Transcript of an interview with Lord Herbert Laming,
head of the Victoria Climbie Inquiry, by Lauren Revans, chief
reporter, Community Care.
Lord Laming: During the past few weeks
we’ve been exceedingly busy producing what we call an issues
list – a provisional issues list – which is for the first phase of
the inquiry. The way I see it is this. This is a unique inquiry in
that it is the first one which has been set up under three
different pieces of legislation. So, in effect, there are three
inquiries in one, but obviously we will do them simultaneously and
then handle it as if it is one inquiry.
It reflects the fact that it covers such a wide range of
services and a wide range of issues that need to be looked at. When
you get a chance to look at the issues list, you will see that the
issues list goes into the range of services that we may need to
look at. It’s called provisional because we are making
absolutely no assumptions about what is going to emerge in the
course of our work. I don’t want people to think that this
issues list is the final thing because it isn’t the final
thing. It’s where we are now.
We’ve sent out letters to witnesses. And when we get those
witness statements back then we will consider whether there are
other matters that need to be included on the issues list. We are
about to place advertisements about the inquiry in the local press
and specialist journals when we will be telling people that we
exist, how they can contact us, and also inviting anyone who has
any information that they think might be helpful to the inquiry to
Because openness is very much part of the style of the inquiry.
It’s not a criminal trial. It’s about trying to find
out exactly what happened to Victoria and who were the people that
were involved and how were they involved. It will obviously cover a
wide range of services and a wide range of people, but there may be
others who we haven’t yet identified who may have had
concerns about Victoria who we don’t know about. They are
very welcome to contact us.
That only deals with what I call the first phase of the inquiry.
And that is understanding all that happened to Victoria and why
these dreadful events took place. What we will then do is we will
have a period of reflection, which will be about are there issues
here that are of wider significance. Because it involved not only a
number of different departments, but different local authorities
– four local authorities, health authorities etc, housing,
the whole range of services – the only thing that ministers
have really said to me is that they would be interested to know
whether there was something about the system that needed to be
looked at. Because on paper we’ve got an incredible system
that would bear comparison I think with any country in the
We’ve got clear a clear policy about children’s
services, we’ve got clear legislation – we’ve had it
now for more than 10 years, the legislation – we’ve got this
tremendous guidance from the department on working together.
So on paper we’ve got this incredible system. Why
didn’t it work in this particular case, perhaps why
hasn’t it worked in some other cases. So we will have a
period of reflection and we will then produce a second issues
document which will look at the wider scene and we will invite
people – I mean we invite anybody now – who have got views on the
matter. And the thing that would interest us, of course, is that if
people want reform, what kind of reform? It would be very
interesting to us.
What I would like to say is that we would be very interested in
anybody’s ideas. The spirit of openness that I attach
enormous importance to in the inquiry will be that the report is
based on the evidence and therefore witness statements. And
therefore we intend that witness statements and record of
proceedings will be put up on the website so that the report will
be based upon the evidence that we have received. A number of
people have taken the opportunity to speak to me and say I hope you
will do x, y and z, look at this, look at that. Well, individuals
or organisations have got to formerly prepare evidence. I want the
inquiry to be characterised by its independence, its openness, its
rigour, and its fairness. And the use of the website I hope will
enable everyone to follow the material that’s being presented
to the inquiry as they go along.
Lauren Revans: Where does that leave
confidentiality and the individuals involved – such as Lisa
Arthurworrey – in relation to the media and the whole blame
LL: My view is that all of these staff are
employees of an organisation. And it is the organisation which has
the accountability to deliver good and effective services. We will
looking at a wide range of issues and not solely at the performance
of individuals. And we will handle individuals with care and
LR: In the 1980s there were lots of public
inquiries, and lots of criticisms of them. Do you think we have
gone too far the other way now and become too secretive, and that
we do need another big public inquiry again?
LL: I’m going to tell you why I think
this inquiry has been set up in this way. And that is that if it
seemed to ministers and the general public that this tragedy
happened because of the activities of an individual then I think
that that would have been, of course, tragic but every human being
makes mistakes and we have got to allow for the possibility of
But I judge that the real concern that led to this inquiry being
set up was because it covered such a wide range of agencies and the
whole system just did not recognise that this was a child who was
experiencing either abuse or neglect, or was certainly in a very
vulnerable position, and therefore the tragedy which may have been
prevented by that was not prevented. And what this little girl
suffered and her terrible death I think shocked everybody. So
that’s why I think that although we need to look at what
happened to Victoria, the public concern out there is much more
general about why it happened and how it happened and how it that
can be prevented in the future.
LR: Who was responsible for drawing up the
terms of reference?
LL: First of all, the inquiry is wholly
independent. It is a statutory inquiry. It’s wholly
independent of all of the agencies. The terms of reference is the
result of discussion between me and ministers as to exactly what
needed to be covered and the terms of reference were of course
approved by Milburn and Straw and others. But I was consulted and I
am content that the terms of reference allow us to do exactly the
job of work that I had hoped we’d be able to do.
LR: Are the terms of reference going to give
you the scope to consider external factors such as, in social
services, the staffing recruitment problems and lack of
LL: I have tried to refer to wider issues. But
I am not anticipating what those wider issues are. I really would
like to emphasise that I start with an open mind. That’s why
I emphasised earlier on it is for other people to produce what
evidence they wish to the inquiry. When I said it that this is
deliberately marked as a provisional issues list, it is for that
reason. People can come along.
