HC Deb 13 July 1987 vol 119 cc895-912 5.27 am
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I listened with considerable attention to the interesting attempt to separate the men from the buoys. I am delighted that there is little danger of your becoming automated, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I am to step out of order, I would far rather have your eyes flashing at me in disapproval than some automated blinker.

The point of the debate is to try to clear up some of the misunderstandings about social workers which I do not think it is unfair to suggest are shared by some hon. Members and are widely held by the public. For that reason, it is a sensible subject to raise in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill even if I were the only hon. Member to speak. I am delighted, however, to see the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) here to add their considerable understanding to the debate.

I speak partly as the outgoing chairman of the parliamentary panel for personal and social services, but I do not expect—I do not think that I am qualified—to dazzle the cognoscenti of the social worker world. I hope that any experts who read what I have to say will not be too contemptuous of the simplicity of my approach.

What is a social worker? Twenty four thousand 800 qualified and unqualified social workers are employed by social service departments in England and Wales—one for every 1,900 persons. This exludes the probation officers, who are also social workers, but who are in a different service. This compares with one general practitioner for every 2,000 persons in England and one police constable for every 550 persons.

By no means are all social workers young and inexperienced. For a long time there was a belief that most social workers were dolly birds with neither experience nor good training. One third of the intake to the certificate of social service training courses at the start of a career are aged between 35 and 44. The spread of age thoughout the profession is comparable to that in any other profession.

Social workers are to be found mostly in social service departments, but around 16 per cent. of them work in the voluntary sector, some work in private practice and some are attached to the armed services. It is perhaps also worth saying in this child's guide to the profession, that where teachers have pupils and doctors have patients, social workers, like lawyers, have clients.

Social workers mostly do what Parliament tells them to do. More than 36 principal Acts govern their work. We in the House shower regulations upon them as if we wanted to give them some sort of ticker tape welcome. Their duties include the requirement to help children either in trouble or at risk of being so, both in their own homes and when removed from their homes and to help disabled and handicapped people in residential care and in their own homes. The pressure to empty the huge institutions not only moves an individual from residential care into the community but also transfers financial responsibility from the National Health Service to local authorities.

It is worth noting that efficiency improvements in the hospital services, such as the faster turnround of patients and the greater use of hospital beds, throws added burdens on to social service departments, usually with no additional resources allocated to meet them. They also have a duty to help to look after the elderly. This is a rapidly growing source of demand that is outrunning the provision of resources. Our present Ministers have done a great deal to get more resources in real terms, but in 1984–85—the last year for which I have figures—the number of meals provided, the number of home-help hours and the number of local authority-supported residents in old people's homes had fallen to 91 per cent., 85 per cent., and 74 per cent. respectively of the 1978–79 levels. What is more, the age of the elderly has increased. In my own constituency, Kent County Council spends 85 per cent. of its budget for the elderly on the over-85s.

The clients of social services departments are disproportionately from among the poor and disadvantaged, but we should remember that thousands of clients have difficulties that have little or nothing to do with being poor and the tendency, prevalent in our society, to attach importance to a service relative to what one might quote as the importance of its clientele has only to be described to be seen to be disgraceful.

What sort of people are social workers? Social workers are taught that it is more important to listen than to talk, more important to assist a client to work out his or her own solution than to direct and better to help a client identify and use their own or their family resources than to depend on outside help. As the Barclay report said: The aim of social workers will always be to create a relationship with their clients so that the tasks are accomplished in partnership by people who share some measure of trust and understanding. If that is the goal, social work will attract into its ranks men and women who are different from most recruits into other professions, even those concerned directly with helping others. Many policemen will get caught up in the complexity of human motivation or the subtleties of cultural difference hut, on the whole, police recruits want to be able easily to differentiate right from wrong and to see that the wrongdoer is caught and punished.

For many lawyers, it is precisely the ability to separate the key issues in a legal dispute and to achieve the best for their client that is their strength. To weigh one family member's interests against another is often to betray that trust. That is why our adversarial legal system often exacerbates family disputes.

If, as has been said, social workers will always be bound to put into practice in their work a respect for persons and to see other people in all the complexity of their life, relationships and environment", it is small wonder if they sometimes come, like Voltaire, to believe: "Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonnez." Therein lies another danger.

If one has a profession that not only recruits compassionate people in the first place but then spends much of their training teaching them how to ensure that their clients receive all the resources to which they are entitled, encourages them to develop family and community networks of support and to become more articulate and effective in standing up for themselves, its members will naturally tend to become the champions of the poor, the deprived and the powerless. Indeed, for many social workers that becomes a major role and many critics of social work base their attacks on a perception that individual social workers are less effective in pursuing that role than they feel they ought to be.

I believe that that places social workers in a serious double jeopardy. It leads many of them into accepting a narrow and often transiently fashionable view of what are and are not acceptable policies. For example, many social workers seem to believe that public provision of services is incontrovertibly superior to private provision. I have met social workers who seem to think that if a pensioner, for example, chooses to pay for private residential accommodation and outlives his or her capacity to keep up the payments they should be, as it were, punished by being put much further back in the queue for local authority help than someone who, for whatever reason, has never made the effort to contribute in that way. That has to be nonsense.

