Ten most popular blog postings (4th quarter, 2008)

No real surprises here, with one story dominating your and my attention – the awful death of Baby P.

10. George Meehan and Liz Santry resign – the two key Labour councillors (council leader and lead member for children’s services) finally took responsibility for Haringey Council’s failings.
9. Baby P investigation update – thoughts following a meeting with Cabinet minister Ed Balls.
8. Panorama on Baby P – my advance thoughts, particularly on how the pressure to agree may result in people not sticking by their concerns.
7. Baby P at PMQs – a very brief post, but got lots of traffic due to the Brown-Cameron spat making that PMQs very high profile.
6. The departure of Sharon Shoesmith – my reaction to the (eventual) departure of the head of Haringey’s children’s services and education.
5. The roles of Sharon Shoesmith and George Meehan – in which I explain why I believed they should take responsibility for the errors and blunders exposed in the Baby P saga.
4. Brian Coleman and the Fire Brigade – see no.3.
3. Fire Brigade rushes to help – the Brian Coleman saga where, for latecomers, I feared for my and family’s safety, called the Fire Brigade – who said I did the right thing – but Brian Coleman (Conservative London Assembly member) took it upon himself to criticise. Cue numerous comments on my various blog postings and via my website from firemen agreeing with my actions.
2. Reading the Baby P Serious Case Review – after initially being kept secret, the review was shown to a small number of MPs, myself included
1. Baby P verdict – reaction to the trial verdict.

So – that was the last quarter. Let’s see what gets your attention in the next one…

What to make of yesterday?

The day of reckoning when finally George Meehan paid the price for not listening, not heeding and not doing the job he promised to do after Victoria Climbie. I remember the breast-beating Council meeting back then – ‘this will never happen again’, ‘lessons must be learnt’ and ‘I personally will sit on the child protection committee’. Though no-one senior took responsibility and resigned.

Mr Meehan’s departure this time is, however, just one drop in this dreadful ocean. Liz Santry has gone because her position put her in the legally accountable position. But neither went until the depth of the failings in Haringey were blazed across the country as Ed Balls read his statement – ending the hopes they had of hanging on. There was nowhere to go once they knew the damnation contained in the Ofsted report.

But remember, only last Monday at Haringey’s Full Council meeting, every one of the Labour councillors backed George Meehan and Liz Santry – and that’s part of the problem too. And why I say that Labour in Haringey has lost sense of right and wrong. Over-politicised, each move only to ensure their political future. That is an issue that bears scrutiny too.

Anyway – in the cold light of the morning after the night before – I am thinking that Ed Balls lived up to his name – and did the necessary and did it well.

I might and do disagree with him on the degree of holding safely by an outside team and don’t understand why he is giving any sort of time lag before deciding next June whether to take the Children’s department away from Haringey. I think he would have been better to put it into full special measures and then give it back slowly as and when Haringey has proved itself changed.

And the other area of disagreement is around the need for a public inquiry – which I still believe is absolutely vital to get at all the issues, wider issues, virtually untouched by this short sharp investigation. This was right for the short term and the urgent situation – but in the longer term there are sheafs of unanswered questions. More of that later.

For now I just want to really pay tribute to the people of this country, whose outpouring of grief and anger stoked the fires, and to the media whose relentless pursuit through broadcast and press left no place to hide.

And to all those in the Commons who kept the spotlight on Baby P and forced the issue. Without this force majeureHaringey’s Labour council would have bunkered down and simply hoped to let the storm pass – like last time – and then in a few years time we would have been here again wondering how it could happen three times in the same borough.

The verdict on Haringey Council

So – the report finds Haringey Council guilty – and then some. I have never seen such a damning and devastating criticism of an authority as this litany of failure – both systemic and personal, and at every level and more or less in every agency. But particularly singled out for special damnation – Haringey Council.

