[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall or, in this case, in the Boothroyd Room. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Social Work Day 2021.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, as I move this motion in celebration of World Social Work Day and of Social Work Week.
In 1989, when the Children Act 1989 came into force, I was doing my work experience at the long-abolished Mid Glamorgan County Council, in the children’s services department. That was the first time in my life when I had an insight into the work of our qualified social workers, who help many of the most vulnerable in our society. For many of us in politics, it will have been through service in local government that we had the opportunity to see how their work can help to transform the lives of our constituents, often at their darkest moments.
Research across the UK indicates that even in those places where the most residents have some form of assistance provided through our social care system, fewer than one in five of the people we serve will ever, in the whole course of their life, come into contact with our care system. That is important, because unlike the work of the police service, our military, GPs and people who work in hospitals, most of our constituents will not come into day-to-day contact with what social workers do. That work is done with children at a difficult time in their lives, when they need professional intervention; adults with learning difficulties in particular who need support as they make their way in life; and people who are older, facing a period of frailty, who need to access the support of the state and for whom our social workers are often, genuinely, an emergency service.
Of course, we have to recognise that for a parent whose family is facing great difficulty, the knock on the door by a social worker is not a welcome moment in life. Far too often, there is a sense of fear and anxiety that it means the threat of their children being taken away, or of being held to account for what is going on in the privacy of their household. To people facing great difficulty in old age, social workers might be perceived as the gatekeepers telling them that they cannot access services, support and finance from the local authority, rather than as an aid to help. In the postbags that we Members of Parliament receive, that side of social work is often reflected.
When I consider my experiences in my time in local government, however, I remember the reprovision of a residential centre of adults with disabilities. The local authority and the team of social workers who knew those people—generally, adults in their 40s with Down’s syndrome—extremely well proposed a new way to give them independence, to provide them with support to live in their own homes, to access work and to travel independently. There was huge fear among the parents, many of whom had been told when their now adult children were very young that they would never grow up because of the limitations of the disease. They told me, “We are afraid that as a consequence of what is happening, our children will die.” I remember meeting some of those parents a year later, and they said, “I never realised that this young person I’ve been responsible for would be living independently, would have a job and their own front door, and would be travelling on the bus and the tube.” That was the crucial difference that good-quality social work had made to their lives. A professional approach, understanding what people can do and not what they cannot, and patient work with them brought about a transformational change in the circumstances facing those young people.
When we consider the huge growth in the numbers of children who are on child protection plans and are specifically referred to local authorities because of concerns, we can see the difference that good social work makes, especially if we look at the care system. The longer a child spends in our care system and the earlier they go into that system, the better their outcomes are—for example, children who are adopted at birth tend to have outcomes that are entirely in line with their peers. Where social work is not always able to make the difference is for those young people who may have spent a long time at home or in a chaotic family situation, where intervention comes late—perhaps in their teens—and where there is only a very short period to turn that situation around.
Again, we see the evidence that good social work can make a huge difference in the lives of children, young people, adults, and the elderly. For most of our constituents, the most frequent form of contact with social work is in old age, when there is the need to access services from a local authority, perhaps in preparation for discharge from hospital to ensure that a person is safe and able to return to their own home. For all these reasons, we can recognise that in our society today social work, while it is not as glamorous and it does not have a flashing blue light attached to it, is absolutely crucial to keeping our society together and providing support to people at their most vulnerable moment.
I put on the record my thanks to, and my pride in, the work of the social workers for whom I was responsible during my time as a lead member of Hillingdon Council. I also thank the British Association of Social Workers for the work that it does to raise the profile of social work and make sure that more people in our country gain an understanding of what it can do, in order to contribute to an informed debate, recognition of the importance of social work, and—in the context of parliamentary work—ensuring that, in concert with our NHS, we have a joined-up system that is properly resourced and able to fulfil the expectations that our residents have.
I thank the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for having secured this significant debate. I am not used to being so high up on the call list, but I very much appreciate it.