If, on the whole, people in Britain are to continue to enjoy the rising real incomes and stability of personal savings that the Government have delivered successfully over the past eight years, the partnership between private resources and public funds has to be accepted joyfully and effectively defined and developed. There is also the danger of undermining one of the objectives of good case work; the liberation of a client to enable him or her once again to determine their own future. If the habit of blaming the system becomes too ingrained, it can easily lead to ignoring altogether the part played by some clients in the creation of their own difficulties.

It is noteworthy that that theme never appears in, for example, the classic study of study work practice, the Barclay report. Not only is it bad social work; it is bad politics. It hands to those who do not want to know the real condition of the poor a perfect excuse for not listening to the voice of social work when it is raised on their behalf. That is one reason I welcome the decision of the four professional associations to establish the parliamentary panel and why I have been pleased to play a small part in it.

It is not only appropriate but necessary for social workers to inform Government and the public about the work that they do and the conditions in which they do it. I am equally sure that that task has to be performed with accuracy, relevance and as clear an understanding as possible of the practical choices open to Government and to social services departments. For far too long, medicine or the economics of benefit have dominated discussions of policies that are directed at improving the conditions of the least fortunate in society. It is high time that social work and social services played a role proportionate to their importance. Yet social workers are required by Parliament frequently to act both as rationers and gatekeepers, on behalf of the taxpayer saying no to clients' demands for more benefit or better services. More often than not, it is their decision whether a child stays at home or is taken into care, whether an old person gets a place in a home or stays with the exhausted carer, or whether a mentally handicapped person stays in an institution or goes out into the community.

They are powerful decisions, and are seen by the public to be so. Moreover, if a decision goes badly wrong—if a child who is kept with a family suffers abuse or dies—the press and the public will not hesitate to vilify a social worker. They will instantly forget that, yesterday, they enjoyed articles that lambasted social workers for destroying homes and removing parents' rights. They will seldom remember that social work is dangerous. In the past three years, four social workers were killed on duty. That is more than the number of police deaths. Few field workers have not been physically assaulted in the course of their work. Frightened social workers must find it even harder to do the sensitive work of finding the strengths in a client group and helping someone to build on them to climb out of their personal abyss.

The present furore about child abuse will, I hope, be salutary and bring everyone's attention to bear on the muddle that is society's attitude to its own members. I welcome the appointment that was announced today of a senior woman judge to examine the issues raised in Cleveland. I have no intention of seeking to prejudge them here, but I will say that, in Britain, we have nugatory training for people in how to be parents, nugatory support networks for parents, and severe restraints on the right of anyone to intervene between parents and their children.

When one in three marriages ends in divorce and stepparents multiply, these deficiencies are daunting. When we add to them the fact that every social worker knows that when a child is taken from his home, his chances of returning satisfactorily to it diminish sharply after a mere six weeks and become sadly dim after 12 months, it is hardly surprising that they are reluctant to remove a child in the first instance. That is why the work of the interdepartmental working party reviewing the legislation on children is important. It seeks to define the sort of partnership between a local authority and parents, which holds out some hope of a successful outcome for a child who is taken into care for a period.

It also seeks a system that will cut down the delay in working out a proper arrangement. At present, the system can take nine months or more to deliver a proper regime of care for a child who is at risk. What is more, many of us feel strongly that the present adversarial system for dealing with children's cases is wholly inappropriate. When I worked in Scotland, I played a part in the introduction of children's hearings—a largely non-adversarial system for trying rapidly to reach an agreed regime for children in trouble.

Will the Minister tell us when we can expect real progress towards a similar system in England and Wales? Call it a family court or whatever, but we need something.

There are other burning issues in social work; one is training. For five long and substantially confused years, the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work has argued about a third year of training for professional social workers. Ministers are soon to pronounce on their latest and, I have to say, much their best version of its proposals. I think that the new director and chairman of the central council are some of the best news for social work for a long time.

Everyone agrees that social workers need more training; everyone agrees that the present mix of CSS and CQSW is unsatisfactory. The question is whether a combined pre-entry training lasting some three years, and adding some £40 million to the training bill, is the best solution. It is the solution that the Beckford inquiry pressed for. Would it be better to offer the third year later and, if that were the decision, would it be honoured in practice? We also know that between 80 ad 90 per cent. of all residential staff have no professional qualifications. What can and should be done about that? Perhaps the Minister will give us some clues this morning.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Is there not a risk of putting too much emphasis upon technical and professional qualifications and too little emphasis upon common sense?

Mr. Rowe

One person's common sense is another person's prejudice, but one has to be extremely wary of being mesmerised by training. I remember Lord Kilbrandon saying: "If we are not careful, the way we are going now, we will have to have a qualification before helping an old woman across the road." But I take my hon. Friend's point. Ther is a substantial risk that qualified social workers constantly run into problems with which they are unable to cope.

I ask whether they would be better off having a longer pre-entry time for training, or whether it would be better to have the extra time later in their career when they have hit their head on the ceiling with their knowledge once or twice before they absorb any more. That is a serious question about which there is considerable division in the social work world, although the present proposals by the central council have been welcomed by social workers.

Then there is accountability. At its crudest, what is to be done about the unfit social worker and about the use of the term 'social worker', which at present describes anyone, including bricklayers? I have just seen an advertisement of a bricklayer building a wall and being called a social worker because he is doing it in an inner city. The term 'social worker' covers everyone from bricklayers to agony aunts.

