Leading Article: Leadership is the best protection

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The Independent Online

When vulnerable and frightened people are abused, everyone believes they should be protected. Unless they are social workers. They are blamed when a child is left in the custody of abusive adults, when the primary blame lies with those that harm the child. And they are blamed when they ask the courts to take a child away from a family, when it might be thought that an excess of zeal was preferable to what happened in the Baby P case.

It might be expected that a liberal newspaper such as The Independent on Sunday would come to the defence of social workers. And we certainly believe that the lazy prejudice against an occupational group is grossly unfair.

But it should also be apparent that some social workers have fallen short of even basic competence, including those responsible for Baby P. From our interviews with necessarily anonymous social workers on page 12, it should be evident that these are confident, effective and compassionate professionals who can be trusted to do a good job.

Equally, however, it is evident that they have a low opinion of some of their colleagues. They speak feelingly of the difficulties of sacking useless people. That may be the real lesson of the death of Baby P: that effective child protection is about people rather than systems.

Of course, systems are important. It was recently reported that, if surgeons carrying out common operations followed strict protocols of best practice, based on the safety checks carried out by aircraft pilots, thousands of lives a year could be saved. Similarly, it is important to have bureaucratic systems in place to pick up the known signs of a child at risk and to prescribe a set of agreed responses.

But those protocols already exist. In review after review, after every avoidable death of a child, agencies are found to have failed to talk to each other and procedures are found not to have been followed. Recommendations are made that agencies should communicate and that procedures should be tightened; and then it happens again.

Lord Laming's report into the death of Victoria Climbie made the systems error in recommending a national child database, on the assumption that a comprehensive register of all children in the country would ensure that all agencies dealing with any individual child would be co-ordinated. Computer systems are often extreme examples of the dangers of over-reliance on systems generally. This is a little like the electronic organiser fallacy, by which disorganised people think that, if they put all their essential information on one gadget, they will be in control of life. The more likely outcome is that they will lose everything important at once.

Would it not make more sense, this time, to focus on the capabilities of the people required to operate the systems? Several accounts of the failings that allowed Baby P to be killed talk about the drive to achieve inappropriate targets and the pressure of paperwork. But these complaints could simply be evidence of weaknesses among both managers and front-line staff. Managers may be using tick-boxes because they cannot rely on their staff to react appropriately to each individual case.

It seems obvious that, if there is a systemic failure in social work it lies in the low calibre of too many of the people recruited by grateful managers to fill persistent vacancies, and the weakness of quality control in weeding them out once they have been enlisted. The first is hardly surprising, given the bloodsport of hunt-the-scapegoat periodically practised by parts of the press; the second is unfortunately common in the public sector.

But a serious attempt to raise the effectiveness of children's services should start with issues of leadership, rewards and perverse incentives. It should not be confined to social services departments: the NHS, the police and the courts place a similar reliance on the ethos of public service to make up for the deficiencies of management.

And it will cost money. Not impossible sums; but instead of expensive databases the money should be invested in people. It requires enough to be invested to remove the suspicion that social workers are discouraged from taking cases to court or seeking to place children in foster care on cost grounds.

Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary, promised yesterday to do "whatever it takes" to protect children from abuse. We will forgive him the hyperbolic cliché if he resists the temptation to promise foolproof systems designed to achieve the impossible ("never again"), and instead concentrates on paying social workers more and giving the good ones the support and recognition that they deserve for doing an invaluable and incredibly difficult job.