Saturday, November 15, 2008

Baby P: emotion above reason - why politicians need to take a deep breath

There is no doubt that the tragic events leading up to the death of Baby P present a huge challenge to government, both local and national. However, they also present a challenge to politicians who, in their role as tribunes for the public, have multiple responsibilities. I've now watched the incident at Prime Ministers' Question Time which has caused so much controversy, and I'll return to that in a moment.

In his initial intervention, David Cameron condemned Haringey Council for having one in four social work posts left vacant. Interesting, really, given how many of his party's supporters are so critical of social workers in general, claiming that they are overpaid, irrelevant and, in general, unworthy of our support and/or sympathy. That said, he makes an excellent point. In the modern era, where local government comes under tremendous pressure to cut costs whilst meeting various obligations placed upon them by central government, leaving unfilled posts vacant helps to square the circle of falling grants and rising expectations.

That said, even if attempts are made to fill the vacancies, the general derision poured upon social workers tends to discourage applications. On one side of the debate, social workers are condemned for acting too precipitously - see John Hemming's blog for tales of inappropriate interventions, and at the other, they are condemned for failing to act quickly enough. Who would be a social worker under such circumstances? It is the sort of job where it is difficult to avoid taking your work home with you, and not one that I would fancy.

This is not to excuse any failings that the enquiry ordered into Haringey's Child Protection Services exposes, and I have little doubt that it will uncover them. However, finding errors of judgement and of process is only part of the task of fixing a department which is now perceived to be in crisis. We need to know why these mistakes were made, and whether the lack of staff led to a culture of shortcuts and superficiality, so often what happens when an organisation - public or private - is insufficiently resourced to carry out its allotted task.

Politicians have a responsibility to avoid hyperbole and nurture an environment whereby high quality, lasting solutions can be found - and implemented. And so I return to the events in the Commons...

David Cameron condemned "a social services department that gets £100 million a year and can't look after children". That was a cheap shot, unworthy of a serious politician. Is it really the case that Haringey Council is so awful, or was this a one-off case where, once things started going wrong, they kept going wrong? Does such a blanket accusation serve any purpose other than to get an easy headline?

Gordon Brown's response was ill-advised, although Conservative claims that he accused David Cameron of 'party politics' are on slightly shaky ground. He said, "I do regret making a party political issue of this issue..." - unwise, although not necessarily an accusation of the type alleged by David Cameron in his response. Equally, I thought that David Cameron's cheap comment, "I don't expect an answer, you never get one.", was wholly inappropriate given the gravity of the debate.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the debate itself, it is a sad reflection of our political culture that the issue appeared to overshadow the root problem, that of a critical failure of child protection services to do their job in a specific instance.

Frankly, I expect better. I want my politicians to engage in measured debate rather than lapsing into outrage. Unlike some commentators, I presume that David Cameron's outrage was genuine, if ill-directed, but government by outrage is government by knee jerk. It prejudices outcomes and leads to the sort of snap legislation that stores up trouble for later on.

So, ladies and gentlemen, take a deep breath, encourage the enquiry to do its job and do it well, and then come up with a measured response. If you do that, then perhaps Baby P will not have died in vain...


Linda Jack said...

I agree Mark. But I fear that given history, baby P may have died in vain, and this will be the latest in a long line of tragedies.

Anonymous said...

Here here basically. I am slightly more critical of Cameron than yourself but the thrust of this post is totally right...

The thread on LDV has become a sounding board for a mob and it shows the fact that calm reflection is needed...and it is upon the head of politicians to provide calm and considered reflection....

eeore said...

I understand your semantics on whether Gordon Brown actually said David Cameron was 'playing party politics' but let's face it that is what he meant. And if you watch the whole of PMQ's he had already made reference to unemployment figures 25 years ago for party politcal reasons, and whenever he backed into a corner he always resorts to accusations of party politics - the lib dems should realise this as much as anyone.

As for David Cameron saying that you never get an answer - well it is the truth. What you get a stream of prepared statistics that may or may not relate to the question being asked and is entirely aimed at getting a soundbite on the news.

The Lib Dems and Tories should treat PMQ's for what it is, and turn up with Sooty puppets and get Sooty to ask the question, to mock the Prime Minister, because as it is they are wasting their breath and insulting the intellignece of their voters by trying to ask serious questions.

As for social workers having a hard job - yes they have. But it is one made all the more difficult by the endless iniatives that role out of government.

And actually there is a very cogent political reason why Baby Peter died, and it lies firmly at Gordon Brown's door. Because rather that social services being required to protect him, the aim was to get him off the at risk register as quickly as possible. This explains why social workers turned a blind eye to his loss of wieght and increasing injuries, and why two months after he died the same social service department was praised by Ofsted for bringing down the number of children on the at risk register.

And is essentially what lays at the heart of the complaint by whistle blower Ms Kemal.