Minister pledges to improve the quality of staff

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The Independent Online
A Government minister yesterday promised to give residential child care a higher status so that suitable, better qualified people are attracted to the job.

Welcoming the Kirkwood report, Tim Yeo, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health, said: 'We have accepted recommendations for better qualified people to run children's homes. It will be harder for others to follow the likes of Frank Beck: we have tightened the legislation considerably with the Children Act. But in the end it does depend on constant vigilance in the way staff are selected and recruited and the way complaints for children are handled.'

Endorsing Mr Yeo's comments, Brian Waller, Leicestershire's director of social services, said: 'Residential care has been a Cinderella service for more than two decades. It has become a backwater which is used as a last resort when everything else fails.' Homes had been staffed by people who were unqualified, lowly paid and badly managed, he said.

David Prince, chief executive, said the council had embarked on a development programme to improve the care of children through enhancing the status of social workers and attracting high-calibre staff.

Calls for a social services council to prevent paedophiles 'playing the system' were repeated by the National Institute for Social Work. Such a body would stem similar abuses by issuing licences for all social workers, including residential care staff, and would provide an independent avenue of complaint.

A formal proposal for a general social services council was made to the Department of Health last month by social services, local authority and trade union representatives. Initial government response was described as 'cautious'.

Daphne Statham, of the National Institute for Social Work, said the proposed council would plug the loopholes in the system which Beck exploited. 'What Frank Beck and a number of others have done very effectively is to play the system by moving to a job in another area when people get suspicious. Under the current system, when they resign investigations cease. . .

'The proposed council would check that by keeping a record of any suspicious circumstances when someone moved on, and that suspicion would follow them to their next employment.'

Dick Clough, of the Social Care Association, which represents residential and care staff, said the inquiry showed how experienced people such as Beck could run regimes unchallenged. 'If he had been questioned by the police four times and if the local authority was not listening to complaints someone could have contacted the council, had it existed, and it could have been investigated.'

Peter Smallridge, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said the report by Andrew Kirkwood QC, 'should draw the line under what has been a sickening, though fortunately rare, example of a thoroughly unpleasant person gaining access to young children'.

He commended Leicestershire social services for improving child protection following the Beck case by establishing comprehensive complaints procedures, appointing children's rights officers and tightening appointment procedures.

But the British Association of Social Workers voiced fears that yesterday's report would give rise to counter-productive bureaucracy in children's homes. Gwen Swire, assistant general secretary, said: 'If you're looking after kids 24 hours a day you can't rush to a manual to see what you can and can't do when a kid is going bananas. You may end up preventing staff from doing a good job.'