Many people in social work believe that the time has come for the Government to create a social work council which will be empowered to regulate the profession. But there are hazards in the proposal. If it were still further to undervalue the non-professionally qualified people in social work, or if it should occupy itself with trade union matters rather than the broad sweep of social work professionalism, it would become like the stick in the fairy tale, which the scolding old woman summoned out of the sack, to her lasting chastisement. Yet it is surely strange that a major profession should have so little control over its affairs. I should be glad to hear from the Minister some of her thoughts on that.

Two other matters and then I am done. The first concerns one of the central tenets of social work practice; working with others and making maximum use of all resources. The Cleveland affair has demonstrated dramatically the importance of different professions working together to a common end, but it should be the same in all facets of social work.

There is no doubt, for example, that in developing community care the closest co-operation between professions, voluntary organisations and members of the public is absolutely essential. In my part of Kent we have so far achieved miracles of rehabilitation for many clients as they leave hospital for a place in the community. It is all due to skilful and dedicated working together.

That is why I was appalled to learn that in some areas, health authorities, suddenly aware that they are losing resources and influence as patients turn into clients, are establishing separate, health-dominated community care systems. Even worse, Mr. Utting—chief social work inspector at the Department of Health and Social Services—told the parliamentary panel for personal social services that not only did he not know that, but he probably never would have known of it as it was of no direct concern to the Department. I ask the Minister to comment on that potentially disastrous waste of resources and on the Department's role in preventing that.

I wish to draw attention to the huge importance of both the voluntary sector and the volunteers to social workers and their clients. Simply to mention the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Dr. Barnado's, Age Concern or the Spastics Society is sufficient to remind the House how rich we are in devotion and expertise outside Government ranks. I mightily applaud the growing willingness of social services departments not only to work with voluntary organisations, but to clarify and define their mutual roles. Volunteers form a vein of ever-richer value, whether that is tapped by organisations such as Community Service Volunteers or directly by social services departments and hospital authorities. One person in five in Britain already offers help on a regular—at least monthly—basis.

It is devoutly to be hoped that the process will continue as more and more people have disposable time, disposable income and varied skills and experience to offer, and at a much earlier stage in their career than hitherto. Social workers will need to become ever more skilful at working with them. In that way society can, perhaps, go some way towards healing itself. For far too long we have cared with our voices, clamouring for someone to do something about the problems that are too complex, too distressing, too messy or too dangerous for us to face. That someone has usually been the social worker, trying desperately to meet the conflicting demands made of him by the prejudices, fears and carelessness of the rest of us. We in Parliament, like the rest of society, owe a great deal to social workers. Above all, we owe them understanding and support in their difficult role.

5.52 am
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on his profoundly thoughtful speech in the debate that he initiated on social workers. It is of value to the House and the country that, from time to time, hon. Members enter into the discussion on the work of certain specialised professions. My hon. Friend has done that in depth, and we are in his debt.

I wish to share my hon. Friend's general tribute to social workers and the value of their work both to the community and to individuals in need of their help. I hope that my hon. Friend did not mind my intervention. We live in a society that places undue emphasis on professional qualifications. Of course people need to be good at their jobs, and of course they need to know how to do them. There must be some means of testing to be sure that they know how to do them, and that is the purpose of a professional qualification. However, a professional qualification is a necessary, but not in itself a sufficient; condition of being able to do a job well. In addition, to do a complicated and important job people need gift, flair, insight and wisdom, and those cannot come solely from book learning, technical expertise or even from experience. They must also owe something to talent. Nowhere is this more necessary than in social work. We are all aware of the difficulties under which social workers have to operate and of how easy it is, with hindsight, to be critical when things go wrong. We are all aware of the special need for insight as well as professional qualifications.

I wish to refer to a constituency case involving social workers. For the past few days a little girl aged four and a half years has been in the burns unit of Queen Mary's hospital, Roehampton, having been badly scalded by boiling water. The case is distressing and worrying, and yesterday I felt it necessary to draw the facts, as far as I knew them, to the attention of the Twickenham police.

Just over a year ago the social services department of the Richmond upon Thames borough council was warned that the little girl in question, Joy Scott Chaney, could be in danger. The warning came from a highly responsible and respected person who runs an excellent playgroup. Having noticed a considerable amount of bruising on the child, this lady was sufficiently concerned to bring the matter to the attention of the social services department of the Richmond upon Thames borough council.

A circular had been sent by the council to all independent playgroup proprietors. It said: If you have any concern about a child in your care, please contact the social work team for your area. That is exactly what the lady did. A case conference was called. I quote from the case papers: On the evening of 27 June 1986 the playgroup proprietor whom I shall not now name telephoned Mrs. Dolton, an assistant day-care advisor, to express concern about serious bruising that her staff had noticed on Joy's arms and abdomen in the course of the week. Mrs. Dolton subsequently referred the matter to the Twickenham intake team for investigation. On 30 June 1986, Mr. Burridge, duty social worker, visited the kindergarten and was informed that frequent bruising had been noted on the child during recent months and recorded in a note book by staff as follows:

