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Children’s Social Care Workforce

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2022

Before I ask the mover to move the motion, we expect two votes around 5 o’clock. Once the votes are called, I will suspend the sitting for 25 minutes. If hon. Members come back early, we can start early, but that will be the procedure, so it is up to hon. Members to decide which way they want to go, making contributions now or waiting until later.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the children’s social care workforce.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I begin by stating why this issue matters. Social workers look after the most vulnerable children in our society. These are children for whom the national Government, local authorities and all of us here today have a responsibility. The state has a duty to ensure that these children get a good upbringing and the opportunity to do well in life. That brings me to the subject of the debate: the children’s social care workforce, in particular the failure to recruit and retain enough social workers. I will look at three aspects in turn: why recruitment and retainment matter, the current dire situation, and what needs to change.

Failing to recruit and, even more importantly, retain enough social workers is a real problem. It negatively impacts children across our country who most need extra support. That is why this issue matters. Failing to recruit and retain enough social workers can destroy any chance of social mobility for children in care for the rest of their lives. It often leaves children more vulnerable to being preyed on by grooming gangs or county lines gangs. I am sure many hon. Members here have had briefings from their local police force on how these evil gangs prey on vulnerable children—often those in care. That is not a fate that these children deserve. How the Government and society as a whole look after these children is a good judge of our values as a country. At the moment, the Government are failing. Charlotte Ramsden, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has said:

“It is important for children to have a consistency of social worker in their lives where possible, but this is increasingly difficult with more social workers leaving the profession”.

To give these children the best life chances, the Government need a proper strategy not only to recruit social workers, but to retain them.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the stability that children need. The recent independent care review chaired by Josh MacAlister, which I am sure she is aware of, found that agency social workers contribute to the instability experienced by children, which she mentions, and cause a loss of over £100 million a year. I am sure she will agree that that money could be spent on the frontline to improve the life chances of these children. Does my hon. Friend agree that with the rates of agency work at a record high of 15.5%, the Minister needs to explain what the Government’s strategy and policy is to tackle the overuse of agency staff?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend—in fact, that point is in my speech. When a child loses a social worker, the trust and relationship they developed no longer exists. These are children who have often experienced horrific trauma and abuse. I am sure that all Members in this room have dealt with constituency casework of this kind. It is these very children who are more vulnerable who are least trusting of adults. That is why consistency of social work is crucial to success in giving these children a good start in life. Of course, a change of social worker cannot always be prevented—a social worker could move home, or circumstances change for certain reasons—but there are many aspects that are well within Government control.

Secondly, the current situation is dire, and recruitment and retention are not good. Children’s social worker shortages have reached a five-year high. In 2021, 3,630 social workers left a post at a local authority—a 16% increase on the previous year. Of those, 33% left after less than two years of service, and 36% left after serving between two to five years. Losing many social workers who are at a relatively early stage in their career is not sustainable. If the Government do not fix this issue, and fix it fast, more children will suffer the consequences. Of those who left, 77% left children’s social care altogether, and 23% moved to agency roles. This in invaluable expertise that is being lost.

The Government tend to paint such departures as having been for personal financial reasons, but that is just out of touch. Social workers do not go into their line of work to get rich; they do it out of a duty of care to children. They have an incredibly difficult job, looking after our most vulnerable children. In a survey by the British Association of Social Workers, over half of social workers are seriously considering leaving due to unmanageable caseloads. I am sure that many here who are fortunate enough to count a social worker among their friends or family will know how stressful the job has become over the past five years. Resources are stretched thin, and caseloads are becoming increasingly unmanageable. It is a serious problem when seven out of 10 social workers feel they are unable to complete their work within contracted hours.

Social workers are unable to leave their job at the workplace. This puts additional stress and strain on a social worker’s home life. There is little chance of a healthy work-life balance, and that has a knock-on effect on to the children. Social workers really care about the children they support—they want what is best for them. Yet, in a survey by Community Care, social workers themselves were clear that the increasing number and complexity of cases was impacting the quality of their work. That is bad for social workers, and it is even worse for the children they look after.

Local authorities are having to rely on agency workers at a rate of over 15%, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) mentioned. That is double the rate of agency workers who are used in adult social care. Each agency worker costs a local council at least an additional £26,000 per year. That money is going to the agencies, not the workers, which results in a loss of over £100 million per year that could be spent on frontline services, including social workers. The current strategy—or lack of strategy—needs to be addressed.