For as long as I have been involved in children and family social work, I have only ever known children’s services to be under immense pressure. I say this because unless a person is part of this area of work, the crucial role of children and family social work can be easily misunderstood, and not enough politicians understand children and social services. That is probably why there are so few of us taking part in this afternoon’s debate, which is disappointing. These services have been undervalued and not invested in for many years; they have been cut year on year.
I became a children and family social worker in 1995. I first worked in the emergency duty team, then went on to work with children in need before moving to work in a looked-after children’s team. The red tape and bureaucracy have increased, and the majority of social workers’ time is spent at the office, completing reports and filling in forms, as legislative and policy changes have been made. Obviously, those changes have often been in the best interests of the child, but they have meant that social workers have been increasingly kept away from spending more time with the child.
In my seven years’ experience of working for a local authority, there were five reorganisations. This can be really distressing for staff—having to be re-interviewed and, in many cases, seeing their posts being deleted, changing, or even moving buildings. When support is removed and cuts are made to admin posts or specialist workers’ posts, all of this adds to the caseload of the social workers. Where social workers’ posts are cut, caseloads increase, and what is often overlooked is where the children are in this: the child is supposed to be paramount, but less time is spent with the child.
All of this needs to be rethought, and there needs to be a whole new way of thinking about how to do children and family social work. Every time the Government make cuts to local authorities and the NHS, children’s service provision is affected—the cut is passed on to the child. Fewer social workers and managers and increased caseloads mean less time and less interaction with the child, and less support for them and their families. Cuts also mean a lack of resources and longer waiting lists, causing delays.
I have nothing but admiration for social workers—children and family social workers and social workers across social care sectors within our society. They have one of the most highly stressful jobs. They must be valued, and to value them we must invest in them.
For someone starting in their role as a social worker, it is about supporting families to be healthy, to be happy and to stay together as well as is possible, though sometimes that is not possible. I remember the case of a complex and lovely young person; I had been her social worker for more than three years, but when she turned 16, I was told I had to transfer her to the young persons’ team. She protested vehemently and was vile to me verbally due to the loss, but I completely understood. I knew she was hurting and did not want that level of separation. That is a concern because as legislators we should be flexible. We need to have her and other children’s best interests in mind, and sometimes that means being flexible with our services and ensuring they are not lost while we are focusing on what is best for our institutions or sometimes for the team.
There was another boy I worked with; he was five years old and I worked with him for three years. I remember when I became the senior social worker, he said to me, “If you are becoming the senior social worker, does that mean you’ll still be my social worker?” His case shows the lack of flexibility sometimes within the service. I should have been able to carry on being his social worker, and he should have had continuity of the support he was enjoying at that time. Social services should not be built around institutions; they should be built around the child. We need to ask us ourselves whether the welfare of the child is really paramount, or whether we need to rethink how we do children and families social services. We really need to get this right, because we want children in need and in care to grow up to be well adjusted and to have a bright future.
As I have already stated, the social work profession has always been under immense pressure, but the pandemic has made that even worse. The social work profession is in crisis. Working conditions have got worse compared with what I knew them to be before. The British Association of Social Workers found that 77% of social workers who responded to the survey on working through covid-19 felt that the lockdown restrictions had made it much harder to safeguard adults and children. Many respondents felt there was a definite increase in people being referred to social services. Capacity was already stretched, but the past year has brought it to breaking point. Social workers must be protected from burning out. They have valuable views on how services can be transformed for the better, and they must be part of framing a more effective service for the future.
There were also calls for more capacity to focus on tackling violence against women and girls. That issue has come up in the public spotlight after the tragic events of the past few weeks, but it is something social workers are constantly dealing with. Social work practice frameworks must reflect the areas in greater need of attention, and local social services must have the ability to specialise in the problems affecting their communities—for example culture-specific discrimination or gender-based violence.
With problems in staff retention and growing caseloads, social services remains in crisis. Earlier this week, on the Justice Committee, I spoke to the chief executive officer of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, who said that we need to rethink and to reinvest in children’s services. I absolutely agree with her.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby).
