John Radoux Special Edition

Reviews, independence and lies

Anger sometimes has a bad rap, which is odd, because it is one of a range of human emotions all of us experience (at least, we all should).  As a therapist, I might sometimes wonder where a child’s anger is.  In fact, I will often consider it an important moment when a child finally expresses, or demonstrates, anger about something – or even directs his or her anger at me.  While uncontrolled, violent or abusive anger is obviously harmful to the individual concerned and the recipient, anger itself is often healthy and sometimes necessary. Nevertheless, some people find anger and the behaviours it can be a driver for – assertiveness, the stating of awkward truths, an unwillingness to backdown, sarcasm, I could go on – uncomfortable.  If that is you, then this is your opportunity to stop reading.  As someone wise said to me recently, there is a place for people who: “rightly shout ‘the game is rigged’ from the terraces”.

In respect of the claimed independence of the English review of children’s social care announced back in January, we have moved from what some of us thought were suspicious patterns in play from the start, to finding the metaphorical equivalent of a holdall stuffed with used fifties and six burner phones in the referee’s office – the proverbial smoking gun. Any reasonable reading of Josh MacAlister’s contract – which became public knowledge a few days before I wrote this piece – demonstrates beyond doubt that the review is not, as it has been heavily promoted, “independent”.  Further, it shows that there is no route via this review to the kinds of systemic changes that would make a meaningful difference to the lives of children in care.  The roads have been blocked by MacAlister’s contractual obligations: any recommendations made by the review must be cost neutral (I am not going to bother explaining why this is absurd) and MacAlister must not “embarrass” the Department for Education, are among many.

As a side note, the Department for Education is an abstract construct and cannot be embarrassed.  Obviously, they mean people who work at the DfE should not be embarrassed.  Ministers? Presumably.  The Chief Social Worker for Children and Families? I guess.  I wonder what it is they fear could embarrass them?  It is amusing to learn the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, is so worried about being made a fool of in public (far too late old boy!).  Anyway, the details of MacAlister’s contract were clearly thought to be embarrassing too, which is why much of what I have referred to here was redacted from the version posted on their own website.

By proclaiming its independence from the DfE and government, the review started with a lie.  Some, including myself, were, from the day it was announced, very concerned that MacAlister was not sufficiently independent of the DfE given his close connections with senior players there.  Our concerns were not abated when, after persistent questions on social media and in parliament, it was revealed that his review team would be made up almost entirely of civil servants – “as is typical for reviews like this”, in MacAlister’s own words on Twitter.  Interesting, given this review has not been sold as “typical”, has it?  Still, I guess I just figured MacAlister was a placeman and that he would ultimately, with one eye on his future career, not piss the Government off.  It never occurred to me that the review’s ability to think freely, to reimagine the care system based on the evidence and ideas it receives, had been proscribed by the (legally enforceable) terms of MacAlister’s employment.

One of the many reasons this lie matters, is that over 1000 people applied to be members of the Experts by Experience board.  Presumably, most of them did so on the basis that they believed this was a genuine opportunity to influence the future of the care system.  To influence it in a way that decreased the chances of other children and families having experiences similar to those that they had. We now know this opportunity does not exist.

Further, MacAlister chose not to say, prior to the recruitment process, how many vacancies there were for the board, how many people would be shortlisted for interview and what the criteria to be shortlisted were.  It is now very clear that lived experience was not enough, and previous experience of being a lived experience “voice” and advocate were also required (the problems regarding a kind of lived experience closed shop would be worth exploring separately).  Had MacAlister been clear regarding the very tight constraints placed on the review by the DfE, clear about the number of places on the board, and clear about the requirement for a track record of similar activity, it is reasonable to assume many fewer people would have applied, and those that did would have done so from an informed position. 