Thirdly, what can be done, and what recommendations should be made? The Conservative party manifesto promised that the Government would review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings provided children and young adults with the support they needed. It is quite clear, after almost three years, that this has still not happened. I understand that the current news headlines are dominated by finding out who the next Prime Minister will be, but that does not mean that important issues such as this should be pushed to one side. The independent review of children’s social care published its final report almost two months ago. The previous Minister, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said he was working on a response; that has not been received. We are about to enter the summer recess without that response. The Government need to make progress on their promise—and quickly.

This is not a party political issue. It is an issue the Government should be working on cross-party, as we all want what is best for these children. However, each day, recruitment and retention remain a problem. More and more children are denied the opportunities and life chances they were promised. To help solve the problem, first and foremost we need an early career framework. Evidence shows that it is mostly social workers who had worked for less than five years who were leaving the profession. An early career framework could last five years, with plenty of training and opportunities provided.

Currently, the only real progression for social workers is to go into a management position, yet many want to remain on the frontline. As a country, we should seek to keep their expertise. We need career routes for the development of frontline social workers. We also need standardised pay and conditions, which need to be developed in a way that recognises expertise. Although social workers do not enter the profession to get rich, they should not be forced to go food banks. Social workers should be rewarded for their expertise and development.

Under the current system, local authorities compete against one another. That is bad for social workers and the children they look after. The models for teaching and healthcare professionals set out how standardised pay can be done, so why not look at these models? Finally, and perhaps more importantly, we should attract new social workers to the profession. We need a national recruitment and communications strategy. Being a social worker is an incredibly rewarding job. Social workers look after the most vulnerable children in our society, yet they are not receiving the respect they deserve for the value they add to our country. This fundamentally needs to change. Being a social worker is a difficult job, but a vital one for any civilised society and country. How we look after our most vulnerable children is how our society can be judged.

The importance of children’s social workers to the country needs to be emphasised in a national recruitment strategy. The recruitment campaign needs to target not only those who may become social workers, but also the wider public. Often, as has been the case with countless TV shows, social workers are depicted as villains. The reality is that they look after those in need. A national strategy to promote the invaluable role that social workers play in our country is essential.

Although it is not the topic of this debate, it is worth remembering that profits in the children’s residential home sector increased from £702 per child per week in 2016 to £910 per week in 2020. More importantly, the 10 largest providers of children’s social care placements made more than £300 million in profits last year. Those profits are made off the back of children in care—that care is not always good, and is often far away from home. As profits are going up, the situation of children in care is not getting better. Social workers can be proud of their contribution to our country. It is time the country gave them something back.

I urge the Government to take on board the recommendations that I, and I am sure many colleagues, will make today. We all want what is best for these children. Now is time for the Government to act. I urge the Government to make this issue their No.1 priority.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for introducing this crucial debate. I am saddened that Westminster Hall is not packed today. After 12 years, we must recognise that families are being failed, as are children, and our social work workforce is being set up to fail. We have around 80,000 children in social care—let us think about that number. If we do not change direction, in 10 years’ time that will be 100,000 children. If we put in the changes needed, we could see that number fall.

The crime is that we know what has to be done. We have had the report of 1,001 critical days. We have had Josh MacAlister’s report for the independent review of children’s social care. Today is the day on which the Minister must commit to pivot the system in order to invest in our young people. We know the trauma that being in care brings to children and families. Our social workers work so hard and are so dedicated. It is one of the hardest jobs—keeping children safe, keeping families together and acting as a corporate parent—but they are fighting a fire that will not go out.

We all know the constituency cases: the desperate situation where social workers are trying to keep a family together, but they remove a child and we question whether that was the right decision. It is hard. Perhaps parents can no longer cope because their charge is at significant risk of harm to themselves or others because they are so traumatised. That is the daily experience that social workers have to deal with. It is not just the shared pressure they are under, because of the volume of unsafe case work—they have so much of it and do not have the resources they need—but the emotional stress of the job that takes its toll That is why we need to look after our social workers and ensure that they have the support they need, because they want to break the cycles. They want to ensure that families are given that chance in life to stay together and have the support they need.

