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Education secretary's comment that 'Inkling' of harm is enough to remove children labelled 'simplistic' and 'knee-jerk'

Nadhim Zahawi criticised following comments in House of Commons during debate on Arthur Labinjo-Hughes

Nadhim Zahawi

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 9 December, 2021

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi provoked a backlash from social workers after suggesting “any inkling” of harm is enough for a child to be to taken into care.

Zahawi made the comments during a House of Commons debate after reading a statement on the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes tragedy.

BASW warned against a “kneejerk” response to the death of the six-year-old who died at the hands of his stepmother and father.

Zahawi's comments came after he was asked by Conservative MP Bob Blackman to urge frontline children’s social workers to remove children if they have a suspicion of abuse.

Zahawi responded: “The father and partner were obviously evil and manipulative, but nevertheless we have to make sure, if there is any evidence, any inkling, any iota of harm to any child, that the child is taken away immediately.”

Zahawi was also urged by Conservative MP Laura Trott to send a message to social workers about balancing removing children with making sure they are safe.

He replied: “Of course, if there is a scintilla of doubt in terms of any harm being caused to a child, they absolutely should be taken away.”

Asked by Conservative MP, David Simmonds if the Children Act 1989 needed “updating”, Zahawi said: “I will not rule out legislative changes if we need to make them.”

But BASW England national director Maris Stratulis urged caution. She said: “We all want to ensure children are safe but we must be wary of simplistic solutions to managing risk. 

“Social workers work ‘with’ families and constantly balance and respect the needs and rights of children, families, managing risk and safeguarding children.

“The unfortunate choice of words from the Secretary of State for Education would appear to suggest that there should be an increase in legal and statutory intervention of services for more children, adding pressure to a system that is already overloaded.

“We must learn from a systems and contextual perspective following the brutal murder of Arthur. A knee-jerk reaction will not help. We must trust social workers and key partners to continue managing risk and to continue to engage and work with families.”

Stratulis added giving social workers “the time and resource to work more supportively with families, investing in early intervention and recognising that safeguarding children is all of society’s responsibility would be a better way forward”.

Emeritus professor of social work Ray Jones, author of The Story of Baby P: Setting the record straight, described Zahawi’s comments as “shocking”.

“This totally re-sets the context, expectations and intentions of what children’s social services, the police and the courts are to do.

“It undermines the legislation which was carefully crafted and which the secretary of state now indicates he will change to achieve the removal of large numbers of children and families.”

A number of other comments posted on Community Care’s website also expressed concern.

One said: “I find it really scary how quick ministers are to point the finger. Arthur’s death has been tragic and there will be lessons to learn but separating parents from their children due to inklings of harm is not proportionate, achievable or sustainable.”

Another said: ”Social workers can hardly safeguard the cases we have open, never mind the influx we will now have following this tragic case.”

Another commented the approach suggested by Zahawi “is going to cause immense damage to children by the government, some families just need extra support and have never harmed their children…”

Another said: “The family courts and the care system are overstretched at the moment because of far too many referrals from local authorities based on assumptions of future harm to children without evidence of any ‘inkling of harm’ to the child. Such families need support not court…”