The sheer scale of the remodelling exercise proposed for Birmingham City Council’s Children’s, Young People and Families Department reflects the complexities faced by Britain’s largest public body whenever it attempts to change the way it goes about its business.
Some 900 jobs are expected to disappear, but that figure incredibly is only 10 per cent of the total number of people employed. It is no wonder, when dealing with such a large organisation, that the art of change management sometimes resembles turning around a large oil tanker at sea – it all takes time.
But time is a luxury that the city’s children’s social services unit does not have to fall back on. Years of an unacceptable standard of care for young people at risk of sexual and physical abuse has placed the council in a desperate position – failure over the next year to deliver an improvement plan will almost certainly result in social services being run directly by Whitehall-appointed commissioners.
What’s being proposed appears, on the face of it, to be sensible. It is of course regrettable that so many jobs are threatened, but some of the £62 million saved by stripping out management and administration will be ploughed back into improving the service.
No one could argue seriously against social work teams being required to liaise closely with GPs, the police, schools and health centres in an attempt to identify at an early stage children and families potentially at risk and give support before problems become so bad that being taken into care is the only option. Keeping children away from residential care will save a lot of money and will be better for the individuals involved, although it must be accepted that there is often a fine line to be drawn when making risk assessments.
The tragic death of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, starved by her mother and stepfather, highlighted an appalling lack of co-ordination between public agencies. Teachers at Khyra’s school knew that her health was failing and that something was seriously wrong, but social workers, the police and her GP failed to act.
This was by no means the first time that a lack of “joined-up services” contributed to the death of a child in Birmingham, or elsewhere in the country. Serious Case Reviews involving councils from across England are littered with references to poor co-operation between social services and other bodies.
And while Birmingham MP John Hemming is undoubtedly guilty of gross exaggeration in condemning some social workers as “power crazed individuals” intent on ruining lives, he is on the right track when he complains that too many children are being taken into care unnecessarily. This is due in part to social workers erring on the side of caution, opting to remove young people from their families rather than run the risk of another Khyra or Baby Peter tragedy.
Remodelling of social services in Birmingham must be centred around better training and support for social workers, who have been promised many things in the past that the council has failed to deliver. Whatever happened, for example, to the Integrated Case Management System which was supposed to allow social workers direct multi-agency access on laptop computers, keeping them out of the office and allowing more time to be spent at the sharp end? Apparently the software to deliver such a system doesn’t exist, if you can believe that. It will be disastrous if the remodelling exercise turns out to be another false dawn for Birmingham social services. The shake-up deservedly has all-party support, and must be pursued relentlessly.