Balls lives up to his name

The devastating critique that damned Haringey Council’s part in the Baby P tragedy has at last blasted a hole in the defensive, rank-closing administration.

I had my doubts whether it would really happen – as I was there, as a councillor, during the Victoria Climbie tragedy when Haringey failed, was damned in a report that singled out senior people for their failures to take responsibility or to understand they had got things wrong – and not one senior person went.

Indeed, George Meehan not only didn’t quit as council leader, but he subsequently had a period in charge of children’s services and then came back again to head the council. Only now has he finally taken responsibility for that long period of failure, punctured by those two awful deaths of Victoria Climbie and Baby P. Going too are senior staff – this time, it isn’t just the most junior social worker being blamed.

Credit to Ed Balls who, while the Haringey Labour network of friends and colleagues closed ranks and bunkered down in the London borough claiming no-one needed to go and nothing had gone too wrong, has lived up to his name and had the determination to ring the changes.

That in itself gives me some hope for the future. More hope too comes from the quality of those brought in to run children’s services. From the ashes of tragedy we now have some of the most highly respected social services staff in place right at the top.

It’s going to be a tough job to turn that around – but we need to make Haringey an exemplar so that the best and brightest in the social care world want to come to a new Haringey – imbued with a zeal to make it work. We need swingeing changes in management, structure and staffing. We will need resources to make sure that changes can be properly implemented – and I didn’t hear Mr Balls talk extra resources as yet.

But there are also wider issues untouched by Ed Balls’s short, sharp investigation.

For example – Sharon Shoesmith was in charge of education as well as child protection – following the recommendations of Lord Laming turned into legislation by the 2004 Children’s Act. It seemed a good and obvious idea at the time – stopping the gap through which children might fall if teachers didn’t communicate worries with social services. But it clearly didn’t work. Is this the failing just of staff in Haringey, or is there a deeper problem with the manner – or perhaps even concept – of merging the two? It’s not fashionable for politicians to say, "I don’t know", but on this one I don’t. My mind is open – but I am sure we need to consider the issue carefully.

And what about inspections? Just before Victoria Climbie’s death outside inspectors gave Haringey a glowing report. Just as this time Haringey got a glowing report just before all the truth over Baby P’s death came tumbling out. Huge resources go in to inspections. Are they really being well used?

And what about the overview and scrutiny system at local councils, which is meant to put local councillors – with their on-the-ground knowledge – in place to really get into the truth of how well or badly services are being run? In Haringey, the process was little short of worthless. Labour rolled out the block-vote party mentality and stopped effective scrutiny when concerns were raised over children’s services.

Baby P died because of the almost unimaginable evil of three people. The council, health and police services that should have intervened to stop this failed. But we should heed all the warnings from the case – some of which, as with scrutiny are by no means restricted to children’s services but instead can impact any council service. Let at least Baby P’s death bring that about that pause for thought.

This piece first appeared on the New Statesman website.

Further comment on the Baby P case is on Lynne Featherstone’s blog.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008