Elected representatives must seize back control

The civil servants employed by social services and unaccountable consultants, paid for by our taxes, are abusing the views of those who challenge the double standards with smoke and mirrors tactics.

Nothing better illustrates the difficulties of a reforming minister like Hon Chris Robertshaw MHK when facing the closed ranks of civil servants and those beyond his political control in the growing child protection ‘industry’ about which he reports to Tynwald. On the island its growth is stoked up by hysteria whipped up in the UK media reaching us and by social workers and the other professionals interacting with children locally fearful of making any mistake.

Our people are influenced by UK-based consultants, operating for profit in the private sector. Largely staffed by ex-social workers and others they are now guiding our policy and translating our law into working practice. It is they, not our politicians, who are telling civil servants and others what to do.

The island’s child protection guidance and the actual tools and instructions now reach our frontline social workers from a UK website. This website has become the only authentic source for the correct behaviour when dealing with children at risk or perceived to have a welfare concern. Outsourcing others who are strangers to do our thinking for us also has serious knock on effects. Far from attracting the thoughtful, smart, sensible and good people we need in social services we will end up only with those who blindly follow an off-the-shelf policy.

Following the tragic deaths of two people in the care of social services a Commission of Inquiry in 2006 made 132 recommendations to government. Six years have now gone by and three chief ministers, two DHSS ministers, two social affairs ministers and four ministers of education (and children) have been unable, between them, to effect all the recommendations, which included an independent external inspection.

This is despite a great deal being said about child protection by politicians and huge amounts of money being spent.

This activity included the Children Bill in 2010 which proposed many things including the legal formation of a Children’s Committee and a Safeguarding Children Board (SCB), but it was shelved.

Although this Bill was withdrawn these two bodies had already started work and continue to operate to this day; the latter with a very wide remit of co-ordinating the activities of all those involved – not focusing on child protection – but also with children’s general welfare. It also took on the role of advising the Department of Education and Children on all matters relating to safeguarding.

In 2010 Minister Robertshaw, then an MHK, had been ‘deeply critical of the failings by government to run an effective children and families service’.

After the last election, Minister Robertshaw was appointed to head up the department because of his obvious concern and a determination to improve services. In May this year he told Tynwald that £498,000 to recruit 10 social workers had been followed by a programme which ‘has delivered a marked improvement in the standard of Children and Families Services’ in his department but this is only his opinion, not an independent view.

A UK-based consultant chairs the SCB and, in the dying moments (the last month) of the previous administration – before Minister Robertshaw’s appointment – it was moved from Home Affairs to the Chief Secretary’s Office. This SCB has more power over children’s services than Social Care which is answerable to Tynwald for any problems; and being independent of any department the SCB is unaccountable to any minister, Tynwald and ultimately parents. Thus UK-based consultants – and not those we elected – have control of the pace of change and level of standards set for our ‘best practice’. Despite it having no statutory authority and being unaccountable for its actions, Minister Robertshaw, when asked about policy or timing, had to admit to Tynwald: ‘Any amendments are overseen by the Safeguarding Children’s Board.’ Clearly this body is outside Minister Robertshaw’s political control, so who is responsible for it?

Our present child protection procedures, overseen by the SCB, are resulting in a far higher number of intrusive ‘referrals’ which turn out to have no basis than occurs in England. Is it any wonder our social services are stretched? And that money is being wasted? It would appear this can be laid at the door of the SCB, which answers to no one but itself.

England has adopted more sensible ways of working, following Prof. Munro’s Review there. It respects social workers as valuable human beings who help children, and not mere ‘box tickers’, expected to find problems where they don’t exist .

Way back in 2006 the Council of Ministers resolved that a key feature to drive improvement in child protection would be an Independent External Inspection of Social Services. But having an Inspection and actually passing one are two very different things – and Government obviously wants to make sure it passes.

The English Ofsted’s external inspections are being upgraded and will be ready in mid-2013. Minister Robertshaw has told Tynwald he would prefer regular Ofsted inspections who use unannounced External Inspections and are replacing the broad concept of ‘safeguarding’ with a focus on ‘child protection’.

But the SCB feels Ofsted pursues ‘an overly bureaucratic approach to inspections….and was not felt to be appropriate’ Minister Robertshaw has told Tynwald.

Put another way – if Ofsted do an unannounced Independent External Inspection our services will almost certainly fail.

To avoid this the SCB persuaded the last government – before Minister Robertshaw was even elected – that the Children’s Committee (itself a non-statutory body) to give approval for civil servants to talk to Scotland about doing the inspection. Detailed talks have taken place as if you want to pass an Inspection it always helps to set out your own terms of reference. In fact Tynwald has been told by Minister Robertshaw that yet another independent consultant will be employed to co-ordinate the assessment of the Inspection(!) and present it to Members in 2013.

In midsummer 2013 the external inspection will finally take place but will it really be independent? This activity has been carried out away from those we elected to take charge of our children’s future. Minister Robertshaw has told Tynwald: ‘The officers have affirmed the Scottish system would be the most appropriate.’ Scotland has its own system. It is not based on the Munro child protection principles Tynwald has been told we are adopting here, so how can it be ‘most appropriate’?

Since when did civil servants decide policy? And what will we learn from Scotland inspecting our English-based procedures with which it has no experience?

Will those we elected please seize control back from the unelected consultants we employ, and from those who are supposed to carry out policy, not make it. Is it too much to expect ministers to be in charge and accountable?

Alan Croll

Name and address supplied


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