ANOTHER VIEW; Who can politicians believe?

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The Independent Online
I am sure the people of Islington are as relieved as I am that the sorry tale of mismanagement in Islington's childcare services is drawing to a close. As leader of the council at the time, I must, of course, accept ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the department concerned. I have full confidence that my successors are taking all the neccessary steps to put things right.

When the London Evening Standard first started printing allegations centred on the existence of a paedophile ring and the mismanagement of children's homes, rumours of the existence of a paedophile ring had already been investigated thoroughly by the police and the council on previous occasions and no evidence had been found. That has been confirmed in the report by Ian White, director of social services for Oxfordshire.

The other allegations centred on the management of the children's homes. At several meetings with responsible officers, I repeatedly asked them whether there was any truth whatsoever in any of the allegations. The error I made was to believe and accept the word of my officers in saying there was no foundation to the stories. In fact, the officers alleged that the Evening Standard had been paying the children for their stories and therefore they were tainted and could be discounted. The officers were wrong.

This is a dilemma politicians face daily. Unless you happen to be an expert in the field yourself, in technical areas you are stuck with the advice you get. This tragedy demonstrates the need for speedy, independent advice, which can act as a check, particularly in high-risk situations.

The issue of the council's equal opportunities policy as a barrier to good childcare practice was never raised, even obliquely. I was always clear that the children's interests came first. Even if there was something in this suggestion, it provides no alibi for senior officers who have an overwhelming professional responsibility not to cover anything up and to advise members appropriately.

The management of childcare has been an issue that attracts much media attention because so often, as Cleveland, Brent, the Orkneys et al have demonstrated, things have gone seriously wrong. If the answers were straightforward and clear, we would have found them long ago. It is the job of politicians to ensure that mistakes are not repeated and that lessons are learnt. I shall learn from this.

Equally, while the media have a duty to investigate, they must question theirroles in the reporting of such matters. The manner in which sensitive and critical issues in relation to vulnerable children are sensationalised creates a climate within which it is much harder to establish the truth and to decide on the proper course of action.

The writer is Labour MP for Barking, and was leader of Islington Council from 1982 to 1992.