  • 24 April 1986—Very severe bruising noted on Joy's forehead. Father stated that she had tripped over his foot whilst out shopping.
  • 28 April—Joy covered in bruises, some very livid, behind her left knee especially.
  • 6 May—New bruising noted on child's arms, two the size of a 5p coin on the front of her arms just above her elbows and smaller, less distinct ones in a row on the back of her arm.
  • 15 May—New bruise noted in the mid-back of the left thigh.
  • 19 May—Large bruise and lump noted on forehand and graze on nose. Child stated that she fell over whilst at somebody else's house.
  • 13 June—Large bruises noted on the child's legs on return from holiday. Mother informed staff that there was `nothing to worry about' and that Joy was unhappy and just needed to settle again.
  • 17 June—Bruising on front of Joy's legs, especially around her knees. (She was wearing thick tights.) There was also bruising on her left inner ribs, the size of a 5p coin.
  • 27 June—Fresh bruising noted on the middle of child's back and more on the right side of her waist. Also a very nasty bruise the size of a large egg on the right side at front waist level and more on her thighs the size of a lop coin. Whilst at the kindergarten Mr. Burridge noted the extent of bruising on the child on a skin map, having observed Joy at play."
At a subsequent conference, two weeks after the previous case conference—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order; I can barely hear the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel).

Mr. Jessel

At a subsequent conference, medical opinion suggested that the bruising could have been caused entirely by a blood condition. However, medical opinion in this matter is not unanimous.

Yesterday I showed the papers to a distinguished doctor, the former dean of a medical school of one of the great London teaching hospitals. He was thus responsible for the training of hundreds of doctors. He was highly sceptical of the suggestion that so much bruising, occurring in a short time of a few weeks, could be explained solely in terms of a blood condition coupled with ordinary childhood collisions.

On the face of it, it appears that the view of the former dean of the medical school was one of common sense. The doctor who examined the child was a junior doctor, a registrar, with nowhere near consultant status. That doctor should not have had the last word. I believe that in such sensitive matters we should all make a point of remembering the wise advice of Sir Winston Churchill: Experts should be kept on tap and not on top. A second case conference decided that the child's name should not be placed on the child abuse register—based on the advice of the doctor to whom I have just referred. The child's health and development were to be monitored by out-patient appointments at the West Middlesex hospital and by the general practitioner and the community health services. It was agreed that there was to be no on-going social work involvement as the parents are opposed to such intervention". I believe that this last decision was wrong.

Once it was decided not to place the child on the child abuse list, there was insufficient follow-up by the Richmond upon Thames social services department. Little if anything was done to inform the infant school attended by the child that the child may have been in danger. It has since become clear that both the head of that infant school, Stanley road infant school at Teddington and the nursery class teacher had cause to feel somewhat worried about the child during the ensuring year.

I am concerned that when the child was taken into hospital with severe scalding the social services department was not informed. It appears that, following the two case conferences, there was an element of complacency in the social services department of the borough council about the dangers that the child faced.

I do not think that anyone can criticise the playgroup proprietor for referring the case to me. She is a responsible person, the wife of a solicitor, and her playgroup is of first-class repute. That lady had first gone through the proper procedures by referring the case to the borough council. With her experience and knowledge of small children, she had felt cause for continuing concern about this child, and events have tragically proved her right.

I hope that the borough council will look into its procedures to see what can be done to reduce the risk to other children. I ask also that my hon. Friend make inquiries about what happened, with a view to preventing any recurrence.

6.5 am

Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I first say how much I welcome the fact that you have taken the Chair and say what a pleasure it will be to speak in this debate with you presiding over it. I should like to welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) has chosen this as the subject of his debate.

In 1982 Peter Barclay said that social workers had two main functions—the organisation of social work and counselling. That remains the case today but th demands that are being made on social workers and the context in which they carry out those two functions are altering dramatically. Social workers are required to paper over the cracks in an increasingly divided society.

The cruel increase in unemployment subjects families to stresses and strains that lead to increasing demands, which need an increasing response from social workers. The increasing demands that are placed by unemployment on social work are recognised by the Association of Directors of Social Services, by the British Association of Social Workers and by many other professional organisations.

The dramatic increase in the number of people who are dependent on benefits means more work for social workers as they try to help people who are struggling on inadequate incomes. The deteriorating conditions in the inner cities mean that more people turn to social workers for help. Social workers may, for example, try to help a family through a crisis that is caused by inadequate housing. In my own constituency I know that social workers are increasingly involved in desperate attempts by families who are under pressure and who are trying to get rehoused in a situation where the housing pool is disintegrating rather than increasing. In the inner cities, social workers are often called upon, for example, to help a woman who has become addicted to tranquillisers that might have become necessary initially because of anxiety caused by repeatedly being burgled. In the inner cities, social workers are often called upon to help youngsters who are starting to drop out of school and who start to sniff glue.

I am talking not only about an increase in the work load of social workers but about work that is becoming more stressful, difficult and frustrating as the circumstances of their clients become more and more difficult. As the hon. Member for Mid-Kent said, social workers are increasingly subject to attack. We know that the incidence of attacks by clients on their social workers has increased dramatically. I do not believe that we know the full extent of that because social workers are reluctant to report such incidents because they want to encourage and help their clients. They are trained to put themselves second and not to speak out about their own problems. Therefore, I do not think that we know the full extent of physical attacks on social workers. There should be some initiative to collect information nationally about the level of those attacks which are of growing concern.

Social workers go—and must go—to places where even the postman is not prepared to go and where the milkman may have ceased delivery. Doctors will not visit certain estates, yet it is expected that social workers will go, often on their own, into people's homes, in circumstances in which many other professionals or employees would not go. I hope that the Minister may take the opportunity to report to us on the progress of the inquiry into the death of Isobel Schwatz.