The independent review of children’s social care was an important moment. I really do thank Josh MacAlister and his team for the work that they did. They had so many children, young people and families with lived experience, and care-experienced people, leading that work, which is crucial to setting the path for the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston said, we need proper support for people who are newly qualified, with the five-year early career framework ensuring that people are working under supervision, with the opportunity learn, gain competencies, get knowledge and skills and focus on rebuilding families with the right interventions, which is a central part of Josh MacAlister’s report. They should not make those really difficult decisions until they have that experience. He suggests working with family helpers, bringing together early help and a child in need of support.

There should a multidisciplinary team wrapped around that, as opposed to pulling the child in so many different directions. There should be consistency in support around the child. As that practitioner gains experience to become an expert practitioner, there is a career path for them to gain and use that knowledge, so that they can have those sensitive conversations and deal with challenging situations. They analyse all the information and their experience in order to make the right decisions on behalf of a child and their family, and to deal with the courts. An observation that my colleagues in York have made is that dealing with the courts is challenging for social workers. We need to ensure that there is good training for judges, who are often quite removed from the real experiences of those social workers or the children for whom they are advocating. We need to look at the court system as well. We must ensure that we provide good support.

I say to the Minister that, although there is much churn in his party at the moment, we have to invest in these people. We have got to ensure that they get decent pay and recognition for the work that they do, rewarding the skills that they have and doing such an important job. Josh MacAlister’s report talks about a national pay framework, which is really important for the profession to stop the constant churn as social workers move to another authority because they pay that little bit more. That is destabilising the relationship with the child. The child should be central to all of this. We should ensure that there is a proper framework. In the NHS, we call it Agenda for Change and it is a good system of job evaluation that has lasted for 20 years, showing that it is sustainable as a mechanism for a pay and progression system.

I hope that the Minister looks at Agenda for Change and considers how it can be applied to social workers across the board, to ensure that caseloads are safe, which means that we need more capacity in the system. We need more social workers to carry out this crucial role and to get on top of the number of children who are at risk or who are presenting a need. If make an injection of funding, we can ensure that the eventual financial outcome will be far, far less. Fiscally it is a smart thing to do to invest at this point, because Josh MacAlister says in his report that it would mean that instead of having 100,000 children in care, that figure would go down to 50,000 children in care in 10 years’ time, which is certainly something we should fight for.

I have to agree with Josh MacAlister when he refers in his report to the “broken market” around residential care. I do not know whether the Minister heard the “File on 4” programme on BBC Radio 4 about this issue, but it was truly shocking; if he has not heard it already, I recommend that he listens to it. The programme is about the experience that children have in residential care. Profiteering from vulnerable children? It is disgraceful that that happens. We have to consider how we bring that care closer to the child, closer to the family and ensure that they both get the support they need; rather than making money out of these vulnerable children, we should invest in them and their future.

We must also invest in our social workers, supporting them to achieve their very best and to keep them safe. That is what we want to see, wrapping around them a multi-disciplinary team, including mental health services, education and even services related to play. Instead of services fighting against each other, they should work together.

What came out of Josh McAlister’s report was a view that every child or young person must be in a safe, stable and loving environment. That is not the experience of children today, but we must make it the ambition. We do not have time to waste; these are lives that are vulnerable right now.

Consequently, I trust that the Minister will take that report and will ensure that we get a response to it. I do not know what timescale the Minister is thinking of; perhaps he can tell us today, because these children cannot wait—and Labour Members certainly cannot wait either.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for securing this important and timely debate.

The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, and there are surely no members of our society who are more vulnerable than the hundreds of thousands of young people currently in our social care system, too many of whom spend every day at risk of physical harm—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. There are surely no members of our society more vulnerable than the hundreds of thousands of young people in our social care system, too many of whom spend every day at risk of physical harm and neglect and who are denied the most basic security, safety and affection that is every child’s birth right. By that metric, our country—or more accurately, this Government—is guilty of grotesque moral failure. There are far too many young people falling through the cracks of a social care system that is breaking at the seams.

In recent years we have heard endless arguments about how to fix the crisis in children’s social care. Countless debates have been tabled in Parliament, roundtables convened and studies commissioned. However, the situation we face today is far worse than it ever has been. It is time for Conservative Members to recognise that the causes of the crisis are very simple. It is the direct and chilling consequence of 12 long years of cuts to frontline services that have left children’s services in every corner of this country at breaking point.

