Baby P’s death shows that inspections don’t work

Government inspectors have become part of New Labour’s vast machine for manufacturing ‘fake success’, says Andrew Gilligan.
Imagine for a second that newspaper columnists were all employed by the government, and forced to render judgments in the kind of language favoured by those other great scourges of wrong-doing, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

I might today be writing that the Iraq war – launched, we now learn, partly on the basis of “evidence” overheard in the back of a taxi – was a “three-star” military operation, “good, but with some issues requiring further management attention”.
I would not be allowed to mention the unfortunate deaths of 200,000 innocent people, or the fact that some troops went into battle without bullets. But I would be able to lavish praise on the Ministry of Defence for drawing up a full diversity outreach action plan.

That, of course, is absurd. It would never happen. But in many aspects of domestic policy, something like it is happening all the time.

The hideous death of Baby P, Peter Connolly, in 2007 while under the supposed care of Haringey NHS and social services, was the childcare system’s equivalent of the Iraq war – a wholly predictable disaster, exposing failings in almost every part of the state and continuing to reverberate years afterwards.

But in the year it happened, Ofsted allegedly gave social services in Haringey a rating of “good” – hastily amending its final draft after the death to (I paraphrase) “catastrophically terrible and requiring the immediate sacking of the woman in charge”. Ofsted, it turned out, had based its rating largely on the satisfactory completion of paperwork by Haringey.

The Baby P case was not just predictable – it was (we now learn) actually predicted. Kim Holt, a doctor at the Great Ormond Street Hospital clinic that sent him home with an undiagnosed broken back, told this week how she and her colleagues had warned the year before that the clinic was “falling apart” and that a child would die. Her reward for this unwelcome candour was to lose her job.

These little details, however, appear nowhere in the report by the NHS regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), into the Baby P affair. A separate report, only published after Dr Holt broke cover, claimed that her concerns were “taken seriously”.

In fact (we now learn), the things she complained about got worse. If they were taken so seriously, one rather wonders why Peter died.

The commission’s chairman, Baroness Young, resigned last week. It’s reported that ministers refused to let her scrap the CQC’s practice of allowing hospitals to decide their own ratings, with only a minority independently checked. You’ll find this hard to believe, I know, but many hospitals decided to award themselves a rating of “good” – including Basildon, whose gross inadequacies (we now learn) led to 70 unnecessary deaths.

In the past, inspectors were rare and their work meant something. Now they are everywhere and their language of euphemism, elision and evasion means little. Their function, all too often, is not to hold public service managers to account, but to join them in a sort of conspiracy to make things look better than they are. No wonder ministers didn’t want to change the system. It may not protect us much – but it certainly protects them.

I happen to believe many public services have improved, modestly. But like the GCSEs that almost everyone passes, the reports churned out by Ofsted, the CQC and the rest are the East German shot-putters of the regulatory world – too good to be entirely for real. They have become part of New Labour’s vast machine for manufacturing “fake success”.

It’s time for these supposedly independent regulators to assert their true independence. Then, journalists might not have to use the words “we now learn” so often, so long after the event.