Submission to City of Edinburgh Council on O’Brien Inquiry

John Stevenson, Branch Secretary, UNISON City of Edinburgh Branch
Let me say first that it is with immense sadness that UNISON comes with this deputation today. Before I say anything else, I think it is important to let you, and the public know how social workers – and indeed many staff and managers throughout the Council – have been feeling about the awful death of Caleb Ness.

Those feelings freely expressed to me over the last week and much longer are of shock, despair, heart-searching, some anger and some utter disbelief and despondency. I’ve seen many tears in the last week. You need to know that those most directly involved who I’ve spoken to, have not been thinking about themselves, despite their predicament and despite the media frenzy. Their first thought has been about Caleb and they will live with that.

It is in the nature of social work that we all feel responsible, no matter how close or distant we were from the events. That is because – in the face of constant vilification, of relatively poor pay and constant pressures – social workers do the job because they care about children and want to protect them. Why ever else, after the last few days, would they want do the job?

Some of you may know that, while I do some trade union duties, I am first and foremost a social worker and proud of it.

In 23 years I have thankfully not lost a child my team was responsible for and hope I never will. That is, I hope, down to good practice and excellent support – but it is also and very largely due to sheer luck. Because, although the Inquiry says this death was avoidable, not all deaths will be avoidable or predictable and the dividing line can be very very thin.

Social workers deal with risk, day in day out. Risk means things will sometimes go tragically wrong. This is a fact recognised by this Council in its statement after the Edinburgh Inquiry and in its response to social workers’ collective grievance about lack of resources.

UNISON is not here to defend bad practice. But we are not here either to collude with a frenzied search for scapegoats. We are certainly not here to give any credibility to the disgraceful antics of some of the media as they shamelessly whip up anger and witchhunts.

We have never criticised the media’s right to publish things we might not like to see but we believe the way some have handled this has been sensational, irresponsible and indefensible.

I know this Council today will be far above jumping to pressure campaigns. You are the Council, you represent the people of Edinburgh, you make the decisions, not the media.

But we are here to set a context for you. A context where staff, not just in Edinburgh – but around Scotland – are under so much pressure that they fear making mistakes they would not normally make. In many situations they just cannot fulfil the procedures and standards they want and need to achieve.

Yes, they want to be challenged, they want to be held to account, but to do their job they need support and they need a mature understanding of the risks they manage on a daily basis. And sometimes politicians will need to stand up and say that, no matter what the media agenda is.

And it takes the courage to approach the issues addressed by the inquiry with a mature reflection, a calm analysis and a genuine programme to do all that can be done to minimise the risk of something like this arising again.

That we believe will take continuity. That will take leadership and that will need to avoid any unnecessary instability at this crucial stage of the process.

That is why UNISON cannot support calls for the resignation of Cllr Thomas whose record in understanding social work issues and in actually delivering new resources is unparalleled.

No other administration in Lothian or Edinburgh since 1979 has delivered such a level of inflation-plus increase to children’s services. Most – and I include Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative and even one SNP budget – have actually delivered cuts over the years which children’s services are still struggling to recover from.

That is also why we could not support the resignation of the Director, Les McEwan. It is a testament to the integrity of the man that shines high above those who have bayed for his blood, that he has even considered this course of action.

But it is not a decision we’d welcome. We believe that his knowledge, his skills, his strength, his energy and his commitment to children would be a powerful force to bring us through this crisis and ultimately better protect children. We understand and support him personally in whatever decision he makes, but we do not share the view that it is the best thing for Social Work and for children in Edinburgh.

If it takes his resignation to call off the vilification of our members and their department, then there is a very shallow understanding of what needs to be addressed. In fact there is no understanding, just a lust for blame.

There are also technical implications arising from the way things have been handled.


Where will we be in any future inquiry of any kind if people, who give the best of what they can honestly give to it, are aware that all they might be doing is setting themselves up for disciplinary or other action?

Where do we all stand if the inquiry did not call all the witnesses it might have before drawing some of its conclusions? What happens if disciplinary procedures call witnesses who further clarify some of the evidence to the inquiry? What if that is in conflict with the Inquiry?

How in heaven’s name do already understaffed teams cope with key individuals being moved away from them?


Even more reason for calm reflection and analysis.

I started on a social worker note and I’ll finish on one.

I’ll tell you about just a few of the hundreds of children our social work colleagues have saved from death or serious injury over recent years. I’ve changed and merged some of the details for reasons of confidentiality.


The baby with a fractured skull they rescued from a house on one of the twice-daily visits they were doing because they had sought, but had been refused, a place of safety order.

The 3-year-old they took to hospital outwith procedures (and possibly the law) because they suspected injuries and found healing fractured ribs and limbs – if they had been wrong they would have faced disciplinary or even legal action – but because their hunch was right, all that was forgotten.

The child they took turns to take out during the day and at weekends and bought in private care for because she was on a Child Protection Order but they had no foster parents in the whole of the Lothians to care for her. Not an easily resolved resource issue, just a fact of life.

The busy and harassed duty and emergency social workers who were alert enough to spot and expose an evolving group of sex offenders and removed a child from risk.

The young woman who phoned last month to tell about the success of her own new family and had the generosity to thank us for identifying and removing her from the awful abuse she had suffered as a child.


Caleb Ness’s death – as the inquiry says – was avoidable. But remember too that that judgement came from a range of issues across all of the agencies involved – only 8 out of 35 recommendations apply only to Social Work and many of them were already existing practice – yet always it seems the sword falls just on the social workers.

But every day social workers across Edinburgh and Scotland are protecting hundreds of children – over 300 on the register in Edinburgh and many many more at a level of risk below the register threshold.

Not just protecting, but also working with children so they can recover, re-find their childhood and reach their potential. And doing that very often despite the lack of resources and supports available to them.

That is not just an Edinburgh issue, it is a Scotland-wide issue and it is not enough for the Scottish Executive to make demands, to rattle out sound bites about getting tough with Councils and staff – it must finance the children’s services it says it aspires to.

As I stand here, there are Children & Families Social Workers throughout Scotland – about 170 of them for Edinburgh’s almost half million population – who are protecting children, who will do that tomorrow and into the future.

They were certainly doing it with me up to 10pm on Monday night and with a colleague later on Tuesday when, incidentally another agency firmly told us they were finishing at 6. They were doing it to 9pm last Thursday night – all after an 8.30am start.

We all have to think about the tragedy today. We all have to think hard about the inquiry today. You have to think about how we will ensure standards of practice and monitor them – our members have no fears from that and they welcome it if it will bring them the real tools to do the job and a real understanding of their job.

But you also have to think about the morale of these workers and at least do something to make them feel supported in the job they do for you and for Edinburgh. We cannot afford a climate where they will leave, or where the current recruitment crisis across Scotland gets any worse.

That, if I can reiterate again, requires the anger to be put to one side, the drive for scapegoats to be put on hold, and real efforts made in an atmosphere of calm and considered reflection.

Thank you for hearing this deputation.