BBC Panorama on Baby Peter - A Review

By Ian Macdonald

The Hobgoblin 2009

As a social worker and UNISON rep I am in the interesting position of reviewing a programme in which I participated, albeit briefly.

I was interviewed at length two months ago by the Panorama production team two months ago along with four social workers who were interviewed anonymously.
It was my original understanding with the production team that the programme was to be about the general crisis in social work from a social workers point of view, within the context of the recent death of Baby P (now known as Peter) and the debate over the Ofsted inspection, given that Haringey was a three star authority when baby Peter died (in December 2008 Christine Gilbert, the head of Ofsted, acknowledged that the methods used by inspectors to assess local councils’ child protection were open to manipulation, and that officials in Haringey had been able to "hide behind" false data to earn themselves a good rating from inspectors just weeks after Baby Peter’s death – Polly Curtis, The Guardian, 6.12.08).

What was shown - understandably from a journalistic point of view - was an exposure off the failings of the system of protection in Haringey which lead to the rape of a two-year-old child at the hands of one of the people guilty of the murder of Baby Peter. As a result the programme was unable to analyse why social work is in such a crisis and therefore look at how things can be changed - if at all they can be changed, within the present society

When I was interviewed by Alison Holt, we started to discuss the general problem of doing good social work, whilst not being able to critically evaluate a potential grave risk to a child because of the pressure to do paperwork and go on to the next job. In essence I tried to put a broad-brush stroke the argument for quality versus quantity, which at last being debated in a limited fashion in the national media.

The finished Panorama report did state that Surrey County Council Staff were threatening strike action over working conditions and also reported SCC’s response, which came over as peevish, claiming that UNISON only represented a minority of staff. This is actually true and it’s an issue I will write about in a future article.

What was missed by the programme
Myself and all the workers interviewed made a number of points, that largely didn’t get into the final edit. I will try and summarise them briefly.

  • Performance Indicators are not a definition of the level of protection that is afforded to children. In fact the level of protection can be in inverse proportion to the figures given. One of the key performance indictors is that core assessments on the risk to a child must be completed in time. Whilst on the face of it this looks plausible it means that, with the current high vacancy level, workers cannot prioritise working on very dangerous cases. If they do they will be threatened with the sack for not doing all their assessments on time. Additionally there is too much emphasis on getting various pieces of paper work done, by the staff themselves, with no proper administrative support, instead of allowing staff to focus on working directly with children and evaluating the risk to them.
  • Senior managers treat staff safety in a cavalier attitude. The police would never go out on a dangerous initial visit to an unsafe home, yet social workers are expected to do this all the time. This is one of the issues in question in the Surrey Collective Dispute.
  • Surrey specifically had taken good quality administration staff from the front line teams, which was disastrous for social work support, and had downgraded them and given them a separate line management structure which meant that the support for teams was extremely limited.
  • Over the last three years SCC has systematically dismantled the structure of Children’s Services and formed a Families Conglomerate, which could not focus services either on vulnerable children or indeed vulnerable adults.
  • Staff are working often 60 hours a week without any hope of clawing back this time. We made it clear that staff are working for free for the local authority.
  • Unqualified support workers were being given inappropriate Child Protection cases and expected in many cases to do the job of a social worker.
  • In case allocation cases are handed over by e-mail, and there have been examples of the email recipients left unaware that they have received an extremely vulnerable child’s case.
  • The most important point of all: what this dispute is really about. We made the point that it is not essentially about money for staff, although of course this is important but about improving working conditions so that staff can provide a better service for vulnerable children. I made the point that we need real accountability to children NOT accountability to an abstract bureaucratic system of performance indicators that essentially act as a corporate policy of “covering arse” and have nothing to do with protecting children. Surrey County Council has recently spent thousands on legal fees going to a judicial review that was recently rejected, trying to prove it is worth more stars. This speaks volumes about real priorities.
  • I made the point at the end of the interview that the real issue here is, “what type of society to we want?” If we really want to protect children then we have to look seriously at the resource implications which show that funding for social care is minuscule compared to education funding and poses the question “does the present type of society really care about protecting children or does it care about being seen to be doing just enough and blaming hard-pressed staff when something goes wrong”?

In my next article, “Anatomy of a Dispute,” I will amplify and analyse the issues above and explore: This will involve a return to the debate between me and Charlie Porter which will the explore the issues of

  • The Client /Professional Relationship - can this be dissolved before the revolution?
  • How to organise amongst social workers and all workers in the public Sector.
  • The role of the State in Social Care today.
  • What type of Social Work? What type of Society?

Ian MacDonald