In the first 10 years of this Tory Government, central Government funding for children’s services was cut by almost a quarter in real terms. Spending on vital early intervention services almost halved nationally, and in some local authorities it has fallen by as much as 80%. The result is that we are reaching far too many young people in need far too late. The number of children being taken into care is soaring in deprived towns such as the one that I represent. It is young people in our most left-behind communities, such as in the north end of my constituency, who are suffering the most. For all this Government’s talk on levelling up, spending on children’s services has fallen three times faster in the north of England than in the south.

It is not just young people who are suffering. Social workers are truly our nation’s unsung heroes. Their job requires a strength of character, bravery and compassion that I would struggle to muster. However, they are increasingly being forced to handle unmanageable workloads while surviving on pay that has stagnated for over a decade. The fact that growing numbers of social workers are being forced to return from a hard day’s work supporting the most vulnerable children, only to line up for food banks to feed their own, should shame us all.

We should not be surprised that more social workers left the sector last year than at any point in the last five years, with more than one in three leaving after just two years of service. We should not be surprised that, increasingly, vulnerable children and their families are becoming accustomed to a revolving door of social workers, with little chance to establish the lasting and meaningful bonds that are so essential in getting them the support that they need. “The Case for Change” report has highlighted a desperate need to do more to recruit, retain and support a high-quality workforce. However, we have no hope of doing that unless we look urgently at restoring funding for children’s services and ending the scourge of in-work poverty in that sector.

I would not be surprised if my pleas to the Minister fall on deaf ears. After all, my calls for renewed investment in services supporting the most vulnerable could hardly be more at odds with the programme of slash-and-burn economics being advocated by all of the country’s prospective future leaders. If the Minister will not listen to me, then I hope he will heed the warnings of the Public Services Committee, which last year called for funding for children’s services to be returned to 2010 levels. Perhaps the Minister will listen to Action for Children, who are so active on the frontline of the crisis and are demanding that the funding gap in the sector be addressed by 2025, with a clear link between funding and the level of needs in communities like my own.

If even that will not steer this Government to action, I hope that the desperate message that I received from social workers in my constituency will. They are telling me that we are standing on the brink of a catastrophe. Enough is enough.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), who displayed her regular passion and insight during her opening speech on such a vital topic of recruitment and retention in the children’s social care sector. We have spoken at length about the subject over many months on the train coming down to this place.

So far, we have had consensus from voices in this Chamber today—certainly from Labour—with hon. Members expressing their gratitude to those working in the sector. It is a vocational calling that offers a lifeline of support, providing that helping hand in times of crisis. In fact, I think my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to that responsibility as corporate parents. It is ultimately about safeguarding 80,000 or so of the most vulnerable children.

Children’s social work is personal to me. I have lived with a children’s social worker for decades—quite literally. I have seen the joy on my wife’s face when a child in care has secured a job, gone to university or got a training opportunity, when a kind-hearted local business has brought Christmas presents when there is no family to bring them, or when siblings have finally, after waiting a very long time—often far too long—secured a loving adoption in the safe and caring environment that has been referred to. I have also been witness to tragedy and heartache, from my wife helping a team to provide support to families in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester Arena terrorist atrocity to ensuring that the most vulnerable children are protected from the most inhumane individuals on planet Earth.

That professionalism, dedication, hours and sheer determination to get things done for children most in need humbles us all. I am not just referring to my wife, of course. Many thanks go to all the social workers in my local councils of Cheshire West and Chester and Halton and to all those working up and down the country.

To have a children’s social care system that does right by children and families, we need a stable workforce. That clarion call has echoed across the Chamber today. The recent independent review of children’s social care by Josh MacAlister recognised that:

“The greatest strength of the children’s social care system lies in its workforce.”

However, social workers are just not getting the support that they need.

Across the country, and in both my local authorities, caseloads and case complexity seem to be ever increasing, making it hard for councils to recruit and, especially, retain experienced staff. Although both my local authorities have some brilliant social workers, the scale of deprivation found in parts of Halton, in my constituency, means very high and complex caseloads and that impacts on the council’s ability to recruit and keep good, experienced social workers. That fact has been evidenced by Unison in its manifesto for social work. If we do not look after the wellbeing of social workers, we are not looking after the wellbeing of the children and families that need their support. Social care has a deep and profound impact on the lives of vulnerable children, but a system that cannot maintain a stable, supported workforce will ultimately fail. That is what we have seen—a crisis up and down the country.