It will come as no surprise that I will focus my comments today on children’s social workers and the constant, dangerous attempts by the Government to dismantle children’s social care services so that they are ripe for private takeover. Social workers know that once that happens, profit becomes the overriding principle and care becomes an afterthought or an add-on. We have seen that in adult social care, and we are already seeing it in fostering and residential children’s care, where vast profits are made for shareholders on the backs of vulnerable children and adults.
In 2017, the Government proposed allowing local authorities, under the guise of innovation, to opt out of protective legislation for children. After a groundswell of cross-party objection inside and outside this place, the changes comprised in a whole chapter of the 2017 Act were removed at the 11th hour. In 2019, the then Minister disseminated a dangerous “myth busting” document advising local authorities to dispense with statutory guidance in relation to the most vulnerable children. That attempt to deregulate and wipe away hard-fought-for protective legislation for children was eventually quashed, and the document was withdrawn.
Last year, shamefully using the pandemic as an excuse to force through deregulation once again, the Children’s Minister with the stroke of a pen wiped away protective legislation for children through the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020—statutory instrument 445 of that year. Despite efforts from across the House to scrap that dangerous statutory instrument, it remains in force today. It is no coincidence that nearly 80% of social workers have reported to the British Association of Social Workers that throughout lockdown their concerns about safeguarding vulnerable adults and children have increased, and that early intervention and help is not readily accessible.
Recently, the Government commenced their long promised once-in-a-generation review of children’s social care. That review that is already shrouded in controversy and immense hurt and upset has been caused to those in care and the care experience community by the outright rejection of hundreds who applied to share their valuable views and insights into the care system. The independence of the chair has rightly been called into question—a chair who never opposed the attempts from 2017 onwards to deregulate, and who has already produced a blueprint for children’s social care that slants towards deregulation which was developed in isolation from those who receive or have experience of care. The chair has no professional background in social care at all.
The appointment led in February this year to a letter signed by a wide range of respected organisations expressing those concerns, as well as concern about the rushed timescale of the review, and requesting that it be conducted in a more inclusive, collegiate way. Since then it has been revealed that the review’s recommendations will be formulated working alongside people with a financial background and Government Departments. Also, the recommendations, crucially, cannot be predicated on any extra funding at all. Social services do not exist in a vacuum. What happens in wider society impacts more acutely on the profession than on others. Millions of children live in poverty and destitution, the attainment gap is growing supportive services are being dismantled and the number of children in care is at a 10-year-high of nearly 80,000, yet the Chancellor made no mention of the £800 million gap in children’s social services in his Budget.
Social workers are rightly worried about their future and the welfare of the children they work with if local authority public sector children’s social services are further eroded, replaced or diminished, and the current model is outsourced for a profit-driven one. Social workers have been the forgotten workforce throughout the pandemic, but they have remained strong in the face of attacks on our profession and in the face of those who aim, as the Government do, to diminish and trample over our core values and principles of social justice, respect and integrity.
Social workers are the bravest, strongest and most principled people I know. I want them to keep making a difference and keep changing the world. I know that most of us in this place will never see or fully understand what they do—but I do. I have images and stories etched in my mind and heart that haunt me and will stay with me for ever. I promise social workers and the families that they work with that I will always be their champion in this place.
It is a privilege for all elected Members here today to have the opportunity to voice our thanks and gratitude to social workers and care workers across the nations of the UK, and celebrate the contributions that they make to a fairer and more just society for us all. There are more than 100,000 social workers in the UK and they reside in every community in every constituency, including my own. Their work is at the heart of all social, cultural and political environments.
The celebrations this year are in many ways more significant than in other years. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has highlighted the invaluable work of the entire social care workforce, who, in the most challenging of circumstances, have continued to provide care and support to our most vulnerable. The Local Government Association heard excellent examples from the children’s residential sector, such as staff moving into children’s homes full time to support them where cases of coronavirus were suspected. Social workers and colleagues across all adult and children’s services should be commended for their determination to keep children safe and well throughout this crisis.
