It’s somewhere around 1986. A classroom on an upper floor of the Tower building at the University of Ulster, Coleraine (as it was then). The Anglo-Irish Agreement is still far from getting a universal welcome. Joey Dunlop is winning motorcycle races. And Madonna is very famous. Meanwhile, in the aforementioned classroom, there is a discussion deep in analytical, metaphysical and moral considerations – as should be hoped for on a philosophy course. Our tutor, the master of understatement, Prof Terry O’Keeffe, is about to utter a phrase that will serve us all well for the rest of our lives.
Within this special edition, I am confident that you will be able to read more than one detailed analysis of the events, influences and relationships leading up to and embodied in the review of Children’s Social Care in England. Following events unfold from a distance I have been struck by the quality and depth of ‘street level’ journalism that has come from within social work. I am sure you will also hear care experienced voices and they will demand and deserve our collective attention, respect and reflection. There will be disappointment, frustration, anger, even fear about what this review and the conditions of its establishment signal for the future – for those who will come into care; for those who are there now; for those still making sense of and living with their care experience. Those for whom care might be avoided in a better world. And for social work.
In this space I wanted to identify some of the broader themes into which the review and the concern it has generated fit. Before that, a moment of clarity. The suggestion that the review is meaningfully independent is not credible. The questions and objections that have been raised regarding the selection of the chair, the relationship between the chair and the Department for Education, the scope and scoping of the review, and how the review is to be conducted are all pertinent.
Parliament, democracy and reviews
These have been troubling times in Western democracies for those who think that open, transparent and accountable government is a key building block of a free, democratic and modern society. The impact of the financial crash on global politics, the rise of nationalism and isolationism, austerity, Brexit, Trumpism, the growth of social media and the changes in the Fourth Estate, and the war being fought in cyberspace, have all contributed to the current state of play in the UK where there are no consequences for ministers or government departments pursuing policies and actions that are palpably not credible, up to and including misleading Parliament and failing to properly answer questions from Parliamentary committees. The approach that has been taken to the review of Children’s Social Care in England is of this piece.
It has been announced as a ‘once in a generation’ review but all the evidence that has emerged so far points to a departmental review which is tightly controlled from the outset. There will be consultation and engagement to point to in the process and the reporting, but be under no illusion, this is not open inquiry, and there are favoured outcomes. There is clear meta-messaging in the selection of the chair, the chair’s contract and the terms of reference. It could also be viewed as designed to fail. Even for a review that focused on the experience of care and after care, the timescale would have been unrealistically tight. In recent weeks the scope of the review has increased to a point where it’s aims are undeliverable.
Delivering an effective and credible review is a bit like facilitating a Family Group Conference. The secret is in the preparation. This knowledge exists in the civil service – the importance of properly scoping a review, the identification of interested parties and pre-review engagement to work out what the issues are and where the sticking points are likely to be. This process will help you work out who might both be suitably qualified to lead/conduct a review and have the necessary credibility with the individuals and groups who have a stake in the outcomes from the review. Initial discussion of the review arrangements focused on the Nolan Principles in Public Life – the Gunning Principles in relation to consultation are also instructive. 
If this is a genuine once in a generation review, then it probably should have been led by a panel, probably with a judge as its chair, but one who was comfortable and skilled as working as part of a team. There should have been a social worker, probably a respected academic. There should have been someone with care experience, who, while not burdened with the unrealistic expectation of representing all those with care experience, would be credible to and have broad support from the care experienced community.
The review should most certainly have been a creature of Parliament, with Education Committee oversight of the Department for Education as lead body. A mature political and oversight process might have seen joint hearings with other relevant committees given that a number of other government departments will be interested in the review, and will be key to delivering change and future outcomes for care experienced people.