It has got to the point where for every new social worker coming to work in Halton, there are two leaving. For every new one, two leave—that is a fact. It is completely and utterly unsustainable. Nationally, as referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston in the opening of the debate, a third of social workers left their roles after two years of service, with almost three quarters of those who resign leaving social work altogether. A lack of public understanding and appreciation of social work, unbearably high workloads, wages that have stayed low while costs increase—agency costs in particular—and a system that does not provide support, especially for early-career social workers, all contribute to a perfect storm. A depleted and dejected workforce—that is why three quarters of social workers are leaving altogether. The other quarter move on to agency roles, which make up an increasing proportion of social workers in our system. That is something the review called “inexcusably high”. In Halton, levels of agency workers have gone from between 7% and 12% pre-covid to up to 40% in some teams now.

Agency workers, as discussed in the Chamber today, are a less stable presence for the children and the families they support. They are more expensive and were the subject of a Competition and Markets Authority study last year that found that the largest private providers are making excessive profits—they are profiteering from the most vulnerable children. That should have no place in our public services. Improving children’s social care means reducing the dependency on agency workers and ending this dog-eat-dog situation with councils competing against councils and the price going up.

My asks of the Minister, whom I welcome to his place —I am not sure how long he will last, but all the best—centre on Josh MacAlister’s recommendations, and those of the British Association of Social Workers and Unison. What are the Government doing to ensure that we have a valued social care workforce able to meet the needs of those most vulnerable children and families who rely on it? What plan do the Government have to implement an effective recruitment and retention strategy for children’s social care workers? How will the Minister ensure that social workers spend less time dealing with complicated bureaucracy and give more time with children and families? What will the Minister do about low levels of pay—without doubt—a lack of support for career progression and training, and the need better to expand and fund social care bursaries? An early-career framework was referenced, as well as in the review. Finally, what will the Minister do to tackle the overuse of agency social workers? The money of our taxpayers is literally draining off shore, out of this country, to companies that do not even pay a fair share of taxes for our public services.

In conclusion, the safety and welfare of all our children in need is paramount for any Government of any political persuasion. Children’s social care has been woefully underfunded, with council finances hollowed out by 50% over the past 12 years—a political choice, which the new Prime Minister, when anointed on 5 September, will have to focus on urgently. A well-rewarded and valued workforce would focus on our most in-need children, and ensure that they live in a safe, loving, compassionate and caring environment, with opportunities in the future of their lives.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Sharma.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) on securing this important debate. She spoke powerfully about the crisis in children’s social care: the difficulties of local authorities in recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of social workers; the lifelong impact that the experiences of children who enter the care system can have if there is not that therapeutic, supportive and consistent intervention and support to help them address their challenges; the way that children are left vulnerable to exploitation; and the pressures on our social care workforce in terms of unmanageable caseloads. She spoke about the urgency of the need for a response to the independent review, the need for an early-career framework for the first five years of a social worker’s career and the fact that we really need and want social workers to be able to make a lifelong commitment to work in the profession, to develop their skills and to be able to progress. She also spoke about the urgent need for an end to profiteering in the children’s home and private foster agency sector.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who highlighted the work that social workers already do on a day-to-day basis, often battling in very difficult circumstances. She spoke about the need for a national pay framework to stabilise the workforce and stop different local authorities from competing with each other, and the parallels with the agenda for change in the NHS. She also spoke about the broken market in children’s residential care. I will return to that later in my remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke powerfully for social workers in his constituency, who say they are on the brink of a catastrophe if the crisis in children’s care is not addressed, and about the urgency of the need for action.

Finally, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who spoke powerfully of his wife’s experience as a children’s social worker—about the immensely rewarding difference that social workers can make in the life of a child, but also the challenges of working in the most difficult circumstances, and the way that social workers across the country stand ready when tragedy strikes and children find themselves in unimaginably difficult circumstances. He highlighted the wider context of deprivation bearing down on families, affecting the wellbeing of children and adding to the pressures in the social care system, which we must not forget in this debate. He mentioned the shocking statistic from one of his boroughs that for every one new social worker, two are leaving the profession—that illustrates the importance of the debate, and why we are talking about the crisis in the children’s social care workforce.

The challenges that have been brought to the House by hon. Members from the north-west of England and from York are not unique to those parts of the country. The recently published independent review of children’s social care, written by Josh MacAlister, concludes that our children’s social care system is broken, and that a total reset is needed.

