Leading article: Conventional wisdom and terrible consequences

The report into Haringey children's services demands radical action
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The Independent Online

The independent report into Haringey Council has come to, in the words of the Children's Secretary Ed Balls, a "devastating" and "damning" verdict on the north London authority's performance in caring for vulnerable children.

It is impossible to disagree. The report – jointly put together by Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and the Inspectorate of Constabulary – catalogues weak management and rampant complacency from officials responsible for vulnerable children in Haringey. It is impossible to say with certainty that Baby P would be alive today were it not for the deficient state of children's services in the borough. But it is clear that Baby P was badly failed by the local authority in which he had the misfortune to be born.

What makes the verdict even worse is the fact that the lessons of a terrible earlier case in the same area have evidently not been learned. In 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbié died at the hands of her carers in Haringey. An inquiry chaired by Lord Laming found that protection agencies did not work together and that records of vulnerable children were inadequately kept. The very same failings were laid at Haringey's door yesterday.

Equally disturbing is the fact that Haringey emerged from its regular Ofsted inspection last year with a clean bill of health. An internal Serious Case Review in the wake of Baby P's death found no fault on the council's part. So why did the authors of those previous reports not see the bad practice exposed yesterday? Was it corruption or incompetence? And exactly how much confidence can we now place in future internal council inspections? These are questions which Mr Balls preferred to skate around, but they need to be answered.

The immediate effect of the Haringey findings has, of course, been substantial. Two leading councillors have quit and the head of children's services, Sharon Shoesmith, has been sacked. But we would be making a mistake if we watched these heads roll and then assumed it was safe to turn our attention to other matters. There are much bigger issues at play and they require the sustained concentration of our political leaders.

The Baby P case has shone a spotlight on the considerable pressures that social workers are under to allow children to remain with their parents, even when they consider an infant to be at risk of physical harm. The cost of legal proceedings to remove a child has risen dramatically of late. Councils are making vital decisions about children's lives with an eye on their purse strings. That cannot be acceptable. But an even greater obstacle is the conventional wisdom in social services. The professional orthodoxy is that taking a child into care should be avoided at almost any cost. It should certainly not be a first option. Life chances for children taken from their families and placed in care are truly appalling. But one of the lessons of recent weeks is that if social workers are biased against the care option, terrible consequences can result.

The chronic under-funding and over-stretching of social services must also be addressed. Mr Balls pledged yesterday to hold more reviews and increase the number of council inspections. But these measures, in themselves, cannot improve the quality of the performance of this vital public service. Our social services need more resources. And they need more than the intense but passing political attention that comes when a child like Victoria Climbié or Baby P dies in tragic and brutal circumstances.