The Orkney Inquiry: Results of Fife inquiry published

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The Independent Online
A THREE-YEAR inquiry into the policies pursued by Fife regional council in Scotland in its social work department reached its formal conclusion yesterday with the publication of an 800-page report.

It is thought to centre on disagreements among local officials involved in child care over a policy of keeping children in their own homes under supervision, rather than taking them into care.

Conducted behind closed doors by Sheriff Brian Kearney, it is estimated by Henry McLeish, the Labour MP for Fife Central, to have cost pounds 4m.

The report, one of the longest in Scottish legal history, has inevitably taken a secondary role to the Orkney report. However, the relevance of its findings has no less importance for the future of social workers and Scotland's under-16 child care system.

Fife's child care was said to be too 'hands-off'. The origins of the concern in Fife and the ordering of the inquiry by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Scotland, centred on the social work department where changes had been introduced by a new director, Allan Bowman. He emphasised care for children 'within the community' and regarded too much reliance on children's homes and institutional care as 'old fashioned'.

The policies he introduced were thought to have alienated other agencies involved in child care, including the region's education department and in particular the Scottish children's hearing system.

The policy in Fife was, according to the report, placed on 'keeping families together when this could be done without risk'. In his report Sheriff Kearney states that this policy was being followed not as an example of 'good child-care practice' but as a 'radical and controversial programme aimed at the pursuit of the doctrinaire end of reducing at almost any cost the number of children in care'.

The detail of Sheriff Kearney's investigations and the length of his inquiry was widely criticised. However, although the Scottish Office effectively claimed the Fife report to be 'local', when combined with the findings of Lord Clyde's Orkney report it will give an impetus to a re-evaluation of how agencies involved in child protection are currently carrying out their duties.

Criticism of the leadership of Fife's social work department resulted in an 'unwillingness to take account of warning signals', and there were 'misunderstandings as to the role and professional responsibilities of a social worker engaged in the complex field of child care'.

Sheriff Kearney states that in gathering his evidence there were suggestions that the problems encountered in Fife 'were encountered elsewhere in Scotland'.