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Millions are being let down by social care. It’s time for a rethink

Posted on 25/07/2018 by


Splitting social workers into adult and children’s camps has led to big gaps in care. Could reuniting them be the answer?

What will finally tip England’s penurious town halls over the edge? Will it be the costs of emergency social care for many of the 1.4 million older people in England who struggle to carry out daily tasks but get little or no support? Or will it be the bill for emergency intervention for many of the 1.6 million children with complex needs who appear to receive no formal help?

Council chiefs are grimly divided over which is their biggest headache, but it’s a desperate outlook either way, and one that would have seemed barely conceivable 50 years ago when Harold Wilson’s Labour government published a blueprint for modern social services. Known as the Seebohm report, it envisaged “a community-based and family-orientated service, which will be available to all”. A patchwork of disparate services, from home help for older people to mental health social work and what was then known as child guidance, would be swept up in single local government departments that would have a clear focus on the family as a whole, rather than be “symptom-centred”, and would meet the needs of all ages.

The long-awaited report captured the radical spirit of 1968. Its principal author was banker and Quaker Frederic Seebohm, who, as well as making the case for an holistic family service, anticipated two of today’s key policy issues: community development, “place-shaping”; and prevention of greater need.

“If the use of one home help on a full-time basis could avoid the need for a family of three to be taken into public care, public money would be saved,” the report said, making an argument that, half a century on, is seemingly still not understood by the Treasury.

When social services departments came into being in April 1971, there was a mood of exhilaration at their potential and funding poured in from Whitehall, with average annual real-terms increases of more than 10% in each of the first few years. Bob Hudson, then a councillor in Sunderland and later a public policy academic, recalls that “we were genuinely carried away by the sheer excitement of it all”. As Hudson reminds us, however, this golden age of social services lasted less than a decade. The Thatcher government that was elected in 1979 began the slow erosion of council funding that accelerated wildly after 2010, with local authorities in the past eight years having lost 29% of their total spending power while demand for services has soared. Last-resort support for older and disabled people and children, which councils must provide by law, is absorbing so much available cash that – as the notorious Barnet “graph of doom” foretold – there could be nothing significant left for any other services within the next five years.

But money, or lack of it, does not tell the whole story. In 2002, in the aftermath of the killing of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié by her guardians in Haringey, north London, a decision was taken to scrap the Seebohm departments. Between 2003 and 2007, the Seebohm model was replaced across England by departments for adult services and separate departments for children’s services. The social work profession was divided correspondingly, one consequence being that children’s social workers have grown increasingly apart from their former colleagues under the influence of the Department for Education, which oversees their training and performance.

Has it worked? The NSPCC charity says that between 2010 and 2015 there was a 13% drop in the number of child deaths subject to review because of possible abuse. But the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, has identified 2.1 million children with complex needs, including 470,000 living in material deprivation and 825,000 living in homes with domestic violence. Only around a quarter of them are receiving any support.

Two weeks ago, MPs on the all-party parliamentary group for children called for a statutory duty on councils to provide early help for families in need. Tim Loughton, the group’s Tory chair and a former children’s minister, commented that social workers in some council areas were starting to think that the only way to ensure a child’s welfare was to remove it from the family.

In 1968, Seebohm prefaced his report with a Greek motto: “Let not him who searches cease until he finds.” We ought still to be searching for the right answer to what modern social services should look like, and what they should provide.

• David Brindle is the Guardian’s public services editor

Source: The Guardian