I pay tribute to everyone working in children’s social care, who strive day in, day out to provide safety, support and stability to children who are in need, or whose birth parents are unable to care for them. Their work is vital and it makes a huge difference. Social workers are highly skilled; they make carefully balanced decisions about what is in a child’s best interests, in a context where the risks are often extremely high.

It is no exaggeration to say that their work can all too often be a matter of life and death, but the statistics on children’s social workers tell a clear story of a workforce in crisis. In 2021, there was a turnover rate of 15%: the highest rate recorded in the past five years. In the same year, there was a vacancy rate of one in six, meaning that social workers across the country are stretched to the limit covering the workload of vacant posts. A third of those leaving social work left after less than two years of service and 36% after less than five years. Around 60% of children and family social care workers have been in service for less than five years.

The MacAlister review is damning. It describes a

“lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care”.

The review also highlights unacceptably high levels of agency staff, and observes that once a social worker moves to an agency

“they are more likely to move around, contributing to the instability children and families experience.”

Agency social workers are also much more expensive to local authorities, causing

“a loss of over £100 million per year”

that could be spent on children and families. The response from the Government to date has been utterly complacent. Half of all children’s services departments across the country are rated inadequate or requiring improvement, yet there is no urgency from the Government: no national programme for improvement and support, no strategy to ensure that good practice from the best-performing local authorities is rolled out across all local authorities and simply no plan to address the crisis. There is also no plan to stop the grotesque profiteering by private providers of children’s homes and foster agencies—the largest 20 of which made a staggering £300 million of profit last year.

Delivering effective children’s social work requires a stable workforce embedded in the local community that they serve, with individual workloads that are manageable and a supportive and professional management culture. While there is such a crisis in the children’s social care workforce, it is children in need and their families who suffer.

At the heart of the Government’s failure is the erosion of early help and family support to stop families getting into the crisis situations that result in the removal of children into the care system. That is demonstrated no more starkly than by the 1,300 Sure Start centres that have closed across the country since 2010.

I welcome the Minister to his place, but I hope that he recognises the urgency of the issues facing children’s care, and that a merry-go-round at the top of Government is the last thing that social workers, or the children and families they serve, need or deserve. I hope that he will set out today what he is doing to address the crisis in children’s social care. How is he progressing the Government’s response to the independent review? When does he anticipate the response being published?

What is the Minister doing to increase the urgency of the Government’s response to the crisis? What representations is he making to the Treasury on children’s social care funding? What representations is he making to the candidates in the Conservative leadership race, because I have heard no mention of children in that debate so far? When will he end profiteering in children’s social care?

What is the Minister doing to ensure that dedicated social work practitioners and social care workers across the country are recognised and supported, and that local authorities are fully supported to address the crisis in recruitment and retention? How is he ensuring that as the Government respond to the independent review, they work closely with social workers and trade unions, as well as children, young people and their families, to ensure that reform can really deliver the total reset that is needed?

Labour will always put children first—we did so in government and we will do so again—but our children cannot afford any more dither and delay from the Government. We will hold the Government to account every single day on the framework of support they provide and the outcomes that they deliver for our most vulnerable children. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort that there is urgency within the Government on this important agenda.

We intend to finish by 5.55 pm. I am sure that I do not need to remind the Minister, but he should allow the mover of the motion a couple of minutes to wind up, and give me about a minute to complete the sitting.

Of course, Mr Sharma, and may I say what an absolute pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) on securing this important debate on a subject that she is passionate about. I share that passion and I thank her for bringing her extensive knowledge of local government to the table as well.

I thank our children’s social care workforce: the child and family social workers, our children’s homes teams, our family support workers, and all those with whom they work. I pay tribute to every single person working in children’s social care and striving to offer life-changing support to children and families day in, day out.

I am sure the hon. Member will be pleased to know that I will chair the first interim meeting of the national implementation board tomorrow, bringing together experts to deliver the kind of transformational change that we want to see in children’s social care. I also met Josh MacAlister today to discuss our ambitions, so I am equally keen to progress this as quickly as possible. I hope that I can address the concerns of other hon. Members present; I believe we share a great deal of common ground on a number of issues.

Children’s social care is central to our mission to level up the country and enable all children in the country to make the most of their abilities. I was in Worksop in Nottinghamshire on Monday where I had the opportunity to speak with social workers on the frontline. I want to capture the good news stories that are all too often overshadowed by the tragedies. I saw the excellent services and dedicated professionals that the hon. Member has focused the debate on. I applaud her work on ensuring that we have the opportunity to talk about this vital workforce that we so value and am pleased to be doing so in my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister, which I hope will not be my last.

