Wednesday 3 December 2008
Deborah Orr: One more inquiry isn't going to help
I don't believe a public inquiry into the Baby P case is necessary. I think the failings in Haringey are already perfectly clear. Why should they not be? They are, after all, the same failings that are revealed in almost every public inquiry, into almost every public service dereliction.
On each occasion the problem is an elaborate yet unresponsive system, loaded down with paperwork, which robs frontline workers of time, and provides managers with lots of information to manage. Every time, there are difficulties in communication between different departments, with their different agendas and their different goals. Every time, things look just wonderful on paper, and just utterly appalling in reality.
In the Baby P case, this disjunction is particularly clear. An Ofsted inspection not long after this nameless toddler's murder, had little but praise for Haringey Children's Services. An inspection not long after the trial of the child's torturers, carried out by Ofsted and two other bodies, had little but condemnation.
One social work expert suggests that Children's Services departments should be audited differently. Ray Jones says they should be evaluated on such details as staff turnover, staff vacancy levels and use of agency workers. Is it not incredible that these woeful indicators are not already considered the most important sign that all is not well? If few professionals wish to commit themselves to an organisation, isn't that prima facie evidence that it is in trouble?
The experience of Nevres Kemal, the former Haringey social worker who attempted to blow the whistle on the council, makes it clear that those who actively complain about procedure face a hard fight. The whole culture at Haringey demanded that people move quietly on, for fear they might end up unemployable. Jones is right to suggest that employment patterns should be a major consideration in assessing institutions.
Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the crusading founder of Kids Company, has some telling words to say about the people who continue working under the unhappy conditions indicated by an inability to attract and retain staff. "To survive the moral darkness of knowing that they are leaving children in conditions that they would not accept for their own children, social workers stop thinking, shut down their ability to feel and, in an emotionally cold state, numbly follow procedure. Not getting caught out becomes the aim. They do home visits but don't see or feel. This is why they fail to notice harm that blatantly stares them in the face."
This assessment is harsh indeed. Yet how else can all those visits to Baby P's home, and all those missed opportunities to rescue him be explained? It is important for Batmanghelidjh's comments to be taken in context. She estimates that in the inner city areas where she works, one in five children are being neglected. There were just 191 children on the at-risk register at Haringey, Baby P among them. These numbers suggest that you have to be very at risk indeed, just to get on the list.
Michael Gove has pointed out that Haringey employs 121 social workers, which makes the worker-to-child ratio seem manageable, even generous. Certainly, in Baby P's case, it appears that the quality rather than the quantity of the effort was at fault.
Again, it is not hard to make a pretty accurate guess at the sort of mistakes that were made. It is clear that the mother of Baby P was in control of the situation. Far too much emphasis was placed on maintaining her so-called family unit, in all its perversion and ugliness. This derelict young woman was taken at her word, not just by those conducting visits, but also by Sabah al-Zayyat, the doctor who did not examine the toddler because he was "cranky".
Many commentators have pointed out that child-abusers are devious and adept at obfuscation. Others have pointed out that it is natural for social workers sometimes to be intimidated by their clients, who no doubt are sometimes scary people. These two factors appear to have combined in the case of Baby P. No one has the nous or the guts to insist that it was bath-time for chocolatey Baby P, or to assert that the child had to be examined naked, regularly.
Do we really need a public inquiry before simple signals such as a reluctance to undress a child in front of a doctor or a social worker are seen for what they are? Social workers cannot and should not be compelled to march into houses and strip off children. But they should have confidence that when they report a lack of co-operation on this matter, their team leaders will understand the implications, and back them.
The amount of "evidence" a social worker has to amass before applying for a court order is huge. Surely it would empower frontline workers if it was made clear to their clients from the start that some simple standards of compliance were expected, with immediate consequences for those who had a mind to resist?
In Haringey, it is already obvious, not even basic support was offered to frontline workers. Everything was open to interpretation. All those meetings, all those reports, all those dithering, complacent, wrong conclusions. All those professionals, who for so long did not even understand they had done anything wrong, let alone know how to avoid repeating mistakes. They knew how to play the system, and that ability protected them even from being able to see their own inadequacies.
The public inquiry into the Victoria Climbie case did so little good that the very same authority is in the dock again. Its recommendations were excellent on paper, and Haringey had no trouble in looking like it was implementing them, when it wasn't. It is time the Government started looking at how to simplify its systems, instead of gathering further information to complicate them.
The main thing that needs to be learned from his case is that when an organisation has trouble in attracting and keeping staff, it is because people find it a bad employer. Elaborate systems eat time and money, and destroy individual initiative and personal connection. The entire public sector is being taught to the test, ticking the boxes, filling in the multiple choices, and forgetting to think for itself. It is this that has to stop.
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