Leading article: Fearless talk saves lives

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The Independent Online

Why should the full version of the serious case review of the Edlington child torturers be withheld from publication? It was instructive how Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, chose to defend its suppression, on BBC 2's Newsnight on Friday. First he said it was a matter for Ofsted, the education regulator, which has recently extended its remit from schools to children's social services. Ofsted said that the serious case review was a good report, said Mr Balls, and it said that the executive summary, which has been published, was a good report. As if that should be the end of the matter.

When Gavin Esler, the presenter, read out some of the findings of the full version, which was leaked to the BBC, and contrasted them with those of the summary, which were notably less critical of the Doncaster child protection agencies, Mr Balls retreated to a new line of defence. Lord Laming, the NSPCC and all other children's organisations were in favour of keeping the full version confidential, he said. So important was Lord Laming's name in endorsing the policy of non-publication that Mr Balls invoked it half a dozen times, as if merely intoning the name of the patron saint of the Victoria Climbié inquiry were sufficient to ward off the evil spirit of openness.

Mr Esler responded by reading out some more of the full version, and commenting: "They didn't want us to know that." It was only at this point that Mr Balls engaged with the argument, setting out two reasons for confidentiality. One was to protect the identity of other children. This is unconvincing. It would be straightforward to blank out names and identifying information. His other reason was more substantive. Confidentiality was needed, he said, in order to ensure that all agencies co-operate as fully as possible with the review. So there we had it, after several minutes of bluster: a genuine reason.

Genuine, but not persuasive. Of course, confidentiality has a role to play in such situations, as a protection for whistleblowers and indeed for agencies to be candidly critical of each other, in the public interest. But that did not apply to the refusal to allow the judge to see the full report for last week's decision on sentencing. Nor did it apply to any of the quotations from the full version read out by Mr Esler. He said that nine agencies over 14 years had 31 opportunities to intervene in the subcriminal lives of the Edlington child sadists, and that the lessons of five previous serious case reviews in Doncaster had not been learnt. These facts seem to have been excluded from the published summary simply to save the embarrassment of the agencies concerned.

It may be possible to argue that accountability can be demoralising for those held accountable. That is not an argument that Mr Balls chose to make, but, as the other reasons why he supports the policy of non-disclosure remain mysterious, we must speculate.

As an MP, for example, he knows that disclosure of expenses claims has reduced morale among elected representatives at Westminster. But MPs have only themselves to blame. They were happy to go along with the principles of the Freedom of Information Act 10 years ago, but failed to alter their own behaviour. The end result, though, is that the House of Commons, while it may not yet be purer than pure, will be financially cleaner than ever before for the foreseeable future.

The same principle must apply to child protection. Secrecy and inertia are very British traits, and despite the Freedom of Information Act, the culture in most public bureaucracies has been slow to change. Yet it must do so.

It may also be argued – although, again, Mr Balls did not try to make this argument – that the interest in disclosure is a typical obsession of journalists, and a distraction from the more difficult questions of systems, staff quality and resources. We do not agree. Openness is a precondition of good administration in all parts of the public service. It is impossible to get away from the suspicion that the failure of Doncaster child services has been allowed to last for so long partly because of the lack of total openness in the past.

Yes, full openness may be damaging in the short run to child services in Doncaster, or Haringey, or elsewhere. Staff will be discouraged and harder to recruit and retain. But a refusal to face up honestly to failings can only be more damaging in the long run to the interests of vulnerable children.