UNISON Statement on Edinburgh Social Work Staffing Inquiry

UNISON welcomes the conclusions of the internal staffing inquiry that no member of staff should face disciplinary action as a result of issues arising from the O’Brien Inquiry. This reflects the original statement by that inquiry that no individual was to blame.

We have concerns as to whether the inquiry was justified. It has concluded after three months what was already known – that no individual was to blame. However it has, as we predicted, had to address a range of issues in depth which had not been addressed, or had been misunderstood, by the O’Brien Inquiry.

This has been a long traumatic experience for our members who are respected colleagues and many of whom worked with great bravery and sensitivity with those directly affected through, and after, this tragic event.

We must not ignore that a child died and that lessons always have to be learned. The tragedy of that is felt more strongly by those involved than by anyone else. However it is important to recognise that any inquiry will uncover issues which need to be addressed. That does not mean that any of those issues directly contributed to the child’s death.

UNISON still believes that the crisis in resources has not been addressed. The build-up of practices which staff would not normally wish to follow to cope with the lack of resources has not been fully recognised. Staff are still having to compromise to manage workloads which are not matched by resources. They still have children on Place of Safety Orders with no carers. They still have young people who need to be accommodated with no placement.

The City of Edinburgh Council must face up to that – and to the fact that this is not just an Edinburgh problem, it is Scotland-wide. Almost all our colleagues across the country have made the same comment about recent events. That has been ‘there but for the grace of God…’. Edinburgh must take the lead and speak out for Social Work services as a whole and not merely seek local responses.

UNISON believes now, as it stated at the initial O’Brien Inquiry presentation on 16 October 2003, that the lessons must be learned through calm reflection and considered response. This is too important for sound-bites, scapegoating or seeking to blame.

UNISON believes there must be change in the delivery of Social Work services. But this must respond to the lessons of inquiries and to the lessons from research. It must concentrate on what is best for children, what works in protection and how the best outcomes can be achieved.

It is significant that the freedom to address many of these improvements and the funding to make them possible has only really materialised since the O’Brien Inquiry.

Much work has already been done on this in the Social Work Department through the huge commitment of managers and main grade staff at a time when their energies were in danger of being sapped by low morale. This work must be built on by the Council with the funds made available to achieve it.

UNISON stands by its position that the Council’s preferred option of splitting the Department and merging it with Housing and Education will learn none of the lessons of inquiries and will make not one iota of difference to child protection practice. It will be more likely to inhibit it.

We now urge the Council to learn the lessons and to examine carefully and fairly the alternative proposals made by its own staff, UNISON, The Association of Directors of Social Work and the British Association of Social Workers, among many others, to radically improve resources, systems and inter-agency working to make a real difference in child protection, rather than merely reorganising management structures.

We call again for the Council to rebuild and strengthen the Social Work Department and take radical steps to strengthen inter-agency working with Health, Police and many others at local service delivery level – where it matters – as well as at a strategic level.

John Stevenson
Branch Secretary
4 March 2004