On the 15 January 2021, the government announced the start of what is described as an independent review of children’s social care and which had been promised in the 2019 election manifesto. To date, we know the identity of the Chair, Josh MacAlister, and we have the terms of reference together with a ‘Call for Advice’. It is unclear whether Mr MacAlister will have a panel working with him or whether he is to be the sole and final arbiter. What then are we to make of all this?
The first issue comes from the description of the review as ‘independent’ and this, sadly, may leave the review’s credibility fatally wounded, before it has undertaken a day’s work. Josh MacAlister was directly appointed by the Secretary of State ‘based on his experience’ without any transparent recruitment process or advertisement of the position. A former teacher, he is the founder and Chief Executive of ‘Frontline’, which is directly funded by the Department for Education. We are told that he will step down from his position with Frontline to take up this new role. He was the lead author of a 2019 report, produced with Centre for Public Impact and Buurtzorg Britain and Ireland, ‘A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care’.
Now, I have no direct, personal, knowledge of Josh MacAlister and so, until I am shown evidence to prove otherwise, I am happy to proceed on the basis that he is an honourable man, committed to improving the lives of the most disadvantaged children in our society. That being the case, I have to say that I feel very sorry for the position he has been placed in. Coming in the aftermath of numerous ‘chumocracy’ and PPE procurement scandals, his appointment will forever be tainted with the suspicion that he was appointed in order to repeat his 2019 recommendations in the guise of a new report. It will not be forgotten that this appointment is by the same Secretary of State who was, only last year, found to have acted unlawfully by suspending scores of legal protections for children and only consulting with those who could be relied upon to support his proposals. Even accepting that the suspicion of Mr MacAlister may be quite unwarranted, he starts out with the rotting corpse of an albatross hung around his neck and Gavin Williamson has put it there.
All of this could have been avoided. The Secretary of State for Education and those who advise him are not unintelligent and cannot be surprised that their appointee’s independence is questioned. One can only conclude that, either, they realise this but their hubris and arrogance are such that they simply do not care, or that an all-consuming need to control the outcome of events makes them deaf and blind to any other course of action. Josh MacAlister should be an important contributor to the review but his clearly expressed views on the reform of children’s social care should have precluded him from the role of an independent chair.
It is tempting in these circumstances to say that the review should be boycotted. I think that this temptation should be avoided. Whatever the shortcomings of the review might be, it is difficult to criticise its eventual recommendations if you have not taken part in the debate and forced the review to look at the essential evidence. If anything, the shortcomings suggest that even more effort needs to be put into arguing for the changes that are needed.
The terms of reference of the review set out a scope and range for the review which contrives to be simultaneously ambitious and too narrow:
‘1. Support: what support is needed to meet the needs of children who are referred to or involved with social care, in order to improve outcomes and make a long-term positive difference to individuals and to society?
2. Strengthening families: what can be done so that children are supported to stay safely and thrive with their families, to ensure the exceptional powers that are granted to the state to support and intervene in families are consistently used responsibly, balancing the need to protect children with the right to family life, avoiding the need to enter care?
3. Safety: what can be done so that children who need to be in care get there quickly, and to ensure those children feel safe and are not at risk of significant harm?
4. Care: what is needed for children to have a positive experience of care that prioritises stability, providing an alternative long-term family for children who need it and support for others to return home safely?
5. Delivery: what are the key enablers to implement the review and raise standards across England, such as a strong, stable and resilient workforce, system leadership and partnerships, and what is needed so that this change can be delivered?
6. Sustainability: what is the most sustainable and cost-effective way of delivering services, including high-cost services, who is best placed to deliver them, and how could this be improved so that they are fit for the future?
7. Accountability: what accountability arrangements are necessary to ensure that the state can act appropriately, balancing the need to protect and promote the welfare of children with the importance of parental responsibility, and what is needed to ensure proper oversight of how local areas discharge those responsibilities consistently?’
I say that the scope is too narrow because it is a review of how we process the individuals who are perceived as ‘problems’. It cannot examine why there are such high levels of drug and alcohol abuse in families. It cannot look at the causes of food-poverty or inadequate housing, nor what drives domestic abuse. Suppose that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic had been limited to increasing efficiency within hospitals and funeral directors, with no attempt to stop people becoming ill in the first place? Where would we be now? Until we make changes at a more societal level, the pressures upstream will surely continue to overwhelm the provisions we put in place lower down.
Paragraph three of the terms of reference appears to conflate speed with safety and I am left wondering what to understand from this? Of course, if it is simply a matter of ensuring that reports from hospitals and schools, of a child with apparently non-accidental injuries, do not sit on someone’s desk unread for two weeks because they are on holiday, then no one could object to that. On the other hand, if there are suggestions that the current judicial process should have important protections stripped away to complete cases within ever shorter times, then this would be a different matter. It is no more acceptable to leave a child suffering harm than to wrongly remove a child from their family. In both cases, we inflict harm on a child. Care cases involve difficult and painful decisions where there is no clear‘ right’ answer, uncertainty abounds and sometimes we have to choose the least bad option.
There is, currently, no call for evidence, although we are told that this will happen later. For the present, Josh McAlister has issued a ‘call for advice’. In it he says:
‘I want to use this Call for Advice for you to guide me on what I should be spending my first few weeks and months reading, how best to hear directly from children, young people and their families, who you think I should be talking to, and what questions I should be asking. There's lots that I don't know so please share your advice generously.’
I am probably becoming cynical in my old age, but I cannot help thinking that, in his effort to show that he has no preconceived ideas or agenda, the Chair ‘doth protest too much’. These words come from a man who, only two years ago, authored a 64-page report on this subject. We are all grown-ups. Frankness and transparency are more likely to assist in securing co-operation than talking to seasoned practitioners as though they were small children. It would have been easier to work with someone who said, openly and frankly; ‘You know that I have views on some of these things. I want to listen to everyone and I am open to persuasion by argument and evidence’.
We are also told that the review will listen to the views of ‘children, young people and families with lived experience of children’s social care’. There is to be what is described as an ‘experts by experience’ group of individuals with direct personal experience of care. It would be churlish not to welcome any proposal which makes the voice of the child a central plank of the review. The Family Justice Young People’s Board is a fine example of the value of doing this. I hope that Josh MacAlister will take the time to listen and to allow children and young people the space to clearly express themselves, even when the message they bring may be an uncomfortable one. I would also like to be reassured that the name of the group is not a suggestion that these are the only experts who are needed.
The other question which arises from this review is ‘why?’ That is not to suggest that reform is not long overdue or that the state is not an often inconsistent and sometimes appallingly bad parent; rather to ask whether we need to have another review? The work carried out by Professor Monroe is, at best, only partially implemented. The Children’s Commissioner has carried out wide-ranging research and has made detailed recommendations; the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has carried out extensive work, as have many of our universities. I do wonder whether the time and funds might be more profitably employed by implementing, for example, the sensible and practical recommendations made by Anne Longfield as recently as November 2020. Is the Care Review simply an exercise in delaying the need to act and asking the same questions again in the hope of more acceptable answers? I hope not.