South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck reveals nightmare time as social worker in Sunderland

Emma Lewell-Buck.
Emma Lewell-Buck.
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South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck has told of how a nightmare introduction to child protection social work in Sunderland "broke" her.

Mrs Lewell-Buck, who is now Labour's shadow children and families minister, joined Sunderland City Council in 2007.

And she has revealed to Community Care Magazine that, very quickly, she was bombarded with a "phenomenal amount of court cases" - some of which led to frightening confrontations with families.

She said: "My first ever care proceedings was just a few months after I qualified and I had 14 parties to the proceedings.

“I remember just being stood thinking I haven’t been qualified for five minutes and here I am getting battered by one barrister after another for six hours a day, five days a week.

“The reality is that it breaks you after a while because there’s only so much of that kind of constant violence and fear and intimidation you can take on a daily basis.

“I’m a pretty tough cookie but at one point I ended up off sick for about a month.

“There was a parent who chased me from the car park to where our office was, which was a good 10-minute walk. Parents used to chase us and try to assault us on a daily basis.

“I had police alarms in my house. I was getting taken to court with police protection and held in victim support suites and rolled out to give my evidence and then taken back.”

Mrs Lewell-Buck is now hoping to use her experience in social work in her new role in the shadow cabinet.

She added: "I don’t want to be rude to anybody but there is a big lack of understanding in parliament about how social work operates on the ground.

“Victims will go in the paper and say thanks to the police, but no four-year-old child is going to go to the press and go: ‘My social worker stopped me from being hurt or being abused every week.’

"The parents are never going to go to the press and say a social worker rescued my child from the hell they were living in because they are sometimes the ones perpetrating that hell.

“Politically there’s always been this knee-jerk reaction to when something goes wrong to straight away condemn the social worker and then completely change legislation to make the social workers’ job even more difficult, which actually takes them even further away from families.

"It’s this never-ending cycle where the only solution is to legislate or put more restrictions in place.”

Mrs Lewell-Buck felt too much of her and her former work colleagues' time was taken up by form filling instead of working with families.

However, she does not see the "exemption clauses" in the Children and Social Work Bill, which would let the government temporarily exempt local authorities from duties they have under social work law, as a solution.

She said: “I’m very concerned about this.

“If something is going to be exempt that is there to actually protect a child then that’s not helpful because all that does is mean that child is at risk.

"They say it’s only going to be for three years. Well, three days for a kid who is living in a vulnerable environment is a long time.

"In three years you could be talking about them being seriously harmed or child deaths.”

If the government insists on pressing on with these plans, Mrs Lewell-Buck wants stronger safeguards and transparency on the process put into the bill.

She also worries that the measure paves the way for outsourcing child protection from local authorities.

Other changes Labour want to see in the bill is the inclusion of a national offer for young care leavers that would improve their access to benefits, including housing benefit and the working tax credit, and an exemption from council tax.

The proposal, made by a cross-bench peer, was defeated by just nine votes in the House of Lords on 18 October and so she is continuing to push for its addition to the bill.

The newspaper has contacted Sunderland City Council for comment, but has yet to receive its response.