Jobs blow at children’s agency

At least 6% of the workforce at the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration will be axed this year despite it facing a record workload and new complex reforms.

The body, which decides whether to hold hearings for Scotland’s most troubled and troubling youngsters, last night confirmed it was seeking voluntary redundancies and early retirements.

The Herald understands that as many as 40 posts, mostly experienced reporters on the frontline, will be lost by the end of the financial year.

The SCRA yesterday said some 30 individuals had already agreed to leave the organisation by the end of March 2011. Some have already done so.

It is downsizing just as it enters what insiders describe as a crucial phase in its history.

The number of children’s hearings reached an all-time record of just under 43,000 last year, partly as the number of toddlers and babies referred to the system shot up after the Baby Peter tragedy in London and the death of Brandon Muir in Dundee.

Sources have described serious anxieties over their ability to protect Scotland’s most vulnerable children – those who offend or are offended against – with fewer reporters.

The SCRA is also about to be hit by a major overhaul with a new SNP bill on children’s hearings going through the Scottish Parliament.

Insiders acknowledged they expected the SCRA to be hit with budget cuts of between 15% and 20% over the next three years – the worst-case scenario being modelled by police forces like Lothian and Borders as the Scottish Government braces itself for up to £4 billion in cuts over the lifetime of the current UK Parliament.

Karen Whitefield, Labour’s spokesman for children and young people in the Scottish Parliament, yesterday warned that losing SCRA staff would hurt youngsters.

She said: “We all know the public sector is going to face some difficult times. But even the loss of 6% of workers will inevitably have consequences for the service provided to some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children.

“We are talking about losing experienced reporters from the system just as it goes into the most extensive overhaul it has had since it was set up more than 40 years ago. I am concerned about job losses as the volume and complexity of cases increases.”

Whitefield said staff cuts would hit hardest in areas with the worst social issues and most child referrals to the reporter, in areas such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

Some children’s hearing insiders fear the future of the system – which Whitefield called the Jewel in the Crown of Scottish social care – could be in doubt if cuts continue.

Bill Aitken, the Tory justice spokesman in the Scottish Parliament, yesterday said he was sorry to hear of the cuts but stressed that savings could be made by channelling offenders aged 14 and over into adversarial youth courts rather than child-centred hearings. Such a move would be a huge blow to those in the hearing system desperate to retain the unique ethos set up under the Kilbrandon reforms of 1968.

A spokeswoman for the SCRA yesterday stressed that it remained committed to driving improvements despite developing a business plan to take account of the current and forecast economic outlook.

She said the body’s scheme for voluntary redundancies and early retirements had been agreed with Unison, the public sector union. She added: “We have also embarked on a significant programme of modernisation and organisational change that will deliver new working practices and new roles over the coming 12 to 18 months.

“Children remain our first priority, and all of the changes we are making today and tomorrow are about enhancing the quality of the service we provide to children and young people.”