I speak today on behalf of the SNP, but I am sure I speak on behalf of all Scotland when I say to social workers: we thank you for your efforts, we thank you for your commitment, and we thank you for looking after our nearest and dearest when we, sadly, could not be there ourselves.
While we celebrate the good work and commitment of social workers, it would be remiss of us not to take note of the challenges that remain in the sector, particularly in the light of the pandemic. The British Association of Social Workers carried out a survey of young members, and I will highlight some of the key statistics. Some 79% of social workers agreed that intervention and early help for vulnerable adults, children and families is still not readily accessible, while a further 77% agreed that their experience of working under lockdown restrictions has increased their concerns about the capacity to safeguard and protect their clients.
Those startling statistics are coupled with the real-life experience of many of my constituents who contacted me to highlight their concerns. They have spoken of the difficulties of working in a landscape defined by budget cuts, staff shortages and resources at an unprecedented low. One constituent notes:
“Every day, we are questioning our ability to keep going, working 14-hour days, feeling like the problems of this sector are so entrenched that what we do, on an individual basis, can’t possibly make a difference.”
The impact of cuts to this sector is affecting not only the workforce; it has had a staggering impact on those who should benefit from their work. Our poorest communities are becoming alienated and disconnected, with faith in social care policies and practices eroding. Many families continue to have unfavourable experiences with the social work system, particularly shared parents and kinship carers, who often miss out on the full benefits of the support available. Single fathers, for example—I speak as one—often face prejudice in the system and are let down by those they rely on for support.
We meet here today as legislators, and it is only right and proper that we consider this debate as part of our societal contribution to this sector. It cannot be denied that we are at an important crossroads for the social work sector, and it is time for a radical rethink of our approach to this profession. I begin by asking this vital question: why should we leave all this work and support to our public workers? A nation’s duty of care that it owes its citizens and its welfare approach need to be underpinned by social cohesion.
The theme for this year’s World Social Work Day is centred on the importance of human relationships, yet child protection services have in a lot of cases lost the trust of the communities in which they work. This will take time and commitment to regain and repair. We should encourage more time and freedom to be given to this sector to form meaningful human relationships with those whom it supports, and for it to be given the opportunity to be located directly where it is required most, within our most deprived communities. The child protection system, as it stands, demands that up to 80% of time is spent on administrative tasks, with only 20% available for direct work with children and families. The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) shared some of her hands-on experiences of that, which I am sure we all agree were illuminating.
Social work is not a job and should not be seen as a job; it should be viewed, like so many other professions, as a vocation. Social work is not meant to be unforgiving and inhumane; it should be a support network that allows every recipient to achieve their full potential. Social work is not about working against communities; it is about working with communities, in tandem and collaboratively. On World Social Work Day 2021, I reach out to those in positions of power and influence across the Governments to say that support for our children and families should be a basic right, and that Government funding should reflect that. To our social care workforce, I make a call to action. We all have a responsibility to shape and influence the services that we deliver, and to work towards a more humane, more human and more just way of working.
The future of social work lies with empowering ourcommunities, in a collaborative approach among multiple support organisations and agencies, and in localised Administrations that can ensure that tailored assistance is provided to those who are most disadvantaged. Herein lies the big issue: the sovereignty of Administrations. From a Scottish perspective, we need full powers to make a permanent change and to tackle the main issues that drive the plight of service users in Scotland. The main factors that drive adverse childhood experiences in Scotland are food and fuel poverty, and alcohol and substance abuse and dependency, coupled with high rates of unemployment.
We have made great strides, but more can be done—more must be done—and we can offer more protection. But without the opportunity to redefine our response to drug dependency and other problematic issues, we will continue to struggle to find the answers required to force the real changes that are required in order for care to be truly effective, person-centred, fair, just, compassionate, dignified and respectful. These are all principles by which a social security system would operate in an independent Scotland and they will be at the very heart of every decision that we take. It will be a system to liberate.
