Lemn Sissay: ‘brilliant’ plans to improve child social care ignored by ministers

<span>Lemn Sissay: ‘That review and the fact it’s disappeared within the public conversation is a big deal.’</span><span>Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Observer</span>
Lemn Sissay: ‘That review and the fact it’s disappeared within the public conversation is a big deal.’Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Observer

The poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay has accused ministers of ignoring “brilliant” recommendations to improve the “dysfunctional” children’s social care system in England because they are not vote winners.

Sissay, whose bestselling memoir My Name Is Why was a reflection on his own childhood in care, said the government had “cherrypicked” from the 2022 MacAlister review, despite the report putting forward costed recommendations that would save money in the longer term.

“Why commission an independent review and not act on it? That’s what happened. That review took a year – it’s the best review of children’s social care, the most thorough one in my lifetime,” Sissay said.

“That review and the fact it’s disappeared within the public conversation is a big deal, this is classic children’s services, which is we know what the solution might be, it’s not that we haven’t got the resources but we’re not going to give the resources, we’re not even going to aim for them – because it’s not a vote winner.

“We’re ignoring children in need by ignoring children in care, we’re not giving them the attention they deserve, the most vulnerable in our society. It should be the highest point on the agenda of any government.”

Among the recommendations rejected by the Department for Education were the proposed level of funding – ministers committed to £200m over two years as opposed to £2.6bn over five – as well as making care experience a protected characteristic and committing to universal standards.

Sissay spoke to the Guardian before the publication of a new book, Free Loaves on Fridays, thought to be the largest ever collection of stories from care leavers. He said the book was “raising the narrative of young people in care” and showed “the myriad lives of people who’ve come from the care system”.

“We are everywhere. We are no longer quiet, we are no longer feeling as if we shouldn’t mention children’s homes because it might spoil the party, it might make people feel awkward – people are ready to hear it and we’re ready to speak it,” he said.

While he felt there had never been so much public discourse around children in care, he worried they were too often left out of conversations around child poverty, especially in the run-up to an election and amid scandals such as unregulated private children’s homes that are “happening in front of us”.

Referencing the tendency to dismiss criticisms of the care system by asserting that some young people have positive experiences, Sissay said: “When you bring somebody into a hospital, if they leave with more broken legs than they went in, you wouldn’t say, ‘Lots of people get healed at this hospital’, you’d say, ‘Why are they more sick when they came out than when they went in’. That’s something to be angry about.

“The care system should be so good that middle-class parents are trying to put their children into care because it’s so good and social workers have to have conferences on how to stop them doing it.”

One of the stories featured in the new book sheds light on how the care system has deteriorated in recent decades. Its author, Chantelle Billson, was moved into foster care aged three as her parents, who struggled with drug addiction, were unable to care for her. She credits the consistent and loving support from her social worker with giving her the stability she needed to find and settle into a comfortable life with an adoptive family. “It filled that void of neglect I felt a lot as a child,” she said.

Yet her former social worker Laura Bishop* said that had Billson been in care today she would have struggled to give her the same consistent support. “Things were very different 20-25 years ago,” she said.

“When I first came in there was probably a lot less paperwork than there is now – we’re very paperwork driven, which isn’t what social workers want. We were much freer in terms of the stress around process. There’s a lot more scrutiny around social workers, a lot more pressures on us and I think 20-odd years ago there was probably more money.”

* Name has been changed