I have already mentioned the increase in the problems caused by Government policy that cause problems for the clients whom the social workers help to look after. Demographic changes have also increased the work load for social workers. Obviously, we welcome the fact that people with disabilities have a much greater survival rate, but that often means that they need more help. People are living a great deal longer, which means that more people need social work help, even if it is only to assess their need of other services.

Mr. Rowe

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is 11 years since Amelia Harris did her great study on old people? Does she agree that our understanding of old people in need, particularly the statistics for them, is badly in need of updating?

Ms. Harman

Absolutely. We are dealing with a whole range of statistics which are out of date because of the shape of the population and the increasing number, not only of elderly people, but of very elderly people.

The changes in the approach to social work, most of which are welcome, have also increased the responsibility on social workers. It has been recognised that services must be more consumer friendly which has meant allowing those who need the services to plan and choose their services. Obviously, that requires social workers to be more flexible in allowing their clients to have a say, which places extra demands on social workers. That change from handing out paternalistic, patronising, pre-packaged services, as was sometimes the case in the past, has placed an extra demand on social workers.

It has been recognised that greater help must be given to carers and that social work departments cannot leave people who are caring for elderly or disabled relatives on their own and excluded from social services. That again, has opened up a whole new area of demand on social workers. Care in the community, as the Government are currently operating it, has cast on to the shoulders of already over-committed social workers the responsibility for supporting in the community people who would previously have been in residential care. I know that it causes social workers great anxiety that they have the responsibility of assessing the needs of someone who is moving into the community from an institution and of smoothing that path when the social workers do not have adequate back-up facilities in the social work department to make the transition an easy one for all concerned.

Several steps in relation to social work are overdue. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent mentioned the funding of a third year of social work training. Obviously, we all believe that social workers should have common sense and we can all think of examples where more common sense was needed, but that does not mean that we should ignore the growing consensus for a third year of training. If it is right to demand high standards of professionalism arid competence, it is right to recognise the training implications of those demands.

It is also important to provide sufficient funding to social work departments to meet the additional problems that I have identified as arising from unemployment, poverty and the extra responsibilities of community care. The Government have had rather a cheek in claiming the credit for an increase in spending on personal social services when that increase has been largely in Labour-controlled authorities which have refused to make cuts arid insisted on improving and expanding services to meet the growing demands.

It is outrageous for the Government on the one hand to tell social services departments to spend less, and on the other hand to claim the credit when spending by social services departments improves. The Government cannot have it both ways. I accept the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent about the general social work council, and that point needs more attention and discussion. It is certainly heading in the right direction.

I want to make several brief points about child abuse and child care. The public must choose whether they want a witch hunt or good social policy. I believe that we cannot have both. At the moment there appears to by hysteria and witch hunts, rather than a sensible discussion of child care policy. The hysteria and witch hunting that developed following the tragic death of Jasmine Beckford are now developing in Cleveland. It provides a climate in which it is impossible to make sensible and calm judgments about what is in the best interests of individual children and in which direction the policy for helping children at risk should lead.

I know that it is difficult not to be emotive, because we are talking about vulnerable children who cannot speak up for themselves and the topic invokes revulsion in everyone. On the other hand, we are also concerned with the rights of parents to bring up their own children and the terror that can be struck in parents' hearts at the thought that a child will be taken away. This is an emotive issue, but it is important that we do not allow a climate of hysteria to be whipped up.

It is also a shame that no parliamentary time has yet been set aside for child care law reform. There is a wide concensus about the work that has been carried out in that area and parliamentary time should be set aside for implementing those plans.

It is also a shame that there is no firm proposal yet on when we are to see the introduction of family courts. Some of us feel like parrots, as we have to raise this issue so often. The problem is that there is no longer any reason not to introduce family courts. There is unprecedented agreement on the need for such courts and the form that those courts have taken. I do not believe that events in Cleveland would have developed as they have if the Social Services, the medical authorities and the parents had had the benefit of the involvement of a family court early in the development of the incidents and reformed child care law as the framework within which the family court could operate. I welcome the Government's inquiry. I hope that it will conclude speedily and will stop finding excuses for not taking measures that all in the profession are agreed are necessary.

6.18 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Edwina Currie)

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I begin by joining the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) in saying that it is entirely appropriate that you should be presiding over our activities at this strange hour of the morning. I suspect that this might be the first time ever in the House when both Opposition and Government Benches and the Chair have been occupied by women. We give notice to the rest of our colleagues that women are on the march and I hope that more women will join this place and help to serve our people.

I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on his success in the ballot, in one of our quainter rituals of the House, I congratulate him on introducing such an important subject upon which he spoke with the erudition and sensitivity which the subject has long required but which it has not always met in the House.

My hon. Friend referred to the parliamentary panel on personal social service that was set up in the House during the previous Parliament. He knows that when I was a Back Bencher I was in touch with that committee. The establishment of the panel was long overdue and its work is very valuable. My hon. Friend will also be aware that I served for seven years on a major metropolitan social services committee and chaired that committee. I learned then about the terrible things that people do—particularly, perhaps, to their children. But I also learned about the incredible courage, fortitude and endurance of many others, especially the long-term sick and the disabled, and those coping with such people. I recognised, and hope at all times to act upon. their demand to be treated first as human beings and citizens, so that they retain their rights—and, indeed, their obligations—along with the rest of us. But most of all I learned a healthy respect for the skills and the insights of social workers, and I am glad to say that I agree with a great deal of what has been said tonight.

Social workers work in many settings and for many different employers. It is worth remembering that they do not all work for local authorities, and that they are not all employed in the same way. They work in hospitals, fieldwork teams and residential institutions; often they work unseen in the domiciliary setting of other people's homes. A large number work for voluntary organisations, and about 24,000 work for local authorities. Nowadays, nearly all of those who work for local authorities are qualified in one way or another.

Social workers who work in the social services departments are charged to perform tasks that mainly arise from the powers and duties given by their employers to Parliament. They are the majority. In this important sense, social workers are public servants working on behalf of their employers and of society—in other words, the rest of us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent referred to child care law, and I shall go into some of the issues in detail. However, before I do so, it is worth remembering and perhaps reinforcing the fact that social workers are involved in far more than child care. They are involved with every age group, particularly the elderly, and especially those without close relatives. They are involved with the mentally handicapped—even more so with the strenuous efforts now being made through the community care programme to improve the quality of life for those people. They are involved with the mentally ill, and in that respect psychiatrically trained social workers have a particular part to play.

Social workers are often in the role of gophers—intermediaries—and, as a result, they may take the blame when others fail to deliver. The successes are not always seen, and I believe that the efforts required to produce those successes are rarely understood and frequently underestimated by the general public. That is well illustrated by Wally Harbert, OBE, director of social services for Avon county council, writing in last week's Social Services Insight. In a wry and humorous piece about how the status of social workers might be improved, he suggests that one answer might be to introduce insignia for presenting to persons in other organisations who have distinguished themselves in personal social services activities—a sort of Legion d'Honneur. He says: It would go to head teachers who retained troublesome children in their schools, geriatricians who found beds for dying patients, paediatricians who made the same statements in court about child abuse as they made in case conferences, and housing officers who found accommodation for mentally ill people. A special award would be for newspaper editors who produced such unlikely headlines as Social Worker Saves Child". I must say that I have considerable sympathy with that point of view.

Local authorities determine their own priorities, and it is for them to decide how they should meet the need for social work and other aspects of the important work that we have been discussing. In the rate support grant settlements, the Government set indicative figures for individual local authority services. Those figures take account of the demographic and similar pressures on the personal social services. In successive rate grant settlements, the year-on-year increase in the personal social services indicative figure has been higher than for local government services as a whole in order to reflect those pressures. Between 1978–79 and 1987–88, expenditure on the personal social services grew in cost terms by 34 per cent., and by over 10 per cent. more than was required to meet demographic and other pressures. In 1986–87, the net current expenditure growth was 8.5 per cent. This year, the provisional figure is 4.7 per cent. That makes a total of a 13 per cent. increase over the past two years. The money is available.

Government plans have usually reflected the fact that personal social services are subject to such pressures as the growth in the number of elderly people—particularly the very elderly—increasing numbers of difficult children, and the need to take on the taper of joint finance and unemployment. That has been calculated at 2.5 per cent. per year, from which 0.5 per cent. has been deducted to take account of efficiency savings. In this year's expenditure group report, a further 1 per cent., or £27 million, was added to take account of the need to build up services in the community. Potential savings were also netted off to deal with other pressures, such as AIDS and drug abuse, and also with the need for substantial additional investment in social services training. The new figure—a 3.5 per cent. increase—has been fully reflected in local authority current expenditure levels for 1987–88 and amounts to an additional 7 per cent. in cash terms.

I was also asked about meals on wheels and other domiciliary services. We covered some of these issues in our debate on 14 May 1987. As I said then, the number of meals served by the meals on wheels service has risen by £43 million a year during the life of this Government, and 70 per cent. of those meals are delivered to people in their own homes. The number of home helps has increased by 14 per cent. There are now 53,000 full-time equivalents. A substantial army of people are helping others to remain in their own homes.

This rate of growth is rather less than the rate of growth in the directly managed services of the National Health Service. It is due to the fact that this Government run the NHS services more directly than the personal social services which, as the hon. Member for Peckham rightly pointed out, are often run by Labour-controlled councils whose priorities are different.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) referred to a particularly sad case: to the injuries to a little girl who so incongruously is named Joy. He has passed the papers to me. I shall look urgently into the matter, and I hope to be able to deal with it.

Mr. Jessel

The papers that I have passed to my hon. Friend refer to the bruising that was caused a year ago. In my speech I referred to recent serious injury by scalding. It is the conjunction of those events, rather than the events taken separately, that is so serious. One child has suffered far too many injuries.

Mrs. Currie

Without yet having had an opportunity to study the papers, I agree with my hon. Friend's last comment, and I shall be very glad to look into the matter.

The hon. Member for Peckham referred to the inquiry into the death of Isabel Schwarz. I shall find out exactly what the state of play is as at 14 July and will write to the hon. Lady. If she wishes me to do so, I shall put that information in the Library.

Mr. Rowe

I have been informed today—Monday in this House—that the inquiry into that case reopened on Monday and that again it is in closed session because of the nature of some of the medical evidence.

Mrs. Currie

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. He is several hours ahead of me on that issue.

