Baby P: Let’s Have Some Answers Please, Mr Balls

Too much regulation, too much paperwork, too little support. Richard Kemp argues that social workers must be allowed to get on with the job in a commonsense fashion if we are to limit the number of tragedies like that of Baby P

The government has a curious approach to local government. Stick in hundreds of rules and regulations and when local government does its best to deliver within those constraints kick it when it’s down.

The UK has one of the best records in the world for dealing with child protection issues. Only four countries have a better record for things like child murders than us. That means day by day, case by case, councils and partners in the police, health service and other agencies are getting things right in the vast majority of cases.

I couldn’t be a social worker. I don’t have the skills, the patience or the fortitude. Like society as a whole I leave the dirty washing to people who have those aptitudes. We let them deal with the things we don’t want to see and the people that we don’t want to acknowledge. Yet we then don’t stand up for them when they are maligned and reviled.

I have no doubt that the Baby P case will have a long-term impact on our caring services. People will have been put off entering social work and the other professions by this. People with overloaded case files will be asked to take on more cases at a time when they will become more risk-averse and demand more time to deal with the cases that they already have.

I am not saying that mistakes have not been made in Haringey and that we should not learn from those mistakes. But let me get back to the first point – a lot of what we do is within someone else’s constraints. Just as we have looked at our mistakes should not the government be looking at theirs?

I have written to Children’s Secretary Ed Balls and asked him four questions which I believe he should have already asked himself at this stage:

Is Ofsted up to the job?
The protestations that Ofsted gave totally contradictory reports about the effectiveness of Haringey Children’s Services because the council cheated are just tosh. If the system is that easy to cheat what is the point of the system? If the inspectors have no nose for what is real and what is unreal, what is the point of having them?

I used to do a lot of inspection work for the Audit Commission and have on two occasions worked alongside Joint Area Review teams. The spectacular mundanity of the Ofsted inspectors has never failed to amaze me. Clearly many of them were inspectors because they were no longer up to doing the job. Too often councils expect Inspector Morse to arrive and instead they get Inspector Clouseau.

Is there too much bureaucracy?
It is clear to many of us that the paperwork introduced after the Victoria Climbie case has simply moved the work of the staff from doing to recording. I have no doubt that paperwork and records needed to be improved, but I suspect that it has simply gone too far. When social workers can spend 25 per cent of their time travelling to cases and 50 per cent of their time recording what they have seen then not much time is left for actually getting to know and understand the often complex families they are dealing with.

Has the creation of new super-sized children’s services departments worked?
In the case of Haringey the director was clearly a well-respected educationalist as was seen by the support from the majority of the school heads, but did she have the experience of social work required for her to head a big combined department?

I believe that these issues exist in many other councils. Creating a big department does not necessarily mean organisational inter-marriage. There are many organisational and cultural ways that could be introduced to ensure that services join up around the children needing them and I believe the time is now right to examine whether the one chosen by the government is the right one.

In local government circles we are already experiencing some difficulty in getting people to become cabinet members for this area and for the equally demanding conflicts of the adult services positions. I suspect that we will have similar difficulty in future in taking people on to reconcile two related but separate disciplines.

Where have all your staff gone in the last month?
Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that your department’s field force has gone to ground since the Haringey judgement. It would appear that these highly-paid individuals are simply keeping out of the way to avoid having to do anything practical to answer the questions that many councils are asking themselves and each other. What is the point of having highly-paid and supposedly professional staff if they disappear from the frontline when the going gets tough?

I admit that I don’t have the answers to these questions. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the government should rely less on Whitehall diktat and more on localised commonsense to allow councils and their highly-committed staff to get on with things.

Whatever the truth of the matter let me make one prediction – that inquiries established will increase the bumph, paperwork and bureaucracy as people cover their backs. That won’t save more Baby Ps. It will ensure that the number who die will increase.

Richard Kemp is a Liverpool councillor and deputy chairman of the LGA where he also leads the Liberal Democrat group