As my predecessor, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said on World Social Work Day in March, there are few professions that can claim to transform lives as much as child and family social workers. The Government are dedicated to ensuring that there is an excellent child and family social worker for everyone who needs one. That is why there are more child and family social workers than ever before: 32,500 such social workers were employed by local authorities in England in September 2021, which is the most recent data we have at a national level. That is 14% more than in 2017.

We invest over £50 million each year on recruiting and developing child and family social workers to ensure that the workforce continues to have the capacity, skills and knowledge to support and protect vulnerable children. We train an average of 800 new social workers annually through our fast-track programmes Frontline and Step Up To Social Work. The Frontline programme alone plays a fundamental role in our recruitment strategy, with approximately 3,000 new social workers due to graduate and enter the workforce by 2024 since the programme began in 2013. In addition, each year almost 3,000 newly qualified child and family social workers are supported through our assessed and supported year in employment, and around 750 social workers go through one of our leadership development programmes.

I am delighted that just last week we announced our new leadership programme, which will run from this August to July 2024, called social worker leadership pathways. It will provide consistent and high-quality leadership development throughout a social worker’s career. That will run alongside the upon future leaders programme launched in 2020, which gives aspiring and new directors of children’s services the skills they need to thrive in such a challenging and pivotal role. However, I absolutely recognise the challenges that colleagues have described today. I know that local authorities face increasing challenges with their workforce, and I am grateful to everyone who has brought those issues to the fore. As I say, we share a lot of common ground on the issues.

The Government recognised the need for children’s social care reform in our manifesto, as has been rightly stated, and we announced our intention for an independent review of children’s social care. As the review sets out, and as we have heard, social worker recruitment, retention and quality are not consistently at the levels they need to be across the country. Sadly, that inevitably has an impact on the outcomes for our most vulnerable children. That is why, in addition to continued investment in our programmes, we intend to publish our children’s social care reform implementation strategy by the end of this year. As we develop the strategy, it is an absolute priority to work with the sector to ensure there are sufficient numbers of child and family social workers with the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of the families with whom they work. We are currently considering the recommendations from the independent review of children’s social care and the national panel review.

The independent review comes as a package and holds together as such. Is the Minister committing that the Government will accept the package and make the level of investment that the review calls for?

I thank the hon. Member for her question. When we come to the implementation board, those are exactly the things we will discuss and I share the view that there is a lot of good stuff in that report, and I would like to see us do as much as possible. That will obviously come when the board meets, and those are things that we will discuss. I can promise that we will look seriously at all the recommendations that have been made there before making any decision. That is something that certainly want to put across as the Minister. It is a passion that I equally share, and I will do my best to make sure that we have the best reform possible based on the information and resources available to us.

Some of the ideas we are considering in the review include regional staff banks, national pay scales and memorandums of understanding to help to reduce the cost of agency social work, which I agree is a problem and something that needs to be addressed. As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester set out on the day of publication of the independent review,

“Providing more decisive child protection relies on the knowledge and skills”—[Official Report, 23 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 33]

of all those in the workforce, and in particular our child and family social workers. That is why we are keen to support the principle of the review’s proposed early career framework.

We intend to set out plans to refocus the support that social workers receive early on, when the Government publish their implementation strategy later this year. The plans will have a particular emphasis on child protection, given the challenging nature of that work. I am particularly delighted to share with the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston that yesterday I signed off £250,000 of improvement funding for St Helens and the Liverpool city region. That will go towards a staff bank pilot, with the ultimate aim of reducing the region’s reliance on agencies.

It is not right that social workers feel their work is undervalued and overlooked. It saddens me to think that those working to protect our most vulnerable children are stigmatised in such a way. Unfortunately, the public only hear about social workers when something goes terribly wrong. They do not hear about the hundreds of thousands of cases where children and parents are empowered and supported to create a better life. Those are the stories that we should hear continually, to remind us of the crucial role that social workers play in protecting the lives of vulnerable children.

