Social work at '˜tipping point' in wake of Liam Fee murder sentencing

Social work services were subject to 'relentless' cuts in the years running up to the Liam Fee tragedy.

Thursday, 7th July 2016, 9:59 am
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 7:41 pm
In the year Liam died, the social work department was facing an overspend of £14 million.
In the year Liam died, the social work department was facing an overspend of £14 million.

Brutal pruning began in 2010, when Peter Grant officially declared the council “had gone into recession”.

A need to cut £14 million saw a plan to have more social work assistants instead of fully qualified social workers, and a limit placed on the number of social workers who could reach senior practitioner status.

Then Labour opposition leader Cllr Rowley branded the cuts “gung ho” but as leader in 2013 he demanded a full priority-based budget review of social work after the department warned it faced a £10 million overspend.

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At the time Cllr Rowley acknowledged that “increasing numbers of children were at risk of harm” but the “big challenge over the next four years is to save £100 million from the council’s budget and try and continue to deliver high quality services.”

Social work’s overspend was due to an increased number of children being placed in care - from 38 in 2009 to 121 in 2013.

It reflected, as Cllr Judy Hamilton said a “national picture across Scotland with many younger children being neglected due to parental misuses and domestic violence.”

Stephen Moore, then executive director of social work warned all authorities were struggling against unprecedented demand and ‘efficiences’ were no longer enough to close the shortfall.

In Fife there was little left to cut. The region was already the cheapest run children and families team in Scotland, second only to Eilean Siar in the outer Hebrides.

Here 3.7 workers were employed per 1000 people, while Edinburgh ran with more than three times that number.

A source said: “Everyone was familiar with cuts; overspending and increasing need. It didn’t stop the relentless push for more savings. The evidence showed we were already a low cost and efficient service that delivered good outcomes.

“However there is a tipping point and all political parties and the corporate management team were told that if cost cutting and fixation on the budget’s bottom line took precedence it would inevitably lead to a deterioration in services and an increase in risk for people who depend on good public services.”

In 2014 - the year Liam Fee died - social work services in Fife faced a projected overspend of £14m as it struggled to cope with more vulnerable children than ever before.

While 51 management posts had gone, pleas for more frontline staff created 20 new social worker posts - a move approved only to prevent the higher costs associated with more children being taken into care.

New council leader David Ross said the responsibility for chronic underfunding in health and social care system across Fife and Scotland lay squarely at the “door of the Scottish Government.”

However, if Fife’s social work services had spent at the level of other Scottish regions it would have needed increased funding of £33 million.

A source said Liam’s tragic death highlighted the need for a wider debate in society over support services, especially since the region faces a £77 million budget gap over three years.

They said: “Politicians of all parties will continue with their Punch and Judy behaviour while trying to avoid the really big question -if politics is about choices when are they going to choose to invest?

“If we continue to disinvest, the consequences for people who are vulnerable will inevitably lead to a deterioration in their quality of life and an increase in risk.

“I don’t see any direct link to Liam’s death and budgets but the more you stretch limited and finite resources the more chance people at the margins will be overlooked.”