It is also worth noting, and wondering why, the EbE board is a separate entity to the actual review team.  Questions regarding whether the board will have direct involvement in producing and/or signing off the review’s final reports and recommendations remain unanswered.  I am going to state here that it definitely will not (I look forward to being corrected if I am wrong). No shared power, no co-creation.  For these reasons, accusations of tokenism are both inevitable and accurate.  

Why MacAlister and his team chose to mislead those with experience of the care system cannot be said with certainty.  But it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that one of the reasons is so they could boast about the number of EbE applicants – providing the review with a superficial credibility.  As for hundreds of care experienced people (who never stood a chance of being selected) being rejected one afternoon via email, and the distress this would cause, well, if this was considered at all, I guess it was just seen as collateral damage.  Almost everyone who has spent time in care will have experienced multiple rejections, and felt unheard and ignored. For the care review to mirror these – potentially traumatising – experiences is, at best, staggeringly insensitive and, at worst, callous.  Even the phrase “collateral damage” implies a price worth paying for a greater good.  It is not clear to me what the greater good is here.

I am conscious that there appear to be attempts to spin any criticism of the make-up of the EbE board, and the review more generally, as criticism of individual members of the board.  It is not.  That does not mean the activities of the EbE board or, if appropriate, individual members of the EbE board cannot be criticised.  Lived experience does not give someone a free pass.  For example, you are more than entitled to disagree with the content of this article and you are entitled to express that disagreement. But for the most part, critique is rightly directed at the DfE, MacAlister and his team.  Many members of the EbE board are, I am certain, being exploited.

Its is fair to say I nearly did not write this piece.  I agreed to because of a mix of loyalty and friendship with members of the editorial collective, my difficulty in saying no, my vanity, and my desire, need really, to be heard. But each time I tried to start writing I felt stuck, it seemed so pointless – futile – to rehearse the arguments others, and I, have made many times before.  I could not work out what I wanted to say, or what the point of saying it would be. 

I am still not sure to be honest, but, while it is tempting, I am going to leave further criticism of the review’s structures and processes (the ridiculous timescales, MacAlister’s blueprint, concerns regarding its possible use as a cover for deregulation etc etc) to others and concentrate on the thing that worries me most.

Much of the focus of the review and, at least in terms of the parts I am aware of, academic social work, seems to be centred on how to prevent children from coming into care in the first place.  An entirely laudable and necessary aim.  Obviously, I agree that there should be many less children in care and I agree with many of the remedies argued for – tackling poverty, greater investment in universal services, better support for families that are struggling and so on.  Of course, all these things would lead to a reduction in the numbers of children in care (although some may take a generation or two to have an impact).

But here is the thing, even if we could wave a magic wand, enact all these wonderful ideas, dramatically improve the quality of children and families social work, and, let’s say, half the number of children in care, there would still be many thousands of children in the care of the state and necessarily so.  It is naïve and sentimental to imagine otherwise. For example, I am certain I would not be alive to write this piece now if I had not been removed.  I have looked after many children whose expressed wish was to remain in care, those who were angry they were not removed sooner and many more where it would have simply been too dangerous for them to return to their families. This might be uncomfortable to accept, but accept it we must.  

It is these children and young people who I think about the most, because at the moment what happens to many of them when they come into care, and when they leave care, is simply unacceptable.  Much of the reason for this is systemic, but, let us not avoid uncomfortable truths, some of the reasons are due to the lack of understanding, compassion and empathy of some managers, social workers, foster carers, residential staff and other professionals. 

How is the review going to address this? How is it going to help these children and young people?  Is it even going to think about them? It isn’t is it?  The chaos and trauma of their lives will continue unabated and, worse, in two- or three-years’ time, when people like me are continuing to say: “this is appalling, something has to change”, MacAlister will have moved on to his next well remunerated position and we will be told: “You have had the review you asked for”.  But, of course, we won’t have.

John Radoux is a child & adolescent psychotherapeutic counsellor and residential child care worker, he grew up in care and tweets @JohnRadoux.