THE BLOG
15/06/2012 12:16 BST | Updated 14/08/2012 06:12 BST

Relationships Must Be at the Heart of the Child Protection System

Yesterday, Labour called an Opposition Day Debate on children's safeguarding. Every once in a while this issue gains media prominence for the most disturbing and alarming reasons but protecting those children for whom parental care has failed, who have no other option but to turn to the state, is one of the heaviest responsibilities placed on the Government and should be a top priority for all politicians and public professionals even when it is out of the headlines. There is an urgency to the situation that marks it out further still: just two months represents 1 percent of a young person's childhood. If we get this wrong, that is time that they will never get back. Every moment counts.

Before I was elected to Parliament I spent nearly a decade working with and for some of the most vulnerable children in the country, who left me in no doubt that a good relationship with an adult they trusted mattered to them above all else.

This Government has pursued a number of reforms in this area, some of them welcome, in response to the excellent review by Professor Munro. But whether we succeed or fail for those children will depend almost entirely on the quality of relationships that they have with the people who are charged with protecting them. That is the central point and it is in serious danger of being lost in this shake-up of the system.

Decent relationships cannot be formed if frontline professionals do not have the time, resources and training that they need. In yesterday's debate we heard repeatedly about the almost exponentially increasing caseloads that social workers are dealing with. Polling suggests that one in six social workers now have more than 40 cases, a figure that is of real concern and wholly unacceptable, both from the point of view of the social worker and of the children they are tasked with protecting. More than half of social workers believe that their case loads are unmanageable, and the Children's Rights Director for England says children themselves are now starting to voice their concerns about their social worker's case loads.

The solution is not, as the Minister believes, based solely on reducing guidance which will somehow, magically free up huge amounts of time for front line workers.

We must raise the professional status of social work to the level we accord to doctors and other similarly crucial professions, so we attract and retain the best possible candidates and embed a widespread belief across society that professional skills and judgment are worth their weight in gold.

Increasing overall resources is not an option, so the Government must consider its priorities. There are now more than twice as many staff employed in the Department's free schools unit as in the safeguarding unit. Youth services, which were a lifeline for the most at-risk young people, are disappearing, while a National Citizen Service is being developed - an admirable scheme, but no replacement for ongoing support for the young people who need it most. I recently came across a young person who met his youth worker when he was 7 years old. He is now 18. His youth worker has been the only consistent adult in his life over those 11 years. For him, as for so many others, his youth worker is his lifeline.

Similarly, as a result of cuts to local authorities, there is evidence that agencies are retreating into their core functions. In the Government's rush to cut 'red tape', there is a real danger that front-line professionals whose daily work brings them into contact with children will not see keeping children safe as their responsibility.

There is a real risk that in a decade's time Parliamentarians will still be having this debate in a context in which some children have fallen further behind, others are still at risk and a unique opportunity to reform the system has been wasted. We can and must do better. In a decades' time I want to see no child constrained by their background; no child left in abusive or neglected homes; no child ignored when they raise serious concerns; no child believing that they cannot do better; and no child passed around from pillar to post around the care system, forced to recount their harrowing experiences to a succession of anonymous adults. In short, in 10 years' time, no child's life chances should be determined before they are even born.

Progress in child safeguarding is the last Government's legacy, and one which many Labour MP's are justly proud of, but it can and should also be the current Government's legacy. We called Labour's Opposition Day debate yesterday to show that we will do everything we can to ensure that that is the case.