A city council inquiry into the failings of Birmingham children’s social services, due to be published in the autumn, is likely to touch on some familiar territory in an attempt to understand why, despite millions of pounds of additional investment, care for youngsters at risk of serious abuse remains inadequate.
To start with, there is the staff sickness scandal. Birmingham has a shortage of social workers, but that’s hardly surprising when almost 20 per cent are off work at any given time.
The knock-on impact of this is substantial. Not only does the cost of hiring agency staff, at 50 per cent more than in-house employees, eat into the social services budget, it also means that an additional workload falls on the shoulders of those that do make it into work.
There are broad hints, also, that the scrutiny inquiry being conducted by Coun Len Clark will uncover systemic failure at the heart of child care. In other words, it doesn’t really matter how much money is thrown at the problem, the systems simply are not in place to get the right results.
It is even being suggested that the inquiry will expose significant under-performance among some staff, including senior management, which will in itself raise questions about how successful the council’s reorganisation of personnel has really been.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the scrutiny work being undertaken will be a devastating expose of government interference in social care, which is something not confined to Birmingham. The Laming Report, which forced councils to lump all children’s services – from schools to social care – into huge children, young people and families directorates, introduced quite unnecessary reorganisation which, in Birmingham’s case, resulted in complex child abuse cases being placed in the hands of officials who were not always experienced in such matters.
It is impossible, of course, to discuss these matters without making reference to the huge growth in suspected child abuse cases. At the beginning of the year police in Birmingham, buoyed no doubt by the Baby P scandal, were reporting 800 alleged incidents to the council each month.
But the intense pressure placed on social workers, which must be recognised, cannot and must not be used in Birmingham as an excuse to wring hands and say that nothing much can be done to improve matters.
The Clark inquiry was given a specific remit: to examine why, despite all the many improvement initiatives over the years, children’s services remain inadequate. This must not be a report that ends up being left to gather dust on the highest shelf.