After the Government announced their response to Josh MacAlister’s ‘Review of Children’s Social Care’, AoCPP Trustee - Dr Ciaran Murphy -speaks to BBC Radio West Midlands about the inadequacy of the response and the current state of England's children's social care system.
On the 2nd February, 2023, I was asked by the Association of Child Protection Professionals (AoCPP) (for whom I am a Trustee) to provide an interview to BBC Radio West Midlands ‘Drive’ on the ‘state of England’s children’s social care system’. The interview was timely given that Government had, that day, announced their long-awaited response to Josh MacAlister’s ‘Review of Children’s Social Care’ – with a headline announcement that £200m would be invested in improving England’s children’s social care system over the next two years.
The interviewer, Paul Franks, began the interview by drawing my attention to a comment made by Arthur Labinjo-Hughes grandfather Peter Halcrow, that when Arthur was visited by social workers before his death, they had assessed that because his house was ‘clean’, ‘there was nothing to worry about’. Of course, we now know that Arthur was being systematically abused by his father and step-mother – abuse that ended in his appalling murder in June 2020. Peter also rightly observed that if social workers had ‘lifted up [Arthur’s] shirt and seen the bruising… then they might have thought otherwise’. This led Paul Franks to ask me: ‘[Social workers] went round to the house, saw everything was clean, and so thought everything was ok – is that what people in social care do? Surely, they should be looking at the child, not the house’.
Those who listened to the interview perhaps spotted that I was quite taken aback by the question. My initial response was to express my regret at the terrible circumstances of Arthur’s death (I also retrospectively wish that I had passed on my explicit support and concern for the extended members of Arthurs family – like Peter – who, before his death, had tried desperately to raise the alarm). I then also pointed out that, despite repeated narratives to the contrary, England’s child protection system remains one of the best and most effective in the world, with thousands of success stories that we are not able to talk about (due, in the main, to important privacy and confidentiality safeguards that protect the identities of the children concerned – safeguards that they rightly deserve).
I also pointed out that the many incidents of success within the system, are despite its chronic underfunding dating back to 2010 – which can be aligned to successive Governments’ national policy of Austerity. As one example, I highlighted the case of a
Greater Manchester local authority, who, between 2010 and 2020, were compelled to cut their Children’s Services budget (notwithstanding school spending – which is ringfenced and protected by law) by an astonishing 82%. The £100m saved by this local authority (in the main by closing early help and preventative services like Sure Start Centres and the Youth Service provision) had purportedly saved them £100m over that 10-year period – a figure that I failed to point out is half the total amount that the Government has committed to ‘fix’ the Children’s Social Care System.
I went on to say that the repeated cuts to preventive and ‘early help’ services seen all around the country since 2010 (as children’s services departments try to save money under the auspices of ‘Austerity’), had driven more and more families into crisis – placing huge increased demand on an already overstretched child protection system. This, in combination with the restricted finances, has led to a massive increase in caseloads (with averages numbering more than double that which Herbert Laming, following his review into the death of Victoria Climbié, recommended should be considered a maximum ‘safe’ level).
I told Paul Franks that what this meant for frontline social workers was that they were repeatedly being spread ‘too thinly’, with feelings often shared that they ‘don’t have enough time to spend with individual children’. I also explained that in such a situation, it was inevitable that things would be missed, and that children whose unique circumstances did not fit neatly within predefined cohorts (like Arthur), would be especially susceptible to slipping through the ‘proverbial net of protection’.
Paul then asked me if in this context, the £200m committed by the Government was ‘just a drop in the ocean’, in respect to ‘what is needed’. My response was to point out that this figure is less than 8% of the minimum £2.6b identified as being required by the (Government commissioned) Review of Children’s Social Care. Moreover, it is less than 5% of the minimum amount that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services say that we need to get the system back to the place of safe operation. On this basis, I quoted a colleague at the AoCPP, whose one-word assessment also summed up my own thoughts: ‘inadequate’.
I finished the interview by asserting that until we as a country properly financially invest in the services that support children in care and in need of protection, it is inevitable that more tragedies (like that of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes) will occur, and more difficult questions will continue to be retrospectively asked of workers, service providers, and national government.
-Dr Ciaran Murphy
To listen to the full radio interview click here (interview starts at 3:08:30).