Saturday, 14 March 2015

The week after the week before – should social workers be sent to prison?

I've spent most of the week feeling like I am waking up with a hangover. That's because I’m still reeling from the previous week’s excess of politicians making wrong-headed proposals for child protection in the UK. It was not a pretty sight.

A strong stench of moral panic hung over child protection in Britain last week. Prime Minister David Cameron and Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, seemed determined to out tough each other with proposals to mandate the reporting of child abuse and neglect (Cooper) or punishments for those who failed to report in certain circumstances (Cameron). Possible prison sentences of five years for teachers and social workers (but bizarrely not for doctors and police officers) who “let children down” were touted. It was electioneering at its worst. Mindless tub-thumping some may say.

Various pressure groups joined the fray. There were plenty of let’s-get-tough-and-hit-‘em-hard-with a-big-stick commentators. The saner sections of public opinion were mostly either reeling from shock, or cowering in toe curling embarrassment or saving their powder for a better day. I like to think of myself in the last category.

The first thing to say is that shooting from the hip is the very worst way in which to make public policy about child protection. And trying to garner a few extra votes in the forthcoming general election by hitting out at easy targets is a pretty low way to behave.

The truth of the matter is that there is a paucity of research on mandatory reporting and no coherent case for introducing it or for bringing in prison sentences to regulate professionals’ reporting.  Most disasters and unwanted outcomes in child protection result from mistakes, not deliberate professional wrongdoing, so it would be much more sensible to look at ways of reducing these and to focus resources on designing safer systems and on training people how to reduce error. Human factors training and human factors thinking is what is required.

There needs to be a recognition that safer services and safer children come from safer systems which make mistakes less likely. But we can only reduce errors if we know what they are and, most importantly, why they happen. That can only happen in a just reporting culture, in which professionals are empowered to talk about their mistakes and to learn from them. It will never happen in a culture where professionals are afraid to admit to error – for example if doing so might result in five years in the slammer.

The kind of culture we would have if the Cameron/Cooper approach were to be adopted would be a culture of blame and fear - much worse than it is now, if that wasn't bad enough. The prospect of professionals having to resort to legal advice and representation before feeling safe to discuss an honest mistake is a nightmare that could easily come true. We must all strive to make sure it doesn’t.

Somebody called Zowie Overy has had the good sense to start a petition calling on the Prime Minister to rethink. It only takes a minute to sign which you can do at: