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Labour must respond wisely and compassionately to threats to our most vulnerable parents and children

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Clive Lewis writes:

“The following guest blog by June Thoburn is thought provoking and sets out a number of concerns about existing policy towards vulnerable adults and children. It is an important topic which often gets lets little attention in comparison with the economy, industrial policy, the NHS etc. It queries whether the policies which we are currently following as a Party are correct. As discussions on our manifesto will be coming to a head over coming weeks I would certainly like to hear the views of people in Norwich South. Do let me know what you think?”

When New Labour was in office, it was wrong-footed on more than one occasion when having to respond quickly to family tragedies.  Most obviously, to the death of Peter Connolly (Baby 'P'). Nonetheless it had a proud record on improving the life chances of many families living in disadvantaged circumstances- from Sure Start and Every Child Matters, to a sustained attempt to reduce the numbers of children in poverty.

And it set in train improvements for children in care, encouraging them to stay longer with their foster families, with the 2008 Children's Act.  

But, as with the health service, it’s less than whole hearted support of the public sector (in this case specifically local authority children’s social services) paved the way for service fragmentation by the current Coalition - a government intent on privatisation.  A case in point is the championing by Andrew Adonis and Julian Le Grand of ‘social work practices’. This was the outsourcing of services to social enterprise-like organisations for children in care. Under the Coalition this has now opened the door to local authorities outsourcing services to 'any qualified provider'- meaning profit hungry companies will increasingly take over the decision-making for vulnerable children in care.

My (research-informed) objections are on the grounds of effectiveness as well as my socialist values.  Children in care need stability and a sense of permanence.  Many (appropriately) live with foster families for periods of years. They should not be subject to the re-tendering every three years or so of the service that is responsible for planning their care.  Already, much of the actual provision of children’s homes and foster homes is in the private for profit sector and the voluntary sector is being squeezed out.  There are some benefits in a ‘mixed economy’ of provision, especially involving the voluntary sector. But my moral and ethical objection is this. When local authority social services have to remove children from their parents’ care and take on the ‘corporate parenting’ role, that role should be discharged by democratically accountable, elected members and their public servant staff. They should not be ‘selling off’ their decision-making duties when vulnerable children are involved. Already in Doncaster and Birmingham this privatisation process (under the guise of ‘fixing’ child protection) is being extended to children’s services as a whole. 

But enough of the past.  What I really want to see is a well-informed group of policy-makers within our Party ready to respond to the deepening crises for the ever-larger numbers of struggling families.  Coalition social security cuts (including pushing the social fund responsibilities onto cash-starved local government) and the scandalous shortage of secure-tenure affordable housing, is increasing the stresses that make it harder for families to do what the vast majority want to do - namely bring their children up well and improve their life chances.  The increasing numbers of ‘child protection’ referrals, especially for reasons of neglect, mean these families need a range of flexible, well thought out services based on need not profit.   

So – am I hopeful that Labour will get it right?  There are Labour politicians in both houses of Parliament, local government and the field of social work, education and research who are really putting their minds to this. However their efforts are hindered by the fact that this policy area tends to be left to more junior members of the Shadow Cabinet. Some key issues can then slip under the radar of Andy Burnham and Tristram Hunt. And yet when it does reach the attention of senior actors, I have been disappointed with the response.

The qualifying training of social workers is a case in point. Under the ‘Frontline’  initiative, graduate entrants to social work are no longer required to do a two year post-graduate degree but rather a five week summer school topped up to a year by ‘work-based learning’. For very well argued reasons the large majority of social work educators argued against the diversion to this ill-thought out experiment of the already limited funding for student social workers.  It would be much better spent on improving the practice placements all social work students need to equip them to intervene sensitively and competently in the lives of struggling parents and children. 

I was thoroughly alarmed when I saw that both Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt have ‘commended’ the ‘Frontline’ programme (its Board, depressingly to my way of thinking, chaired by Andrew Adonis).  Of course we want the best graduates to take up a social work career (many already do) and publicity for social work as a really positive career choice is greatly to be welcomed.  But it doesn’t make sense to sell these future social workers (and their future clients) short by cutting their training in half and squeezing the knowledge content into a 5 week Summer School. 

And I am watching to see how Labour responds to the apparently ‘sensible’ arguments (likely to be taken up by the right wing populist press) for a proposed ‘Cinderella law’ (bringing in a new criminal offence of emotional cruelty to children).  Of course neglect and emotional abuse are extremely damaging to children. The first response should be to help the struggling families who are daily exposed to the stresses of reduced income, poor and temporary housing,  inflicted on them by this government. But if compulsory intervention is needed the family law already allows this to happen.  As the powerful Channel 4 series tells us, 15,000 children are taken from their parents each year (and another 15.000 come into care under voluntary arrangements). To criminalise these parents, as well as taking their children away is not going to help anyone, least of all their children, and the social workers trying to help will be viewed even more suspiciously than they already are.

*Some Labour members plan to get together to discuss national and Local Labour responses to the needs of vulnerable children and adults – if you would like to join in email me or respond to this blog with details on how to contact you. Norwich Labour Party will also be holding a Policy Review conference on Saturday June 7th. This is our chance to directly input into the 2015 Labour Manifesto. 

June Thoburn is an emeritus professor of social work at the University of East Anglia. She is currently a special advisor to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) and Chair of the Norfolk Family Justice Board.  She was awarded the CBE ‘for services to social work’ in 2002. June is also a member of Norwich Labour Party. 

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