So – given all that, what an earth is Ed Balls doing commissioning more reports and waiting until next June before removing Haringey Children’s services from council administration? Yes more information may be necessary. Yes – Balls is right to put in John Coughlan to lead the department back to health. But we need children in Haringey who are at risk to be held safe in full special measures and only given back to Haringey itself as the department is changed, new management structures put in, and staff either re-trained, sacked or exonerated depending on their part and culpability.

When and as Haringey proves itself worthy of taking control of Children’s Services – then and only then – should they get the department back. They have to prove themselves first.

As to the resignations of George Meehan and Liz Santry – it’s a shame it took until they publicly had nowhere to go in the face of such extreme criticism before they finally acknowledged their responsibility.

And none of this sadly goes to the heart of the rotten culture in Haringey which is secretive, arrogant, rank-closing and abuses power. Lord knows I have been shouting this from rooftops for long enough. Now at least I have Ed Balls and the Government shouting the same thing with me!

George Meehan and Liz Santry resign

Just got the news: Haringey Council leader George Meehan and Liz Santry (Cabinet member for children and young people services) have resigned. Update – Sharon Shoesmith has been removed from office too.

Here’s the Sky report:


Baby P investigation update

Yesterday saw Ed Balls (Secretary of State for Children) at his request. He was basically offering me the opportunity of a chat given my concerns over Baby P. It was helpful to be able to have this discussion and after the meeting I wrote to Ed Balls to formally raise several issues.

This includes an issue over who will get to speak to those investigating Haringey. I have had a number of people who have contacted my office wishing to bring their concerns about Haringey Children’s Services and the associated agencies involved to the attention of the inspectors. These are people who work for the services and therefore have direct and pertinent knowledge. The information such people could provide would be invaluable in allowing the “rigorous scrutiny” that the Secretary of State demanded in his letter to the inspectors. I ask Mr Balls to indicate how they can make their concerns known to the inspectors confidentially before the end of the review. I understand the inspectors will be leaving Haringey on Friday.

At my meeting with Beverley Hughes (Minister for Children) yesterday she suggested that if I wished the inspectors to look at the political leadership issues I should raise that directly with the inspectors. My particular issue is that role of the individuals named in Section 18 and 19 of the Children’s Act 2004, which places requirements on the political leadership of councils. However, having then spoken to the inspectors, they have refused to stray beyond the remit laid out in the Secretary of States letter describing the terms of reference for the investigation.

This was a bit of a surprise as it contradicted what Beverly Hughes had said to me the day before. She seemed very genuine when we talked – so I don’t think this was intended.

So – I have asked Ed Balls if he would let it be known to the inspectors that he would like them to review those named in statute as being responsible for the services.

Last night was the first public meeting with Labour councillors since the verdict from the Baby P trial. George Meehan (Labour Leader of Haringey Labour of Haringey Council) has been entirely absent since the conviction. But last night there was nowhere to hide – and so he finally, after prompting by Robert Gorrie (leader of the Liberal Democrat group) made an apology:

In his statement, Mr Meehan said he would wait for the outcome of the review before commenting in detail on the case. But he added: “There is no failure to apologise in full by this council, we do so unreservedly.” Lib Dem councillors asked him to to offer his personal apology, to which Mr Meehan replied: “I have no problem saying I personally apologise.”

Haringey Council's systematic failures

Some months after the lawyer for Nevres Kemal (the whistleblowing social worker) had written to the four ministers David Lammy (minister as well as the tragic Baby P’s own MP), Patricia Hewitt, Ivan Lewis and Rosie Winterton and got no satisfactory response – her story finally came to me – can’t say how.

Concerned by what I heard – anything that links Haringey with serious failures in child protection automatically sets alarm bells ringing – I decided that the best and most direct action I could take would be to bring it to the attention of George Meehan who, as Leader of Haringey Council (as he was at the time of the Victoria Climbie tragedy), ultimately must bear responsibility for its actions.

I personally wrote to him, both about the issues raised by Nerves Kemal and also two other cases which I thought indicated a systemic failure in Haringey’s Children’s Services.

