Engaging the Peoplo

It’s 35 years this week, since I started working for Northumberland County Council – as an unqualified social worker in Bedlington. There’s a scary thought.
These days it would be illegal; you’re not allowed to call yourself a ‘social worker’ unless you are actually qualified and registered (which I am) with what’s called the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Back in 1979 it was a different world, much less regulated and formal.
I absolutely loved it. Social work is some of the best work in the world; getting alongside people at critical moments in their lives, using your skills, often yourself to help them make some of the biggest decisions it’s possible for a human being to make.
How’s a child going to be looked after? Where’s an older person going to live ? What impact has illness or disability made ? Sometimes having to intervene yourself when getting it right or wrong is a fine balance and the risks are huge.
Thankfully for the good folk of Bedlington everyone else in the team knew far more and had much greater experience than me. My immediate colleagues were a group of bright young people assisted by two mature women and managed by a senior group steeped in practice wisdom and local knowledge. I swiftly adopted the yellow Citroen 2CV and chugged around trying to make myself useful.
We did good work. Mightily enthused I left to go and get qualified then never returned; moving on despite the advice of one of those wiser heads who clearly thought that proper social workers stick around.
However, they don’t get their voices heard; nor are they recognised for some of the most important work undertaken our behalf.
I pay my Council Tax and vote for those who want to lead them but I find it incredibly difficult to find out about what today’s social workers are doing in Northumberland. Look on the County Council website and you’ll see prominent pieces about important things such as dustbins and holes in the road but nothing informative about the front line of social work and for instance, even more importantly, the children and young people in their care.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually suspect there’s a good story to be told here. Although I always take Ofsted with a pinch of salt they did praise Northumberland’s safeguarding services as ‘outstanding’ a while ago. Moreover to its enormous credit the County is one of the few local authorities which still operates a secure children’s home – a vital yet dwindling part of systems to protect the most needy children.
I’m not advocating that any confidences should be broken but good public communication is vital to underpin child protection.
A recent report on a child starving to death before everyone’s eyes noted that people had been unable to ‘think the unthinkable’. What utter nonsense; children are the most powerless members of our society and while we shouldn’t exaggerate child abuse there is just as much potential for them to be harmed as there is for potholes to appear in the road and for bins not to be collected. It happens.
As successive Governments have stated ‘child protection is everyone’s business’. It wouldn’t cost Northumberland a single penny more to use their website, publications, communications to enable us all to hear from their social workers and above all from their young people. They have an important story to tell which we citizens have the responsibility to hear.
Northumberland are hardly alone in this. Indeed every local authority in the area could improve its public engagement particularly when they are plainly struggling with massive financial cuts and when some are faced with fundamental decisions about joining a potential Combined Authority.
Given their oaths of office to serve the people who elected them I have considerable sympathy with the leaders of Sunderland City Council who express qualms about taking on these new, untested commitments at this time. Bloody-mindedly I’m even more on their side when I see some London-centred, unelected, self-appointed, so –called ‘think tank’ trying to take them to task through the letters page of this newspaper.
On the other hand the understandable difficulty experienced by local authorities trying to move beyond warm words and good intentions into breaking down long-established boundaries and working together, demonstrates the flaws in this whole approach to ‘regional’ development. Nobody expects Glasgow and Edinburgh or Cardiff and Swansea to slough off their identities, their commitments, their cultures, even their rivalries. What’s so different about Sunderland and Newcastle – and the excluded Middlesbrough ?
Why is the North East expected to make do with some sort of hotch-potch, spatchcock, papering over the cracks instead of having real power, real devolution, real democracy here ?
It’s public understanding and engagement which is truly protective of children and underpins the work of dedicated public servants in social work. It’s our political will, our action which will bring better opportunities to the North East.
Let’s not rely on a few people elected for other purposes. Far better emulate the people of Scotland – however they vote this Autumn.