We need to change child protection to boot out austerity

The theme for the day on Saturday 22 April was international perspectives on austerity and social work. One of the evening presenters, Professor Andy Bilson, had recently been to Malta, and so was able to tell us about the progressive - and successful -alternative to austerity implemented by their government. He led up to this with some fascinating thoughts about the relationship between austerity and children and families social work. Here is the blog post that Andy kindly provided us with that summarised his points.

Few would doubt that the wide range of cuts in services and increasing child poverty due to austerity policies has reduced children’s well-being. Our current approach to child protection is a factor in this because of its individualised approach which overly focuses on the actions of parents without proper consideration of the impact of structural forces – growing poverty and inequality. This provides a smokescreen for the government to implement austerity measures whilst blaming parents for the impact of its policies on their children. Yes, parents do harm their children, but recent years have seen a strong political message that there is no relationship between poverty and the likelihood of a child being harmed or neglected and even that it is irresponsible to suggest such a link.

Since 2008 we have seen a huge change in the approach to children in difficulties. The number of child protection investigations has more than doubled whilst the number of child protection plans because of sexual abuse or physical abuse has barely changed. This is not because the number of referrals has increased but because of an INVESTIGATIVE TURN which has seen the proportion of referrals that are responded to with investigations rise from 14% to 28% and the number of child in need plans who were investigated doubling to 45%. A growing number of investigations do not result in a child protection plan increasing by 2.5 times with over 109,000 children investigated without ending on a plan in 2016. Each of these investigations that do not confirm serious harm themselves cause harm to children and their families by increasing stress on families who are often struggling to cope to parent under the further stress of poverty and social exclusion.

These investigations and the focus of child protection social work is concentrated in the poorest and most deprived communities. The extent of this is shown in the figure above which provides estimates of the number of children in a class of 30 five year-olds from the most deprived 10% of communities. Before their fifth birthday 14 of these children are estimated to have been referred and 9 children were felt to be in need and requiring services to achieve or maintain a reasonable level of health or development. Since more than half of referrals and child protection investigations occur after the child’s fifth birthday these proportions are set to rise substantially before children reach the age of 18. At the other end of the scale children in the least deprived 10%, a similar class might include only one child who had been referred to children’s social care or been in need. Since the rate of investigations has risen since this study of children aged 5 in 2014-15, it is likely that these proportions will have already risen still further.

The growing proportions of children living in poverty because of austerity policies are both a direct and/or indirect contributory factor to child abuse and neglect. The direct effects stem from parents’ inability to clothe, shelter or feed their children or keep them warm. Indirect effects arise from the impact of low, insecure, intermittent income along with accompanying issues of poor housing and unemployment. It also the experience of shame felt by many living in poverty along with problems such as poor physical and mental health, disability in either parent or child and substance misuse (all problems that are increased in societies such as the UK with high levels of inequality). If you are poor these problems lead to a higher risk of having children removed whilst those with financial resources are unlikely to face this threat.

There is an alternative

Austerity policies are a choice of governments and based on neo-liberal economic theories. The choice to cut benefits, health and social care expenditure and to reduce expenditure on infrastructure focuses the impact on those in poverty. Whilst Malta is a small country it shows that there are alternatives. At the point when the current government came into power there was external pressure to implement more austere policies. Instead the government decided to increase rather than reduce support for excluded people. A series of policies included:

  • Free child care (crèche and kindergarten) for parents in work or education
  • Tapering benefits so that there is support for people to get work
  • Employment schemes which focus on helping people to gain and keep employment including work with employers and mentoring to provide support for people with difficulties in the workplace
  • The LEAP programme, which provides food aid through FEAD and alongside this provides access to a range of services and benefits mainstreamed & extended following initial funding by the EU
  • Raising the basic wage and an attempt to ensure that everyone receives this, including what is seen as a reducing group of people who will remain dependent on benefits
  • Enabling people requiring rent support to apply for a mortgage with the government continuing financial support for the loan
  • Breakfast clubs and after school facilities
  • A national health service providing a wide range of free health care
  • Literacy support for parents and adults in the LEAP programme
  • Provision of white goods where current ones are inefficient or non-existent
  • Help for rehabilitation of people from prison

The humanity of these policies was visible in the visits I made as part of a research project and contrasts with the blaming and shaming approach increasingly found in England. The outcomes of this were the fastest growing economy in Europe alongside a 4% dip in those at risk of poverty and social exclusion measured by Eurostat statistics. There was also a reduction of 40% in families dependent on social assistance in areas covered by the LEAP project.

Austerity is a key issue for the future of social work. Unless we want to be part of the growing culture which blames those in poverty for the problems they face, social work needs to change and to challenge poverty in its practice and social workers need to act politically to challenge the injustices they see on a daily basis. This will not be easy and individuals will face difficulties in the workplace and risk their livelihoods. If we are to achieve this we need to organise and act collectively. It is great to see BASW’s initiative to “Boot out Austerity” with its march from Birmingham to Liverpool. Let’s make this 100 miles a step to a more politically engaged and active association supporting action by social workers across the country.


This blog draws on an article published in Family Law written with Brid Featherstone and the estimates of children in deprived communities would not have been possible without the generosity of Paul Bywaters, who shared data from his study in the West Midlands, which I was able to combine with my research carried out with Katie Martin.

Professor Andy Bilson