The Government take very seriously the violence that is inflicted on social workers and other care services staff. My hon. Friend Lady Trumpington chaired a working party on violence against not just social workers but NHS staff and those who work in social security offices. That responsibility has been taken on by my hon. Friend Lord Skelmersdale, the new Under-Secretary of State. In the last few days the chief inspector, Mr. Utting, has sent papers to all the local authorities. We believe that they will assist local authorities in the management and organisation of their services so that problems and conflict can be avoided. When there is conflict, the staff will be able to cope with it.

In May, the Association of Directors of Social Services sent out some thoroughly sensible guidelines. Partly as a result of recent tragic cases involving the death of social workers and attacks upon them, some progress is now being made. There is better training of staff. They now know both how to avoid problems and how to deal with them.

Several hon. Members mentioned the child care law and the necessity for reform. The Government accept that the existing child care legislation is confused, and that it is confusing for social workers in doing their work, and that it urgently needs reform. Our proposals are set out in the White Paper and have followed, in many instances, the views of the Select Committee of which I was a member. We believe that the proposals will lead to a greater clarity of purpose, will bring parents and public bodies into a closer partnership and will be more fair than the current arrangements to children and their families. The Government are committed to enacting this legislation at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps it is appropriate, since we have talked a lot about reforming the law, to bear in mind exactly what the White Paper has suggested that we might do. We will take into account in the exact formulation of the proposals that will be put before the House, the results of the current inquiries. Broadly speaking, I feel that many of the suggestions that we have made in the Select Committee report and in the White Paper are along the right lines, and I would be glad to hear the views of hon. Members as to whether they feel that to be the case.

The White Paper's proposals are wide-ranging. The key points include a positive statement of the role of local authorities in promoting the care and upbringing of children within their families, which will generally be in the child's interests. Local authorities' existing statutory responsibilities towards children for whom they are caring away from home will be recast. The changes will build on existing welfare principle that governs local authority decisions about a child for whom they are caring. The local authority will be under an obligation to safeguard and promote the health, education, development and welfare of the child, and in particular to afford him opportunities for the proper development of his character and abilities. The authority will continue to be required to give due consideration to his wishes and feelings in these matters and to his religous persuasion and racial and cultural background. In addition, the authority will continue to be under a duty to review the child's position every six months.

Children and young people who are leaving care may face difficulties in adjusting to the change in their circumstances, so two changes to local authorities' duties are proposed. First, they would be required—we wish to make it as strong as that—to advise and assist children and the young people for whom they are caring so as to promote their welfare when that care ends. Secondly, the prevous duty to advise and befriend all those who leave care after leaving school, provided that their welfare requires it and that they request it, which currently lasts until 18 years of age, will be extended to cover those up to the age of 21 years. Those proposals are in the White Paper in chapter three.

For children who are looked after under voluntary arrangements an emphasis will be on a partnership between parents and the local authority in caring for their child. The local authority's responsibility for planning its care to extend to all such children, including those who are handicapped, will be emphasised for, I think, the first time.

There will be clearer and greater emphasis on the local authority's parental responsibilities for children who are committed to its care by a court order. In particular, there will be a rationalisation of the 20 or more legal provisions by which a child can be committed to the care of a local authority.

There will be a new and simplified list of legal grounds on which a court order committing a child to local authority care can be made. The new grounds should cover cases where substantial harm is likely in the future as well as those where harm has already occurred. Local authorities should no longer be able to take parental rights over a child in their care without references to a court and we hope that changes to court procedure will be introduced to ensure a fairer and more expeditious means for the court to determine what is best for the child. Recent attention to issues in Cleveland and elsewhere mean that some of the provisions are even more important than they were when the White Paper was written.

We want to see a full involvement of parents in court proceedings and more involvement of relatives, friends and foster parents. We will be extending the court's present power to hear cases where access to a child in care is denied to cover cases where there is dispute over the reasonableness of the access that is granted.

Clear rights of appeal from decisions in magistrates courts will be introduced for local authorities and parents, in addition to the existing appeal rights for the child. We hope to recast the law governing private and voluntary facilities for children, leading particularly to improved arrangements for facilities for under-fives and hopefully a more rational approach to facilities for older children.

Hon. Members will realise that that is a major piece of child care legislation and is a considerable reform. As presently drafted in its preliminary form, it already runs to over 100 clauses. It is therefore right and proper that it be introduced when sufficient time is allowed in the House for its discussions to proceed without hindrance. We look forward to doing that at the earliest opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent and the hon. Member for Peckham mentioned the importance of introducing some non-adversarial system for discussing family and child proceedings, and called for the formation of a family court. That matter was raised by the Select Committee on Social Services at the time I served on it and it has been repeatedly suggested from the 1970s. The matter is under discussion. As yet, I have no further progress to report.

To cover both education and training prior to qualification and post-qualifying training, there is a shared responsibility between the Government and the local authority employers. The Government spend £11.25 million annually in support of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, of which £7.5 million is grants for students and direct support of training. In 1987–88 we have made provision for an extra £10 million to be made available to social services departments for training. We estimate that local authorities spend some £20 million a year on internal and external training, which is not a small sum.

We can see that improvements are needed. Our acceptance of that obligation was clearly set out on 6 April 1987 in the letter from my hon. Friend the Minister for Health to Professor Saul, in which he said: it is therefore clearly right that CCETSW should be examining these problems and considering what might be done to bring about improvements. I must say however, that the arguments for the proposals contained in Consultation Paper 20.6 do not provide a sufficiently clear or sound basis for the Government to give you a final decision. Therefore, we have asked the CCETSW to do more.