If a global pandemic that has crippled our nations’ economies is not the reason to have a stern look at how we as Governments support our citizens in need, then what is? On this world-renowned World Social Work Day, taking that look is the greatest gift that we can give our much-valued, much-loved and much-needed public service workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) on securing this important debate on World Social Work Day. He will not know it, but my parents grew up in Pinner, so I know at least part of his constituency fairly well.
I start by thanking the 100,000 social workers in the United Kingdom, including 320 in Leicester, the city that I am extraordinarily proud to represent. I thank them for their hard work, passion and commitment over all the years, but especially during the horrors of the covid-19 pandemic.
Social workers work at the heart of our communities to support millions of people, in order to improve those people’s chances in life. They work with people who have learning disabilities, autistic people and children at risk. They support families where there is domestic abuse and mental illness, and those people who do not have the mental capacity to make their own decisions. That means that social workers can be found across many different sectors and many different services, from residential care homes to hospitals and children’s homes, and in local authorities, charities and the community.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) have already said, social workers have faced huge extra pressures during the covid-19 pandemic, which come on top of a decade’s worth of cuts to local council budgets— £8 billion pounds has been removed, putting extra pressures, stresses and strains on social workers, who were already reporting burnout and stress.
As many hon. Members have said, the latest survey from the British Association of Social Workers has clearly demonstrated concerns that more people need help and support from social work, but also that it is much harder to get help and support, especially—this is absolutely critical—the up-front early intervention and preventive care and support that is so crucial to prevent problems from getting even worse and ending up in an emergency, which is not good for families and actually ends up costing the taxpayer far more money. In particular, the survey showed that almost eight out of 10 social workers say that they are increasingly concerned about safeguarding children and vulnerable adults during lockdown. That is a real concern as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. What are we going to do? Where is the plan and strategy to tackle and deal with those issues that we know have been building up during lockdown?
To add to those points, social workers in Leicester say how isolating working from home has been during our year-long lockdown—in fact, in Leicester we have never been out of lockdown—and how much they have missed their colleagues. Those relationships are vital, both professionally and personally. To deal with the problems caused by lockdown, social workers have also had to be benefit advisers, furniture finders, and food bank directories. They feel undervalued compared with organisations such as the NHS, the police and the other services that the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner mentioned, when they are all trying to work as one system and one team across so many different organisations. In future, we really need to focus on the importance of identifying strengths in families and communities, rather than focusing only on deficits and problems. I think that is something that we in politics could all learn from, quite frankly.
In the rest of my speech, I will focus on the three really big issues that we need to tackle in order to improve the lives of our constituents and the lives of people with whom social workers work day in, day out. First, we urgently need to tackle rising rates of poverty, particularly child poverty. The vast majority of parents in poverty are doing their very best to support their children, but for those who are already struggling, poverty makes things much harder. In reality, even before the pandemic struck, more than 4 million children in this country were growing up in poverty, including 12,000 in my constituency alone. Once housing costs have been taken into account, more than 40% of children in Braunstone, Abbey and New Parks are growing up in poverty.
Since the pandemic struck, more than 2,500 children across Leicester have had to claim free school meals. The number of people claiming universal credit has doubled, and there has been a 300% increase in the number of people using food banks, as I know only too well from my role as chair of Feeding Leicester—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields is really involved in the Feeding Britain organisation. They are not just people who out of work; they are in work but on very low incomes, and they just cannot afford to put food on the table.
We are seeing some appalling examples of the levels of need in our city from the work that we have been doing on our winter grant. Increasing numbers of people need help with the absolute basics of living, such as food and paying for their gas, electricity and water, and we have had an increasing number of claims for duvets that people can put on their beds and for coats to put on their children’s backs. In the 21st century, in one of the richest countries in the world, that is a national disgrace, and it does not have to be that way.
