Munro report: child protection workers need freedom to do jobs

Social work leaders say reforms proposed by Munro to free child protection teams from central control may be threatened by cuts to services

Social workers should be freed from excessive bureaucracy and box-ticking to give them more time to do vital face-to-face work with families and at-risk youngsters, according to a major overhaul of child protection.

The government-commissioned review of safeguarding practice by Professor Eileen Munro (pdf) recommends that centrally imposed targets and regulations are scrapped, and that children’s social workers are given freedom to exercise their professional skills and judgment.

Among its 15 recommendations it calls on ministers to establish a national chief social worker to advise ministers, and says councils should be obliged to ensure “sufficient provision” of early help services such as Sure Start and family support schemes.

Munro was commissioned last year by the education secretary, Michael Gove to look at a system he said was too bureaucratic, unaccountable and obsessed with procedures and targets.

The report found that safeguarding had indeed become overly dependent on procedures and paperwork, with frontline professionals spending over 60% of their time in front of computer screens.

Munro said: “A one-size-fits-all approach is not the right way for child protection services to operate. Top-down government targets and too many forms and procedures are preventing professionals from being able to give children the help they need and assess whether that help has made a difference.”

The report says a better balance between guidelines and procedure on one side and professional expertise on the other must be sought: “Helping children is a human process. When the bureaucratic aspects of work become too dominant, the heart of the work is lost.”

Social work leaders welcomed the report but warned that the pressures of spending cuts to local authority children’s services at a time when demand on child protection services was rising could make the reforms difficult. Most children’s services in England suffered cuts of between 15% and 25% for 2011-12, with the axe falling most harshly on early help services.

The children’s minister Tim Loughton said he welcomed Munro’s “thorough analysis of the problems” but would not formally respond to its recommendations until later in the year.

The report’s recomendations include:

• Local services should be freed from government targets, national IT systems and regulations, and allowed to design their own services and procedures.

• Inspection of safeguarding services should be unnanounced, and should look at all services, including police, health and education, as well as social work.

• The government should work with health professionals, such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, to ensure that the NHS reforms do not adversely impact on effective safeguarding partnership arrangements.

• Every local authority should employ a principal child and family social worker – a senior manager who is still actively involved in frontline work – to report the views of professionals to management.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers and the College of Social Work (BASW/CoSW) said: “These recommendations are like music to the profession’s ears. BASW/CoSW has long campaigned to relieve social workers of the unbearable bureaucracy and administrative overload that prevents them working directly with people who need their services and it’s a huge relief that this has come at a time when social workers are under extraordinary added pressure from deep funding cuts.”

Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, called on ministers to accept the report’s recommendations in full. He warned that the changes would take time and resources to get right, and said the government had to invest extra cash to protect early help services: “If local authorities and their partners are to invest in early help, in developing the workforce and in developing a broader vision for providing help to children and families, central government will need to provide additional funding to make this possible.”

Sir Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau said: “This report comes out at a time of unprecedented pressure within children’s services. Whilst most authorities have protected social worker posts from their cuts, many services which contribute to keeping children safe are closing. Professor Munro stresses that early help is vital to keeping children safe, and proposes that local authorities should be given a duty to provide early help. This seems like shutting the stable door too late. The funding available for early help has been reduced by 22% since March 2010.”

The report insists on the importance of keeping the local authority director of children’s services role, responsible for both schools and children’s social care, and introduced under the last government. It is estimated that around a fifth of council social work departments in England have either diluted the role or added extra responsibilities to it.