Leading article: A case of neglect that reaches the highest levels

Social services are underfunded, understaffed and failing to do their job
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When children are abused to death by those who are supposed to be their carers, it is entirely appropriate that we ask searching questions of how it happened and what could have prevented such a heinous crime. Details matter. That is why the attitude of Sharon Shoesmith, the head of children's services in the London Borough of Haringey, this week came across as so staggeringly complacent.

Ms Shoesmith argued that the only individuals who can be held directly responsible for the death of Baby P are those found guilty of abusing him in such a vile manner this week. That is undoubtedly true. But that does not mean, as Ms Shoesmith went on to argue, that the performance of her own council, which had the child on its "at risk" register for eight months yet failed to protect him, should escape any outside scrutiny or censure. And Gordon Brown was wrong to dismiss David Cameron's raising of this matter in the House of Commons this week as petty political point scoring. The entire country has an interest in getting to the bottom of this dreadful case.

It is a case that would seem to go deeper than many first realised. As our report today reveals, warnings that Haringey's child protection services were not up to standard were repeatedly ignored by the council. And ministers failed to act when alerted to the problem too.

We shall have to wait until the various reports into this case are published to understand whether, if they had been rectified sooner, they might have saved the life of Baby P, but these latest revelations are anything but comforting. At the moment, the trail of evidence is pointing to the same conclusions as previous reports into similar tragic cases: the neglect of crucial social services by both local authorities and national government.

Over recent decades, the sector has been grossly underfunded. While healthcare and education have benefited from spending increases, social services have been consistently overlooked. The turnover of staff is high. The morale of those who remain is often low. All this inevitably affects performance. Baby P did not "slip through the net". He was seen on 60 separate occasions by social workers and health professionals from Haringey. This would seem to indicate fundamental failures of staff training.

This is where the political debate has so far been lacking. The Conservatives have invoked their broader theme of Britain's "broken society", but the right policy prescriptions are not following. The Tory plan to freeze the budgets of local councils only threatens to make the provision of social services worse. The Government has been no better at delivering improvements, despite 10 years with the levers of power at its disposal.

Certainly, this is not a problem of funding alone. The bias in social services against taking children into care is understandable. But the official mindset that children should stay with their family has manifestly gone too far if a child like Baby P can be mistreated for so long and still left with his abusers.

Yet the question of resources, training and leadership is inescapable. We cannot run social services on the cheap. And our political leaders cannot expect to issue a few commands for reform and then for the system magically to right itself. It will require concentration and political effort to drive through the necessary changes. We owe it to the most vulnerable children in our communities to do better. Much better.