Laming misses shared route to children’s safety, argues Nick Johnson

The claim by children’s secretary Ed Balls that keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility is absolutely right. Everyone, everywhere, shares this responsibility – on the streets, in schools, at leisure centres and on housing estates. But the centralist response by Balls last week to Lord Laming’s review of safeguarding reflects a flawed model of management that, for some reason, we persist in applying to problems.

The wholesale acceptance of Laming’s recommendations is mistaken. He is light years away from today’s social work task, and surely there were many much closer to the action who might have served Balls better? Recommending that all referrals are assessed is not simply unrealistic, but – as one manager estimated – would need four times the staffing quota to deliver.

In reality, all childcare professionals are continually assessing and making judgments. Nurses, health visitors, doctors, teachers – all have professional skills and ethics, are trained in safeguarding, and are eminently capable of sharing responsibility for keeping children safe. Dumping every low-level concern on to social workers would be utterly overwhelming.

More practical measures worth considering include the suggestion by a colleague that local authorities work together, rather than compete to recruit and retain staff. A good national pay rate and co-operation between councils would reduce the scramble for staff whereby social workers move between councils – chasing better pay and promotional opportunity – when what’s really needed is consistency.

All local authority employees are colleagues of social work staff and, to some extent, share their role. Any social work applicant’s General Social Care Council registration should be checked before short-listing, but few authorities can do this as their application forms tend to be a corporate “one size fits all” document. Each year, a number of unregistered applicants slip into the system without challenge until an operational manager makes inquiries – usually at the interview stage, but occasionally not. HR departments must support the process of safe recruitment.

Different IT systems proliferate in councils and rarely talk to each other effectively, making information sharing difficult. These hi-tech systems and their software should follow the function, not shape the service. Without a public service role, the IT system would be redundant, so why do most authorities find their IT systems so cumbersome that they exacerbate the problem?

And what of the role of the public and press? Following the tabloid campaign against social workers, colleagues found themselves set upon by families’ dogs while undertaking safeguarding visits to households where occupants believe whatever they see in print. Having to employ the police to enable such visits is a ludicrous waste of public funds.

Overall, the message is clear: the solution is not in Whitehall but with our colleagues, our councils, and on our streets, and will be best achieved by the community, its leaders and fellow professionals owning and sharing what belongs to us all – our duty and capacity to help safeguard children.