A detailed analysis of the growth of marketisation in social care generally, and children’s services specifically, is well documented and has been front and centre of the questioning of the review to date. Within the sector a clear aspiration for any review of how children in care are looked after by the State, was that it would look at the negative impact of marketisation on the cost, availability and location of suitable foster families and residential homes – places that could provide home and family when children’s own families were unable to do so. Places from which children could move back to their own families; from where they might move on to a permanent place to live; or where they might stay for the long term. As with the selection of the chair of the recently published report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities , so with the selection of the chair of the review into Children’s Social Care – despite all public protestations to the contrary, the Minister and the Department are sending a very clear meta-message about what they want and what they don’t want – for those who have ears. For a really clear view of why the provision of care for children is not and never will be a proper market, and the negative outcomes that leads to, please take a look at Kathy Evans excellent chapter in Kittens are Evil: Little Heresies in Public Policy. You will discover that ‘monopsony’ was the word you had spent a lifetime looking for.
To borrow a phrase from finance and switch it to a human rights context – the bottom line in all this is, that apart from the fact that we have a carefully constructed system that prioritises the transfer of public money for the care of children into the hands of shareholders over using that money for services that benefit those very children, the decades long fetishising of markets in public policy and commissioning has led us to a position where children are commodities – placements and units. There is no human rights, social justice, ethical or moral frame in which that can ever be right.
The review is already a missed opportunity to do things differently. It has been extremely painful to listen to the voices of care experienced people who feel that despite the public reassurances, this review looks like business as usual. Why has this happened? Philosophy and haste. It’s clear that an engagement process is underway, but a lot of that work should have been done in the scoping of the review, building up networks in the care experienced community, asking them who they thought their authoritative and representative voices were. Quite rightly, the concerns over the Department’s control of the findings and process of the review (i.e. its independence) as set out in the chair’s contract, do leave those with lived experience of care wondering if their contribution is meaningful or a fig leaf for the future. We need to be moving beyond consultation and engagement. There was an opportunity here to go beyond participation. Meaningful co-production could have started at the scoping and design stage, with engagement with groups and networks, and care experienced people working alongside civil servants on scoping and design. This would include care experienced people as part of the selection process for an independent chair. It would as already suggested have involved a care experienced person as part of the panel leading the review, allied to a network of sub-groups for care experienced people, drawing heavily on existing groups and networks. In the work of the review it would be possible to have service users engaged in the gathering and analysis of data – co-produced research is an established model. It would certainly underpin care experienced people being part of deciding what constitute ‘outcomes’ and which are the ones that should be prioritised.
And a gentle reminder – government Departments and other agencies engaged in joint work is not co-production. That’s called ‘working together’. Co-production must involve people with lived experience of using services, working alongside staff from departments and agencies, with power shared in access to information and decision making.
It’s about mindset at every stage and it takes time.
The first item on the agenda of any radical movement is – ‘when do we split?’ I know we live in a social media age where conversation and debate become superheated very quickly, and it’s very difficult to have nuanced discussion. As I set out earlier, it is not helped by the political times we are in, where lies have currency as the policies of governments, accountability is routinely dodged, and expertise has no value. If you hold the view that the review as it is currently configured is fatally flawed, then for social workers and those with care experience, it is correct to wonder if it is wise to lend the review a veneer of legitimacy through taking part or contributing. Equally, there is also merit in the pragmatic view around how power is exercised, that if you are ‘in the room where it happens’ at least there is a possibility of some influence and amelioration of the worst recommendations, as well as having first hand witness accounts of how things are being done. We really don’t want to be a caricature of a scene from Monty Python, and the more divided we are as a profession the easier we make life for those who want to advance agendas that will not help those with care experience and which will further marginalise social work and social workers.
On that point, while the predicament we find ourselves in as a profession is a product of many external forces, this episode should cause us to reflect on our part in generating a situation where governments, of all persuasions, find it expedient to ignore us – be it the invite to the launch of a once in a generation review of children’s social care or a response to a global pandemic. Social work is a tricky profession for any government, because done right and well, social work will point to social injustice, unmet need and amplify the voices of people who are marginalised. That rarely makes for good photo opportunities. Governments may wish to regulate but it is difficult to see where the self-interest lies in developing a professional ‘awkward squad’. But we also need to look to ourselves, how we as a profession have not brought ourselves together sufficiently over the years and haven’t created a mass membership professional association, that would be a powerful voice for social work, social workers and the people we serve. How we sleepwalked into the dismantling of UK structures for education and regulation. When we disagree, which is good, let’s not make it easy for others to divide and rule by fragmenting ourselves.
