So, could it happen to a social worker? Could the white-collar
crime of fatal professional negligence result in a member of social
services finding themselves before a judge and jury, one day soon?
Last week, Paul Ellis, a teacher, was sent to prison for a year.
Max Palmer, a 10-year-old boy, had drowned while on a school trip
to the Lake District, supervised by Ellis. The teacher had
recklessly ignored warnings. The police have called it “a landmark
Dr Feda Mulhem also received a jail sentence last week for the
manslaughter of 18-year-old Wayne Jowett who was recovering from
leukemia. Dr Mulhem had instructed a junior doctor to inject him in
the spine with a cancer drug, Vincristine. In both cases, the
devastated parents objected to what they saw as the leniency of the
White-collar crime is more usually associated with fiddles and
fraud, so penal punishment for failure to do a job properly rings a
Several years ago, as a journalist, I spent a working day with a
social worker employed by the NSPCC. Subsequently, one of his
cases, a little girl, died as a result of appalling cruelty. The
social worker was verbally battered in the press, deemed guilty of
gross professional negligence, and duly resigned. It was obvious in
the short time I spent with him that he cared passionately about
his work but he was desperately overloaded with particularly
difficult cases and was under-supervised.
If this new climate of clobbering professionals takes hold, might a
social worker in a similar situation find themselves in the dock?
Where would the buck stop? Would he or she also have, alongside, a
manager and the director of social services?
Too improbable? In the public sector, individuals are mainly
motivated by the desire to make a difference, yet they often find
themselves frustrated in that aim because they are overworked and
often demoralised and their departments understaffed. “Negligence”
in that context is far removed from what sometimes occurs in the
private sector, a cold-blooded, clear-headed decision to cut
corners out of indifference, laziness or greed.
Public opinion appears to have understood that distinction – until
now at least. Yet, when there are so many problems endemic in the
system, improvements are elusive, and funding inadequate, so it
would be foolish to underestimate how politically attractive it is,
to point the finger at a single culprit, and say it’s all their