets out our approach to establishing the secondary legislative framework for Social Work England. Our ambition is to create a proportionate and efficient regulator. As part of this, we need Social Work England to be able to operate systems and processes that adapt to emerging opportunities, challenges and best practice. That means it can ensure professional regulation reflects the changing reality of delivering social work practice safely and effectively.

I shall end there in an attempt to be disciplined in the timekeeping that you asked of us, Mr Hollobone.

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I thank you very much, Mr Hollobone, and all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.

One of the resounding messages that we can send out from this place is that we all value highly the work that social workers do. It is an extraordinarily difficult job. When we contemplate the families who are helped by the expertise of this professional body, we have only to imagine what would happen if those social workers were not there. If we left those families and children in homes with extraordinarily complex mental health problems, addiction, alcohol and drug dependency and the most extraordinary and extreme forms of family breakdown, without that professional support, we could only expect the absolute worst for them.

The social work profession gives so much to society. At its most extreme, it keeps people alive, but in a sense it does more than that: it gives people a life. It helps them to overcome their barriers to work, to good health and to opportunity. Being a frontline social worker is, too often, a highly complex and difficult task, but it does not have to be a thankless one. It is incumbent on all of us to support our social workers in policy terms and in professional terms.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).