In the context of services for children and families there has long been considerable political and professional consensus as to the positive value of evidence based policy and practice. Over three decades, the children and families research community has enjoyed a respected high profile with its outputs, broadly deemed, by policy makers, service providers as well as service users, to provide a legitimate source of data for informing service design and delivery. The 1989 Children Act is a respected example. The current Children and Social Work Bill , which goes to the Lords for Report Stage on 18th October however raises a number of serious challenges to this credibility. Clauses 29-33, establish a fast-track process for area -by-area derogation of children’s social care legislation, and have generated very serious concern and robust opposition among professionals who work with children, young people and families; families themselves; and non-governmental organisations. If passed the Bill will have implications for a very large body of Acts of Parliament and associated regulations spanning 80 years, and there is widespread concern across the sector. The research community has much to contribute to this debate including highlighting , along with others the absence of any evidence base for the hypothesis that statutory requirements impede effective social work with children and families. However ,given the emphasis of the derogation clauses Bill on the importance of ‘trialling new ways of working’, there is a particularly pressing need for researchers to analyse and interrogate the bill from their specific perspective as methodology experts.
Their input could be crucial to the future design and delivery of services. Within current debates around the Bill, both the role and terminology of research are being explicitly deployed by the DfE officials arguing its merits : peers are being briefed about the ‘ innovative’ plans to test out deregulation. There is talk of the use of exemptions “ to create a controlled environment in which we could enable local authorities to test deregulatory approaches that are not currently possible, before taking a decision to make substantial changes to existing that would apply across the board…..”. However it is increasingly clear that these proposals fall far short of current ethical research frameworks, and exclude a vital independent element. There is no requirement to conduct trials in a safe ethical and transparent way. Furthermore the aims of testing different ways are confusing . A range of confusing meanings are attached to the concept of ‘the outcome’, including a lack of any clarity as to how comparisons will be made between local authorities. At worst the combined effect of these trials may be to expose children to human rights violations. The research community has a clear duty to join the debate, provide expert challenge and highlight these research standard deficits.
It is after all not so very long ago (2003) that the Cabinet Office commissioned Roger Jowell to explore the role of pilots in policy making. He concluded that:
“once embarked upon, a pilot must be allowed to run its course. Notwithstanding the familiar pressures of government timetables, the full benefits of a policy pilot will not be realised if the policy is rolled out before the results of the pilot have been absorbed and acted upon. Early results may give a misleading picture…… “
Whatever the parliamentary timetable of this Bill , and whatever the final detail, it is inevitable that its provisions will have major implications for local authorities in undertaking their service commission and service delivery roles . Whether they can be helped or hindered in meeting their democratic duty will depend to no mean degree on the methodological integrity manifested by members of the research community. They carry very serious responsibility to help resist the misuse of either the concept or the collection of ‘trial – data’ , as an excuse to remove the entitlement to services of children and their families.