LR: One of the biggest flaws of public
inquiries in the 1980s was the cost of it and the fact that the
same recommendations kept being made. Who is funding the inquiry
and is there a budget limit?
LL: You have to have for all government
inquiries you have a have a sponsoring department. The sponsoring
department in this case has been decided will be the department of
health because of their primary responsibility under the Children
Act. We will try to be efficient and we will certainly use money in
a responsible and careful way. But it’s in everybody’s
interest that we do a thorough job. If I say there is no budget it
gives the impression that it is cavalier and that’s not the
case. But on the other hand, I don’t want anyone to think
that money is going to limit what we do and how we do it. I live in
the real world and I know what budgets are like. I have managed
budgets and we are accountable for how we budget. So there are no
LR: The date for the inquiry to report has been
put back from September 2001 to Spring 2002. Is there a reason for
LL: When September was first thought as a
possibility it was without any knowledge of the number and range of
witnesses that we need to see. So, when I was better informed, I
went back to the ministers and said look we’ve got to allow
ourselves proper time to get to these witnesses. The other thing is
that the reason we are advertising is at this stage is that there
may be people out there who had real concerns about Victoria and
tried to do something about it and their concerns were ignored. I
don’t know whether that’s true, but we’ve got to
create some space so that people can come forward. We want to do
this job thoroughly. So I’ve been back and explained this to
ministers and they thoroughly understood.
LR: You’ve mentioned the updated Working
Together guidance, but is it sufficient? Why do we need to have
this unique inquiry if Part 8 reviews are OK now?
LL: That is the question. The fact is that on
paper it ought to be impossible for something like this to happen.
But it has happened. So that’s why there’s going to be
LR: When health minister John Hutton first
suggested that there could be “root and branch reform” if
that’s what the inquiry recommended, lots of people said they
would not want that. A recent mini-poll on our website showed that
opinion is split. Do you think you will need to go that far?
LL: What I think is that I will be informed by
the evidence that we get. If people believe the current system
provides all the safeguards that are necessary for children and if
the issue is not about changing the current system, but making sure
that it is implemented and works then that is potentially a
persuasive point. But I don’t rule anything in or rule
anything out. That’s why I said earlier on that it’s
very important that people start thinking. This is an
LR: Victoria was part of a transcient child
population. Do we need to look at new issues, for example child
asylum seekers, private fostering arrangements, children who
don’t attend school?
LL: The honest answer at this stage is that I
don’t know. When we get the witness statements in and when
we’ve anaylsed them we will know a great deal more about who
did what and who knew what. I’m sorry to say it again, but I
really am determined not to allow for any assumptions to be made
about any of this. It will emerge. But if it does emerge it will be
LR: Another possibility that has been voiced is
placing child protection responsibilities with the police and
leaving social services to concentrate on family support services.
Would your inquiry want, and have the power, to suggest a reform
LL: The guidance says the inquiry is to make
recommendations as far as humanly possible to avoid an occurrence
of this again. That’s why I’m very keen that people
realise this is serious business and that if they want to make
recommendations or produce evidence or suggest change it’s got to
be evidence that has some substance and authority. People have said
to me exactly the kind of thing you have just said. If people want
me to consider that, they’ve got to produce evidence. This is
not idiosyncratic, this is not an individual approach. This is
about really rigorous sifting of evidence, really rigorous testing
of any ideas that come along.
LR: Are social frontline social workers under
too much pressure to close cases to reach targets? Do you think
there are too many targets for social workers to meet now?
LL: I don’t know. I am really rigorous
about this. I said to the team that it doesn’t matter what
our previous experience, what our previous background, what our
previous skills, what our previous knowledge, this inquiry makes no
assumptions. It is not committed to anything other than to learn
the truth and to evaluate evidence and then to make
LR: In Wales, would cases like this be less
likely to happen now that they have a children’s
commissioner? Should we have a children’s commissioner in
LL: If people want to advance that, they better
advance it. I suppose a critical question – and don’t think
behind it lies an answer – is if we had had a children’s
commissioner in England, would Victoria have survived. I
don’t know. And I think it’s probably too early for
Wales to give a definite answer to that. But if there is benefit
from the Welsh experience to be gained, then it’s an open
LR: Last October, home office minister Paul
Boeteng told Community Care that social services departments had
let children down “year on year on year upon year”. Do social
services have the credibility to set the child protection agenda
and carry on, or does the responsibility need to go else where?
LL: My starting point is that we have got a
system in place at the present time, a very detailed system in
place at the present time. It didn’t protect this little
girl. We want to know why. And from knowing why, then we will
consider any wider issues. And until I get down that track, I
can’t comment. I hope, by the way, that because I can’t
say too much in answer to your questions that everyone will
therefore understand that I am going to pursue this in very open
and very fair, but also very rigorous, way.
LR: You will consider anything?
LL: Absolutely. But it’s got to be
thought through and it’s got to be tested.
LR: Health bodies have said they are not going
to discipline anyone, whereas the police have issued disciplinary
papers and five social workers, including Lisa Arthurworrey, are
facing disciplinary action. Has the inquiry got the power to
reverse the health bodies’ decision if it feels there are
individuals at fault?
LL: The people who work, of the kind you refer
to, are employees of organisations. And I regard disciplinary
matters as matters for employers and are not relevant matters to
this inquiry. This inquiry is set up for a specific purpose and it
is separate from the matters of discipline.
LR: Will the internal investigations be feeding
into your inquiry?
LL: We will taking evidence from witnesses. The
internal inquiries are a separate thing.