I quote a few of the paragraphs from my letter of November 2007:

There have been a few cases in terms of Children’s / Social Services issues that concern me and I wanted to bring them to your attention…

[There] is a seeming repeating pattern. A parent or social worker makes a complaint about something to do with a child – be that against the school or the Council department. From analysing three cases in particular, what seems to happen is that the first instinct of the authorities is to turn the complaint on the complainant in a sort of closing of ranks.

I then go on to describe the three cases, the third of which being Nevres Kemal:

The third case: Social Worker Nevres Kemal. I’m sure you know she was dismissed for breach of confidence and trust. But my concern is the pattern again – that tables appeared to turn on her after she raised the issues of no medical reports being completed on a case.

The point I am raising George, is that it would seem that there is a pattern of the Council exhibiting more interest in protecting the school, Authority, department than investigating the actual complaint. Moreover, that in seeking to protect the ‘establishment’ the real issues are not being investigated – which may lead to incompetent people staying in post, bad practice and so on – and worst of all – children being at risk … I could not rest easy without bringing this initially to your attention.

I then asked for a meeting, and finally managed to get one with George Meehan on 31st January 2008. Ita O’Donovan (Chief Executive of Haringey) was in attendance at George’s request – so it was Haringey’s more senior politician and most senior member of staff at the meeting.

I brought the case histories and the letters with me and went over my extreme concerns with them both. They assured me they were as concerned as I was and Ita O’Donovan said she was looking at this in particular and commissioning an expert examination (I believe that is what she said).

But chasing letters following the meeting asking what had happened were not responded to.

So whilst Ms Kemal raised concerns with Ministers – and I subsequently raised them face-to-face with those directly accountable in Haringey – it seems from the unfolding of tragic events that neither route produced the right response. And the horror of this is that if both at local and national level there was no effective response – then we do not have in place adequate safeguards.

Protesting at the Council offices

Robert Gorrie and Lynne Featherstone with protestors outside Haringey Civic CentreYesterday saw big, big demonstration outside the Haringey Civic Centre by the group of Asian women and the workers from the ‘I Can Care’ charity. Tonight there was to be a Haringey Labour Cabinet meeting to decide (or rather rubberstamp more likely) the proposal to sell the Civic Centre (supposedly for lots of dosh) and move to Woodside House.

Well – in terms of selling the Civic Centre – one might think that choosing the moment of financial downturn that this country is experiencing means the price ain’t exactly going to be the best.

But we do need loads more social housing and affordable rentals – and if they could get a good price; if they have looked at alternatives; if their business plan is spot on – then worth considering. However, the move to Woodside House, not only displaces this I Can Care charity – who work with mainly Asian women to teach them English, computer skills and movement classes – but will cost a fortune. Estimates are being thrown around at £12 million.

Question to local people: Do you think that Haringey Council should spend £12 million on a new council chamber for Members to meet in and a registry office?. Or is there something else you think on which that money could be usefully spent?

It’s a no-brainer. Councillors could meet in Bernie Grant Centre or there’s a dilapidated council chamber still at Hornsey Town Hall or any one of a number of meeting places in the borough. It would be great anyway – and symbolic – if the councillors came out of a building and held their Full Council meeting in various parts of the borough. And we would save a fortune.

In terms of meeting rooms and offices – well the Council took on River Park House a few years ago – a massive office block – so it really is just a replacement for the council chamber and a registry office.

Now – as to the way they have moved on this – disgraceful. Despite both myself and Robert Gorrie (Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Haringey Council) writing to Labour Leader George Meehan to ask about the process, the alternatives, the business plan and what they were doing about ‘I Can Care’ – no joy and no answer.

Although judging by the anger and rudeness George displayed as he sped past the demonstration on the steps of the Civic – he just wants to steamroller this through without ever consulting with anyone. You know – whatever you think about the proposals – to not engage, not to have the civility to talk to the current tenants of the building – is just typical of why people hate Haringey Council.

And – to add insult to injury – ‘I Can Care’ have another couple of years to go on their lease. They have poured over £100,000 into the little side building to make it nice for those who come there to learn, and George Meehan apparently offered £1,000 if they would leave – presumably quietly. You couldn’t make it up!

