How did we get here?

The Children (Scotland) Bill – Stage 3 (Final) Debate takes place on 25 August 2020. 

Something extraordinary has happened with section 8 of this Bill. MSPs are about to decide whether social workers alone, or – as now – mainly solicitors, should be permitted to act as Child Welfare Reporters. This is extraordinary because section 8 has evolved without any clear understanding having emerged of the skill required to do the job, or even what the role involves. The Minister & her Bill Team don’t know, yet MSPs are expected to take on trust that lawyers know best, even in matters in which lawyers have no demonstrable skill.

How did we get here when every other UK jurisdiction demands the skill of a senior, experienced social worker in this role? Some 30 years ago local authority social work departments provided the majority of these reports to the Scottish courts. Then, because the demand for reports was growing and local authorities received no additional funding for providing the reports, things became difficult. Lawyers were somehow able to step in and fill the void and soon secured for themselves funding of up to £4.6M p.a. And now, under proposals in section 8 of this Bill, not only will some highly questionable practice be legitimised, the budget for Child Welfare Reporters will increase to between £7.6M and £11.6M p.a.

What came about almost by accident some 30 years ago, has today become entrenched in custom and practice as if it carries the weight of authority, when in fact it is based on very little reason and absolutely no evidence of efficacy. No legislation was ever passed to entitle lawyers to do this work.

The Scottish Government has entirely failed to work out for itself the fundamentals of the role of Child Welfare Reporter or properly investigate what happens in the rest of the UK. No useful comparisons have been drawn, no evidence has been provided and no justification offered for the incredibly vague measures alluded to in section 8.

Worse still, at no point has the work of Child Welfare Reporters been examined, let alone subjected to robust and independent objective scrutiny. Rather than begin with the evidence and work towards a conclusion, the Minister and her Bill Team worked in the opposite direction. It did not occur to them to consider anything other than what is customary in Scotland. More egregiously, their scepticism over concerns raised about the way lawyers carry out the role of Child Welfare Reporter caused them to dismiss the need to gather evidence. Their conviction – heavily influenced by the legal establishment – that nothing was wrong with lawyers doing this work, limited discussion and led them to discount evidence to the contrary. There has been a serious failure to challenge the unsubstantiated views of the legal establishment.

It is not for lack of time that the Scottish Government has been found wanting. In January 2013 it established a Working Group on Bar Reporters (as Child Welfare Reporters were then known). Those who joined the group were overwhelmingly members of the judiciary and legal establishment. No-one thought it essential to have input and professional views from the social work profession, or their regulator, nor from any of the other helping professions. There was a breathtaking lack of viewpoint and professional diversity. Not even when the group proposed to change the name to Child Welfare Reporter, the irony of which was not lost on keen observers, did it occur to them to call upon their own Chief Social Work Adviser.

Only now, thanks to Nagalro (National Association for Guardians ad litem & Reporting Officers), has an expert balanced view of the respective skills of the social worker & the lawyer and their suitability for the role of Child Welfare Reporter emerged to inform MSPs: (bit.ly/nagalro). The Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW) is also voicing concern: (bit.ly/Ash_Denham).

The Nagalro briefing concludes: “It would be a tragedy if these inspirational reforms were to be stymied because one sector of the family justice machinery had not been given a thorough overhaul & made fit for the tasks which are now to be required of it.”

The Bill Team’s declared approach, of “placating stakeholders”, has been a disaster. It failed to hold the best interests of Scotland’s children above all else. The Scottish Government lost sight of the fact that children are the most important stakeholders and that most children cannot organise to compete with powerful special interest groups or lobby for what they need. The best interests of children were not secured during the development of this Bill. The result: those with vested interests are set to win out instead.

It is no coincidence the average duration of cases where a Child Welfare Reporter is involved in Scotland is 771 days, when in England, where social workers carry out those functions, the average duration is 196 days.

Scottish Government’s failure to understand that the role of Child Welfare Reporter maps almost perfectly onto the professional skill of the social worker will cause children more harm than the benefits which might accrue from all the remaining measures in this Bill. Children need professionals trained in the growing complexity and risk these cases now present and not the best efforts of well-meaning amateurs with just four days training.

#section8

You can download a .pdf of this article here.

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