01 July 2004

Subject Debate: Social Work

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): A very good morning on this, our last morning in the Assembly Hall. The first item of business is a debate on the subject of 21st century social work. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.
... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I was a sceptic when Parliament first introduced subject debates, but I have become a convert because they provide a good platform for us to set aside some of the more partisan comments that we might otherwise make. However, Mr Robson should not relax yet—I have one or two comments to make on the Executive's performance.

I start by focusing on committees, of which there seems to be a proliferation. I am reminded of the words of a gentleman called Barnett Cocks, who said:

"A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured, then quietly strangled."

That quote immediately springs to my mind when I see the proliferation of committees that is taking place. To paraphrase it, committees conserve and individuals innovate.

I want to say one or two things about the role of individuals, but I will focus first on the national work force group that the Deputy Minister for Education and Young People has chaired since its first meeting in September 2003. That group appears to have met four times so far and I commend it to some extent on its ambition. At its first meeting in September—it was not chaired by the minister, who joined the group at its second meeting—some very interesting things were said about Scotland in 10 years' time. I refer members to appendix A of the minutes of the meeting. David Mundell referred to the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill. Apparently, in Scotland in 10 years' time,

"Young people are demonised, subject to curfews and in bed by 7.00".

Perhaps; perhaps not. Under information technology, the minutes of that meeting suggest that we will have "virtual companions" and that we will "talk to fridges". This is fascinating stuff. However, the minister's ambition travelled much further. Page 4 of the minutes includes a statement that will warm the hearts of everyone who listens to today's debate. The very last line of the page reads: "Scotland wins world cup". I shall harry the minister for the next 10 years to ensure that he delivers on that commitment.

On what is both a happy and a sad day, I see in the minutes some of the enduring legacy of my great friend and colleague John Swinney, who will shortly take this seat to harry the First Minister for the last time in his current capacity, at the last First Minister's question time that will take place in this chamber before we move down the road. Under the heading "Politics/governance" for Scotland in 10 years' time, we see the words "Possibility of Independence". There is only one word wrong in that statement; it should refer to the certainty of independence, which the SNP will continue to pursue at every opportunity that presents itself, as John Swinney has throughout his political career.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I assume that you will return to the subject of social work later in your speech.

Stewart Stevenson: Indeed I will, convener. I should have said "Presiding Officer"—this problem is infectious. The Presiding Officer feels compelled to intervene in the debate, which I welcome. Perhaps there will be a revision of standing orders to encourage that in every debate when we move doon the road, to our new wee shed there.

More seriously, there are a number of issues relating to the Executive's activities in social work over recent years. In April 2002, the Executive announced plans for the social care work force. However, as Brian Adam suggested, we are not making much progress on that. A written answer that I received from the minister indicated that we still do not seem to know what is happening on training for social workers. It is very difficult to plan when one does not know what is happening.

However, let us be fair. The three sets of minutes that I have for the working group contain just one timetabled commitment, which tells us something about the way in which the civil service works, but the group has delivered an action plan for the social services work force. There is something slightly bizarre about that. The plan contains a number of targets, but it is obvious that there is a crisis in social work, because every target is either for the next nine weeks or for the next nine months—it is 999 all the way for social work. The trouble with this worthy document is that there is no real substance to the targets that appear in it.

As I approach the last minute of my speech, I turn to other subjects that have been raised in the debate. We have heard about some of the basic difficulties that exist and with which none of us in politics has properly engaged. I refer to the difference between national policy and local implementation. John Swinburne would have us send directives from Edinburgh to all parts of Scotland. Uniquely, I agree with David Mundell from the Conservatives and disagree entirely with John Swinburne on that point. Local variability is practical and valuable, because it responds to local needs.

Peter Peacock gave us six questions. Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long for at least six answers. My colleague Brian Adam called previously for a McCrone-style review of social work and was derided in some quarters for doing so. I am glad that others have now come on board and that we agree on that. I am getting older and so is the work force—30 per cent of social workers are now over 50, which is a big problem.

If we are going to attract the right kind of people into the profession, we must empower them and let them break the rules if it serves the purposes of their clients. Let us not get too tightly hogtied, as we might have been in the past.


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