The last Labour Government lifted more than 1 million children out of poverty, and President Biden’s covid recovery plan in the US will halve child poverty—that is absolutely essential. If we want to build back a better future for our country, and if we want to level up in every part of the country for all our constituents—especially those with whom social workers work day in, day out—tackling child poverty must absolutely be a priority. I look forward to hearing the Government’s plans on this issue when the Minister responds.
Secondly, I want to focus on a point that has rightly been made by the British Association of Social Workers: an unacceptable number of people with learning difficulties and disabilities are still in hospital settings and assessment and treatment units because there simply is not enough support in their home communities. The association says that must be a priority for the future, and I agree.
It has been 10 years since the appalling scandal of Winterbourne View, when the BBC’s “Panorama” programme exposed the shocking, and indeed criminal, treatment of people with learning disabilities in that institution. At the time, 3,400 people with learning disabilities were in long-stay institutions. The Government promised more than half of them would be moved into the community by 1 June 2014, yet by November 2014 the Government had failed to achieve that—there were still 2,600 people in these hospital units. I vividly remember that, because it was the first ever urgent question I asked as the shadow Minister for Social Care.
The review by Sir Stephen Bubb called for urgent action to tackle this problem, which the Government again promised to deliver, this time by 2016. At the time, I said that the missed deadline was a total disgrace, and that I feared Sir Stephen Bubb’s review risked gathering dust alongside all the other reviews. I am sad to say that this has proved to be the case, despite all the promises and all the reviews. I say to the Minister that despite the Government’s Transforming Care programme, in September 2020 the CQC found that there were still more than 2,000 people with learning disabilities in assessment and treatment units. Many are subjected to, “undignified and inhumane treatment, including prolonged seclusion and unnecessary restraint”.
This is one of the worst examples of a failed policy that I have seen in more than 25 years of working in the health and care sector. We need leadership, grip and focus from Ministers and NHS England. Crucially, we need the views of people with learning disabilities and autism, and the views of their families and social workers, to drive fundamental and lasting change. I hope that the Minister will set out what the Government are doing and will continue to do in order to tackle this issue.
Finally, there is an urgent need for the Government to bring forward longer term plans for reforming social care—an issue we talked about just minutes ago in the previous Westminster Hall debate. More than 19 months ago, on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister promised to fix the crisis in social care with a plan he had already developed. That plan is still nowhere to be seen. There was nothing in the Budget on these vital long-term reforms. The Minister says that the Government will bring forward these plans this year, but that is what she promised last year. I hope that when she stands up she will set out why we should believe that it will be different this time around.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. It is also a great pleasure to reflect on World Social Work Day, which was on Tuesday, and to celebrate the vital role of social workers within our communities and our health and care services across the country. I would also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for securing this debate on such an important topic. He brings a wealth of experience in this area, particularly from his time in local government, and he spoke eloquently about the importance of social work and the difference that social workers can make.
We have around 96,000 social workers practising across the country. For adults, 19,000 of them do so within local authorities and the NHS, and there are around 32,000 social workers working with children and families. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for the brilliant work that she does supporting children’s social work. Many thousands of social workers are also supporting people at the heart of our communities, in charity and voluntary organisations and in the independent sector, and many others are engaged in vitally important research. Wherever they work, social workers are helping people receive the care they need to live more independent, more fulfilled and happier lives.
The theme for this year’s World Social Work Day was inspired by the Zulu word “ubuntu”, which translates as, “I am because we are.” This speaks to our individuality, but also to the strength we draw from others. Social work, wherever it is practised in the world, is about forging and strengthening connections between individuals, families and our wider communities. Ubuntu is therefore a particularly apt concept.
As we look back over the past year, we reflect on how the pandemic—isolating and disruptive in so many ways—has also, almost counterintuitively, spurred us to break down barriers. Barriers have melted away between professions, organisations and services, as closer connections have been forged out of necessity and from the desire to do the right thing.
Coronavirus has upended all our lives, but closer collaboration has been a vital part of the response. Parts of our recently announced health and social care White Paper have been inspired by, and will build on, that collaboration.