Importantly, it is because most social workers do their jobs so well that we are able to overlook them in such a way. That is a national scandal, because dedicated social workers are essential to keeping children safe. It is impossible to quantify the number of children’s lives that social workers have saved, the number of families that they have helped or the harm that they have prevented. When children are in need, social workers work hard on their behalf to ensure that they receive the love and care they deserve. When families are in awful situations and children are in danger, social workers help to make things better. When a family is able to stay together, a social worker is behind the scenes helping to make that happen. Throughout the pandemic, social workers have continued to meet families in person, helping to turn lives around. That is why the Government have invested heavily in training and support for child and family social workers, and will continue to do so.

The quality of a work environment is key to recruitment and retention, including effective professional supervision, wider support and case work levels. Our programme seeks to address a number of those points directly. We are supporting the recruitment of social workers through our investment in initial education and our fast-track programmes. Our investment in continued professional development programmes has a leadership focus, precisely because there is such a strong relationship between leadership, retention and quality.

There is great practice out there, with local authorities driving down agency rates and stabilising their workforces. We see the fruits of everyone’s labour in the number of child and family social workers increasing every year, up 14% from the number in 2017 to 32,500 in 2021. Average case load numbers have fallen from 17.8% in 2017 to 16.3% in 2021, something that we continue to build on.

We recognise that that may not be the picture that some local authorities are seeing on the ground. We are working closely with local authorities, using central programmes and funding to respond to their needs. Informed by the recommendations in “The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care” and the national panel review, we are aiming to stabilise and strengthen children’s social care as we transition out of the pandemic. We want the best possible outcomes for children and young people and to provide a strong foundation for longer term reform.

In addition to our £50 million investment every year in social worker initial education and professional development programmes, the Government have set up a brand-new regulator just for social workers. It is called Social Work England and has been running since 2019. Social Work England’s role as a specialist regulator for social workers is a fundamental part of our reforms to improve the quality of social work practice. Social Work England ensures that people who have a social worker receive the best possible support whenever they might need it in life. Its regulatory framework allows the organisation to adapt to emerging opportunities, challenges and best practice.

We introduced clear post-qualifying standards in 2017 to strengthen the social care system and improve social work practice and safeguarding across the country. They set out the knowledge and skills expected of child and family social workers. We remain committed to assessment and accreditation as key elements of improving children’s social care. We also continue to engage and collaborate with stakeholders and subject experts as we develop the long-term future of post-qualification training and development for child and family social workers.

This year, local authorities have access to more than £54 billion in core spending power to deliver their services, including those for children and young people. That is £3.7 billion more than in 2021-22. It is right that councils should be able to make spending decisions based on their local needs.

The Conservative-led Local Government Association has recently published figures about the funding pressure. Of course, that was based on a settlement, with inflation around 2%. We are looking at a shortfall of around £3.4 billion for local government, and 60% of local council finances and budgets go on social care. The system is broken; the current situation is not sustainable.

I thank the hon. Member for his point, and I agree there are considerable pressures on local authorities. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston mentioned agency rates earlier, and the spiralling cost of those. What the Government believe—and I have spoken with the LGA about this—is that the early intervention in some of the things that we are looking at putting in place, and this implementation, will help us to cut some of those costs. I fully recognise that there are significant challenges at the moment, but I hope that what we are doing will drive down some of those costs for local authorities and allow us to provide them with the support that I accept local authorities certainly need.

On a similar theme, there has been a real increase in demand for services. Many of the figures the Minister gave predate the pandemic, and after the pandemic we have seen a real spike in demand for children’s services. How is the Minister compensating that with the investment in local authorities?

Coming out of the pandemic, we face significant challenges in the workforce across the country, not just in the social care sector. Regarding funding, as I said, that is why the implementation board will be so important, because these are the things that we really need to focus on. I can assure the hon. Member that this is something that I do take seriously, and we will look at the points she raised as part of this review.

I am enormously grateful for the time we have had today, and to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston for bringing this debate. This is a subject I share a passion for, and I hope the steps we have taken underline the importance of this and our commitment to getting this implementation done. I hope the pace at which we move towards that goal reflects the importance of the issue.

I regret that I did not recognise that the Minister is new today; that is how fresh it was to me. I am pleased to see him in his position, and I hope that he stays there, because I know that he has shared a passion for this subject for some time, but please look at the outcomes in local government of the decisions that the Government are making. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, 60% of the spend of local government is on social care. Cuts in local government are cuts to children and adults’ social care, so please look at the outcomes. Caseloads are increasing—

Order. Thank you very much, everybody.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the children’s social care workforce.

Sitting adjourned.