What’s to be done?
We need to work together on several fronts, from within and from without the review, being kind to each other, supporting each other, and showing solidarity with the folk at the heart of this – those with lived experience of being in the care of the state.
We must support the voices who are courageously providing scrutiny of the review. In a society in which Parliament and investigative journalism aren’t working, this type of analysis and critique are an essential path to accountability.
We need to support and stay connected to those who manage to get into the work of the review. At a future point where they might need to leave the process or disassociate themselves from findings and recommendations, they will need the support of their social work community. We need to play smarter as a collective.
We must keep this review in the public eye – the recent decisions on accommodation for 16 and 17 year olds show how vital this is.
We need parliamentarians and journalists to get interested in the issues here – apart from a conversation on social media and within the profession there is just about zero interest more widely.
We need to do all this to ensure that ‘curious notions’ at best, and ‘destabilised perceptions’ at worst, don’t become tomorrow’s ‘dangerous nonsense’.
And above all, as social workers, we need to help care experienced people have their voices heard, support them to get involved and stay the course, and get out of the way when they speak for themselves.
About the Author
A key area of contention in relation to the review of Children’s Social Care has been the issue of conflict of interest, actual and perceived. The first thing to be said is that the views expressed here are entirely my own. That said, and in the context of taking conflict of interest and bias seriously, it is right to set out my own context. I have been a qualified social worker for 27 years working entirely with families and children in Northern Ireland. I am currently a Children’s Services Manager responsible for Action for Children’s regional fostering service in Northern Ireland. I am co-chair of the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership . I am a BASW member and I chaired the Editorial Board of Professional Social Work from 2012-2018. I am an adoptive parent who currently makes use of health and social care services for children.
- For an instructive guide to all things ‘dead cat’ and distraction take a look at Adam Curtis’ prescient short film for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe in 2014 – Oh Dearism II – contains the phrase ‘destabilised perception’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p07c6mjk/adam-curtis-shorts-oh-dearism-ii
- The Gunning Principles were set out by Stephen Sedley QC in a 1985 court case relating to a school closure consultation (R v London Borough of Brent ex parte Gunning) and have subsequently formed a basis for judicial review of the legitimacy of consultations. The principles pose four tests – are the proposals at a formative stage; has sufficient information been given for there to be ‘intelligent consideration’ of what is proposed; is there adequate time for consideration and response; has ‘conscientious consideration’ been given to the consultation responses before a decision has been made? I am very grateful to Dave Milliken, my co-chair of the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership for introducing me to the Gunning Principles in preparing this article.
- Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (March 2021) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974507/20210331_-_CRED_Report_-_FINAL_-_Web_Accessible.pdf
- Evans, K. (2016), Public service markets aren’t working for the public good…or as markets in Kittens are Evil: Little heresies in public policy Pell, C.; Wilson, R. and Lowe, T. Axminster, Devon: Triarchy Press. Public Service Markets Aren’t Working for the Public Good… or as markets | Children England
- As a companion piece on the impact of the financial crash and austerity, and the underlying market/procurement forces that were already in play before 2008, pages 5-17 of Perfect Storms: an analysis of the operating conditions for the children, young people and families voluntary sector (September 2012)by Nick Davies and Kathy Evans from Children England is very useful. Having re-read it recently it could have been written yesterday. Perfect Storms | Children England
- The Belfast Local Engagement Partnership is part of the Northern Ireland Social Work Strategy. The five partnerships share their boundaries with the five NI Health and Social Care Trusts. The partnership brings together social workers and services users to promote and improve social work. The Belfast Partnership is co-chaired by a social worker and a person with experience of using social work services.