We shall look carefully at the proposals that we expect this autumn from it.

I concur with the statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham that training alone is not enough. We need to ensure that we recruit people of maturity and common sense. In my view, common sense is not a bad thing in any form of work. It is particularly valuable when dealing with the fine judgments that a social worker is called on to make. It is important that we motivate and support them and retain their skills later for the service of clients. There are considerable parallels here for the other caring services.

I have heard what was said about the profession's desire to regulate itself and the proposed general social work council. Our position is, broadly, that it is not in the first instance for the Government to act anyway. We shall listen carefully to arguments from the employers and the professions. We want a convincing case to be made that it is in the public interest that the profession should be regulated in any of the proposed ways. It is worth going into that aspect in a little more detail because it helps to illustrate some of the difficulties that face those who would turn the social work profession into some model which is based on one of the other professions and has the same difficulties.

There is renewed interest among professional social services associations in seeking support for a GSWC in some form, but the main role and functions of the regulatory body are not yet the subject of agreement between the associations. Indeed, there are large gaps between them. We have at all times shown a willingness to listen to the debate and we have encouraged greater agreement on the fundamentals. My hon. Friend the Minister for Health had a meeting with the British Association of Social Workers on 28 January this year when some of these issues were explored in depth.

The claim of social work to be a professional occupation rests in part on the existence and the transmission to practitioners of a set of values finding expression in an ethical code. Training courses leading to the certificate of qualification of social work normally give attention to social work values and ethics. But not all those practising as social workers, particularly in residential and day care settings, have had the opportunity for professional training.

BASW, which has about 10,000 members, adopted a code of ethics for its members in 1975. The Social Care Association, with 5,000 to 6,000 members, is consulting its members this year about the introduction of a code. Not all social workers, however, are members of those organisations. The way forward according to those bodies is through the establishment of a national regulatory council which they hope will protect the interests of personal social service consumers and maintain satisfactory standards of conduct and practice among all social services staff in contact with clients. Also envisaged is the incorporation of the functions of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work in the new council, which would include the promotion of training, the approval of courses of study and the awarding of certificates to successful students.

The Barclay committee report of 1982 provided a comprehensive review of arguments for and against the creation of a general social work council. Among the counter-arguments put to the committee were that such a council could be part of the creation of a self-protecting elite group of social workers, that the definition of social work is still unclear and accordingly that it is uncertain which staff would be eligible to be registered; and that as local government is the principal employer of social workers, its conditions of service provide sufficient means to regulate the conduct of social workers and other social services staff.

Such arguments, which came mainly from local authority associations and NALGO, reflect their stance in the current debate about a regulatory body. Local authorities have responsibility for the quality and standard of work done by their staff. Social service staff function as the agents of the local authority, not as independent practitioners.

The earlier lack of agreement expressed to the Barclay committee by professional associations persists. The Association of Directors of Social Services envisages that all people with a recognised social work qualification who are in practice should be eligible for registration. By contrast, the SCA argues for a broader approach in which registration would be a requirement for all staff in personal social services—qualified or not—who hold positions of authority over clients. BASW's firm stance, which broadly accords with that of the ADSS, is subject to current review. NALGO has issued a statement of opposition. That is not a very strong basis of agreement on which the Government can support further moves.

Mr. Rowe

Whether a council is the right way forward is something that will be considered during the next few months. What worries me is that, in inter-professional discussions, there is a tendency for the old established professions, notably medicine, to assume a seniority and authority which is often unjustified. It is in the public interest to foster good practice which is found in several areas so that, when they earn it by expertise and experience, social workers are accorded the kind of professional seniority which, at the moment, too often goes by the board.

Mrs. Currie

I recognise the force of the feeling behind my hon. Friend's assertions, but I am sure that he agrees that we must aim to achieve teams that are genuinely multidisciplinary and teams that are genuinely teams. People should share all their skills to assist clients.

The current debate and the papers produced by professional associations have been brought formally to the attention of the CCETSW. I would be unhappy at entering endless negotiations about the status of social workers when we are more interested in the quality and standard of social work. I am keen to ensure that we do not lose sight of the client and his or her needs, or of the employer—usually the local authority—its statutory responsibilities, the taxpayer and the ratepayer.

There is considerable public ambivalence about social workers. I hope that this debate will play its part in helping to resolve the public's feelings about the role of social workers. We all feel some concern when we recognise that perhaps some over-zealous bureaucrat is meddling in people's lives. Yet we call them in to protect us from the difficult problems of the real world outside. We hand over to social workers the flotsam and jetsam of our society and then we criticise them for perhaps being too interested in those who have little opportunity to stand up for themselves. We criticise when social workers are too cautious or when they are over-eager. The British public persists in the belief that there is a formula for social work, whereas each case is different.

I think it was in the Barclay report that social workers were described as brokers in lesser evils. Perhaps that sums up exactly the role that they have to play. The Government value what is being done by social workers. We recognise that the work is important, difficult, stressful and frequently dangerous. We recognise that the work involves the exercise of considerable influence over people's lives, often with pressure and conflict. We want to ensure that, as far as possible, social workers are well equipped and supported in the work that they do. I put on record my appreciation of everything that they do and try to do.