Social workers occupy a unique position in our health and care system. Often, they are the linking professionals between clinical and care services, helping to create and maintain a wider network of support, with the individual’s needs, aspirations and right to choose at the centre. For that reason, it is my sincere belief that social work’s core values have helped us to rise to the unique challenges posed by covid-19. Social workers have responded rapidly to huge pressures and changing needs. They have remained on the frontline to support those shielding and those at higher risk of infection, including people needing safe discharge from hospital.
Meanwhile, our chief social workers for adults have played a vital leadership role in guiding local government and national Government’s response to the pandemic. They have reminded Government of the importance of human relationships, maintaining connections and asking the questions that need to be asked. Under Fran Leddra and Mark Harvey’s joint stewardship, social work’s values and grass-roots perspectives have been writ large in the work of the covid-19 social care taskforce, the winter plan and, now, our post-pandemic recovery planning. The ethical framework that the two social workers produced at the outset of the public health crisis has provided a strong foundation for those endeavours and many others, both centrally and across the regions.
I pay tribute to the principal social workers network. That alliance of highly experienced senior social workers has worked closely with Mark and Fran to maintain a strong link between central Government and the local delivery of social work. That is a valued relationship that we want to build on and continue to learn from. We know how vital social work is in the provision of mental health services; the essential role of approved mental health professionals, or AMHPs, enshrined in the Mental Health Act 1983, is almost wholly undertaken by social workers.
As part of World Mental Health Day last year, I met an inspiring group of AMHPs from across the country who are working in settings across NHS and local authority services. The meeting was one of the most memorable I have had as Care Minister. The group of people I spoke to brought to life the game-changing role that they play in people’s lives.
The AMHP role marries well with social work skills, experience and capacity for independent oversight. AMHPs have the authority to make informed judgments on hospital detention, thinking wider than clinical need, and making sure the decisions taken are the correct ones for the individual. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we have committed ourselves to expanding the number of social workers specialising in mental health, through our Think Ahead graduate training programme. But we are not stopping there. We will invest in more training and development as part of post-pandemic recovery planning and preparation for the reformed Mental Health Act.
We are also committed to the delivery of responsive, high-quality adult safeguarding. As we celebrate World Social Health Day, it is important to remember that social workers in both adults’ and children’s services are the lead professionals in delivering safeguarding. In the coming months, our chief social worker will publish a briefing on the importance of transitional safeguarding. It is vital that young people are positively supported as they move from children’s services into the adult world.
Our amazing social care workforce have been through so much and they need our support. Prioritising their mental and physical health has never been more critical. To that end, we have supported social workers through the pandemic, including providing social workers with PPE and prioritising our frontline social care workforce for vaccination. On that point, last year, the chief social worker worked with the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust to publish guidance for the support and wellbeing of adult social workers and social care professionals during the pandemic. In the years ahead, we will continue to support the mental health and wellbeing of our hard-working and dedicated social care professionals.
It is vital that we support people with learning disabilities and autistic people to live as independently as possible. Again, social workers are the key professional group in contact with those individuals, helping to develop care and support plans, enabling people to aspire and live as independently as possible. Last month, our chief social workers for adults and for children published a joint report entitled “A spectrum of opportunity”, which looks at the role of social work in support of autistic young people. The report draws on the experiences of young people and their families across a range of local authorities and highlights the exceptional work social workers have been undertaking and what more can be done to strengthen practice. Across Government, an all-age autism strategy informed by that learning will be published this year.
I spoke earlier of the complex world we find ourselves in. Coronavirus has had a cruel and disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Protecting the health and wellbeing of our health and care workforce is a crucial step towards tackling health inequalities. We know that 21% of the adult social care workforce are from ethnic minority backgrounds, but there are huge regional variations, with London’s vibrant and diverse communities registering 66% of staff from ethnic minority backgrounds. There are also variations by professional role.