Post Office closures: Labour admits they're making profits

Watching Labour minister Pat McFadden on TV yesterday (Andrew Marr show) state what we have all been screaming – that even profitable sub-Post Offices are being closed in the relentless decimation of local public services.

I’ve always argued that you can’t judge local public services simply on the basis of direct cash profit and loss – there are indirect costs and benefits too, and many of the benefits are not cash but in other forms. But it really takes the biscuit to be told that even Post Offices that are making a profit on a narrow cash basis are being closed!

For those that aren’t making a direct cash profit – with an open mind and a bit of determination it is not beyond the wit of man to make more of them profitable by introducing other services.

In Highgate, for example, the Highgate Society did a cost / benefit analysis. They obtained from the Post Office the proposed savings from closing that outlet.

And what did they find? Savings from central services around £25,000. Cost to local people in terms of extra time taken to go to further away Post Office alternatives – around £300,000.

So – the cost is to us and the benefit is to the Post Office. Did the Government not think that some of us think the £150 million ‘subsidy’ was actually a subsidy worth paying until more services could be brought in to up the profit of each branch? They are certainly happy enough to throw zillions at useless things like ID cards.

Also – there are fifty councils looking to try and help Post Offices stay open by putting council services through them. I attacked George Meehan (Labour leader of Haringey Council) when I did my surgery from our threatened Salisbury Road Post Office on this – and he promised to look into it. I have, since written to him to ask same. No reply as yet.

Do parents have choice over Haringey schools?

Met with Labour Council Leader George Meehan first thing. George says there shouldn’t be a problem for the 200 children without secondary school places as they will start to diminish as the choices get made and the places get filled. But only one in five children in Haringey got their first or second choice – and I remain concerned that not getting those choices mean that the Government’s ‘choice’ agenda is meaningless. Instead of getting the schools they have chosen, children and parents end up with schools that are far away across multiple bus journeys and which were put at or near the bottom of their list of choices. That’s not choice.

I remember one particular woman who came to see me at my surgery whose daughter had gone to a local primary school in Highgate. All the other kids from her block of flats had been accepted to one particular secondary school – and only this child had not. The girl instead had to go to a school that was near the bottom of the list of her choices and a difficult journey away; the girl was then (as the mother had feared) bullied and was now at home refusing to go to school through fear.

Perhaps if the schools published a map with dots on showing where all the children who get in come from (with an asterisk for special needs as they come from outside catchments) then we could all see for ourselves how ‘fair’ the system is and how far children are having to go if they don’t get their first or second choices. At the moment, there remains the suspicion that despite efforts to get it right, miscarriages of justice occur. The system needs to be fair and seen to be fair. Transparency and publication might help our confidence in the system.

Other topics I covered with George were on the use of the voluntary sector, the ‘restructuring’ of the library service; what Haringey Council is proposing to do following my discovery that both HIV infection and alcohol-related deaths in the borough are up substantially and also why my surgery poster is not allowed in schools!

Hornsey Town Hall

Following surgery on Friday (which, for new readers, means people coming to me to raise their problems or issues individually face-to-face – rather than me turning doctor and operating on people!), I go to Hornsey Town Hall.

Here David Lammy – who is not just my neighbouring MP from the other half of Haringey, but also Minister for Heritage – has come to be nagged about the future of Hornsey Town Hall. Labour Haringey Council leader George Meehan was there too, as were members of the Community Partnership Board – who are trying to steer the Town Hall through to becoming a truly new community facility and restoring it to former glory.

The plans are for this to happen in three phases, and the first is the bit that caused such controversy – which is selling off bits to be developed for housing to finance the next phase of the project. Then comes restoring the Town Hall and opening that up for various community activities and then the last phase delivers the hall and the chamber.

David Lammy was helpful in terms of recommending capital funding possibilities and people who might be able to help advise on how to move from where we are to where it needs to go to put in for the big capital bids needed. So – another move forward hopefully.