Don't blame the system - blame the grown-ups

The way social workers feel their work is valued is more important than the most dazzlingly efficient of structures
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The Independent Online

It's become a lazy cliché that liberalism "blames the system". But when it came to the dreadful murder of Victoria Climbie, no one had any doubt that the system was indeed to blame. Little Victoria's plight, under the guardianship of a great-aunt and her boyfriend, had been noted by four London boroughs, two hospitals, two police child protection teams and a specialist unit run by the NSPCC. None of this scrutiny by experts with a duty of care resulted in a positive intervention, even though it was later estimated that there were no fewer than 12 opportunities to make different decisions and save Victoria's life.

Even Victoria's parents, praised for their dignity during Lord Laming's exhaustive inquiry into the death of their daughter, blamed the system. They themselves had sent their daughter far away from her home on the Ivory Coast, and put her under the care of people who had abused the eight-year-old until she died. The couple later told the press that they had forgiven Marie Therese Kouao, the family member who did this to their child, but that they were considering suing the agencies they considered to be responsible for her death.

Eager to ensure that the lasting memorial to the death of Victoria was that such a terrible crime should never be allowed to happen again, the Government too has blamed the system. In its Green Paper, published yesterday, it outlines some changes to the system, all aimed at breaking down the Chinese walls of administrative obfuscation that have traditionally bedevilled children's services.

The headline innovation is the appointment of a children's commissioner, something that various charities have long been calling for. Other new ideas include the widespread inclusion of social workers on school premises - a step that is long overdue.

As for the overhaul of the entire, blamed, system, this is already under way. Some time ago, even before the Laming report was complete, the Government outlined the framework under which a new system, or perhaps several new systems would emerge.

The Government's strategy rests on the creation of children's trusts, which will be run by local governments and which will work to ensure that children's services are co-ordinated to bridge the gaps in the care system. The trusts will bring together health, education and social services for children, young people and families. Some 80 councils have expressed an interest in running trusts, while 35 have already had their pitches approved. In three years these various pilot schemes - which do not have prescriptive structures but instead will be allowed to evolve at a local level - will be evaluated in the hope that best-practice models will emerge.

Perhaps paradoxically, though, while the Green Paper is all about systems, the manner of its presentation places emphasis on the over-riding importance not of systems, but of individuals.

First there's the controversial fact that the Green Paper has been ready for publication since July. It was put back, the Government says, because the Prime Minister felt it was so important that he wished to present it himself and did not have time to do so until now.

Critics, maybe cynical ones, say that the real reason for this is to sideline the Minister for Children, Margaret Hodge. Her promotion earlier this year was engulfed in controversy when social workers accused her of failing to act when head of Islington council to stop systematic child abuse in the London borough during the 1970s and 80s.

Again, the interesting thing here is that the emphasis is on not the system but the individual. It was an important step to create the job of Minister for Children. But the fact that the Government was so certain that only Mrs Hodge could fill this role is significant. It was clear that her new position would generate criticism, but Mr Blair went ahead with the appointment.

The Government's argument, and Mrs Hodge's own, was that ever since those dreadful days on Islington Council, Mrs Hodge, horrified by her own mistakes, had immersed herself in issues around the care of vulnerable children. Far from disqualifying her from being Minister for Children, the failures of her past meant that Mrs Hodge was uniquely qualified to do this job, went the argument.

Yet whatever the rights and wrongs of any of this, one thing is clear in this silly mess. However much the Government claims to put its faith in good, well-run systems, it prefers to put its own trust in individuals, sometimes to a ludicrous degree. The result has been that even the system whereby legislative change is presented to Parliament has been compromised by these childish grown-ups who need to keep their friends nearby.

Yet oddly, sadly, it is the individuals who will have to populate these new systems, however they evolve, who are missing from the Green Paper. There is some talk of training and flexibility. But there is no acknowledgement of the really vexed questions facing the social work profession - how to attract staff, how to motivate and inspire them, and how to retain them.

Around 48 per cent of councils are reporting difficulties in recruiting children's social workers, and the turnover rate in the profession is 13.3 per cent. Many London boroughs struggle on under the same duress as the departments that failed Victoria were under: staffing shortages, low morale and a crippling reliance on agency workers instead of committed staff.

For those areas - typically the ones most in need of good social care - which suffer the most in this way, there will be over the next few years some new competition. The 35 lucky councils that have managed to galvanise themselves into becoming trailblazers for the new systems will surely attract the most dynamic staff. Some or all of these new organisations will be successful. But whether their success can be replicated across a nation that has such a negative relationship with those who do the social dirty work is quite another matter.

In all the public services, these sorts of enduring difficulties can be seen. Whether it is the police force, teachers, doctors, social workers, or whoever, the problem is that the individual feels more and more a cog in the wheel, a part of the machinery, subservient to the dominance not of people working hard and using their skills, but of the system.

All of the caring professions complain about how much the system needs feeding, how much of their time is taken up with form-filling, administration and training, and how little of it spent doing what they joined their particular profession to do. Many professionals complain bitterly too about the endless changes that occur within their systems, how nothing is ever left alone, how innovation continues almost for its own sake.

Perhaps these latest attempts to reform the child protection services will be crowned with success. Perhaps no crime like the murder of Victoria Climbie will happen again.

But perhaps the thing missing from these latest attempts to bring positive change is the acknowledgement that the people doing the jobs, their own attitudes to their work, and they way they feel their work is valued in turn by government and by the wider society, is far more important than the most dazzlingly efficient of systems.

Social workers, like the rest of those in the public services, need to understand, far more than they need to understand systems, that they are not the problem, but instead are the people who try to clear up society's problems. For that, they should be given respect. Instead, they are treated like rusty cogs in a broken wheel, and sometimes, tragically, respond in kind.