As of April, 18 local authorities will be implementing a workforce race equality standard across their adult and children’s social work departments, building on the learning of the NHS RES, which is in its fifth year. The RES is one step in my ambition to improve our information on the social care workforce, allowing us to identify and address barriers that prevent the full spectrum of voices from being heard. That will provide positive insights into staff progression and representation in senior management to support us fostering equal and fair opportunities for all. I look forward to the lessons that social workers will bring to us during the first phase of implementation.
In closing, I put on record my sincerest thanks to social workers across the country not just for their work throughout the covid-19 pandemic, but for all they bring to our health and care services. No other profession touches, teaches and transforms so many parts of our health and care system and liberates so many individuals, families and communities to live the lives they want and deserve to lead.
I thank my hon Friend the Minister for focusing her speech very much on the people at the heart of what we are here to celebrate in our debate on World Social Work Day 2021. There is clearly a debate to be had about the complex social care system that we have in this country. We have heard from Members with direct personal experience. The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) spoke of her experience as a children and families social worker, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) spoke of what she had seen in her community and in her career, and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) spoke of the aspirations he sees as deliverable through a more devolved model with greater local discretion.
There is an enormous challenge for social workers. As we recognise, on the one hand there is a sense of frustration at the bureaucracy that surrounds them in doing the job of helping families; on the other, there is huge criticism levelled at the Government should they seek to alleviate that bureaucracy. We therefore need to find a way to cut through when we consider the toxic trio—domestic abuse, mental ill health and substance misuse—that bring children into the care system. Some 63% of children in our care system are there because of neglect. Those are complex issues to tackle, so we need to ensure that there is proportionate regulation and guidance from Government, but that the social workers who know those families well—know their circumstances and their communities—can make decisions with them, for them, and sometimes without them, to pursue the best interests of the children and individuals at the heart of that.
I welcome the care review. Although around 3% of our population of 12 million children in the United Kingdom are in the care system, those children are the most vulnerable in our society, and, from the perspective of public services and the Government, the most expensive. On average, a high-needs placement to a local authority costs more than £130,000 a year per child. Although the picture, according to Ofsted, is of an improvement in the supply and quality of placements available for local authorities when they are making arrangements for children, the system, none the less, remains under significant pressure because children and frail elderly people form a much larger proportion of our population than they have in recent years.
Owing to that, we expect a proportional increase in the pressure on our social work services, and we need to respond. Over the years, numerous initiatives from central Government have been designed to achieve an improvement—not just for social workers, but in the outcomes for the people they work with. Quality Protects was the first that came to my attention, but there have since been many initiatives, under many Governments, of all parties, to improve the work done and the outcomes achieved for our most vulnerable children.
According to international comparisons, the UK has the best—the second best, on some measures—child protection system in the world. That is a system in which social workers—derided and often criticised in the press, and working in obscure areas—do a job that is genuinely world class and something we should be proud of. When I consider the Government’s investment in the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, I commend working directly with those who best-know families, adults, elderly people and children, and what they have done to bring about a transformation in outcomes—and how we can enable that more easily at national level. Social work, in particular for children, is the only area of local government spending that has risen in the last decade, as local authorities have chosen to strip spending in other areas to prioritise early intervention and child protection activities.
We go forward to ensure that our social care system—around half of which looks after adults of working age, not people who are frail and elderly—can work seamlessly with the NHS on issues such as hospital discharge and supporting people in their community, and, at the same time, is not ancillary to the acute and hospital sector, but part of the bigger picture effectively supporting people. The hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) made the point that social workers are the key leads for those individuals, and that is the right way to see it.
On World Social Work Day, I hope that watching social workers, senior managers and people with an interest in the sector have noted the strong sense of cross-party good will and desire for higher recognition of the professional contribution that social workers make, as well as the desire to improve the working environment—not just physically, but the requirements and regulations people work under—and the ability to act in the way necessary to transform the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country.
I shall finish where I started. Today is an opportunity to put on record our thanks and praise for social workers, recognise their contribution and ensure that what we have heard feeds through to the spirit of the care review, as we look at ways to make this system, which is already extremely high performing by international standards, even better in the interests of our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World Social Work Day 2021.