Child protection has long been damaged by external influences
which supposedly sought to improve it.
Practice was affected, particularly in the 1980s and early
1990s, by the threat of tabloid vilification, for example.
Now, following a European ruling against Bedfordshire Council
involving massive damages, the fear of litigation threatens to lead
to more children being taken into care.
The compensation culture has broken through another barricade,
as social services’ immunity from legal action has effectively been
removed. And as subsequent cases will use the UK Human Rights Act,
local authorities will pay.
Poor practice and wrong decisions must not be excused and must
be investigated. The suffering of victims must never be minimised.
But it does not minimise it to ask whether financial compensation
Child protection practice, legislation and guidance have evolved
dramatically over the last decade. As with abuse in residential
care – where lawyers now dictate councils’ responses because of the
fear of claims – past practice was chillingly inadequate in some
cases. But the correction process does not necessarily have to
include financial restitution. In fact, as the undignified history
of the North Wales investigation shows, the threat of financial
penalties can obstruct the search for truth, and lead the
investigation into ever more elaborate and expensive processes.
If we seriously believe compensation is a right, the government
must be responsible for paying, if those who need properly funded
public services are not to suffer.
And a fund for treatment throughout a victim’s lifetime would be
of more genuine use.
We must also start a debate about the blame and compensation
culture, which threatens both the practice it seeks to improve, and
the rigorous examination of mistakes and the lessons they
Just days before Sarah Lawson’s father was convicted of her
manslaughter, health minister John Hutton again called for an
improvement to our appalling child and adolescent mental health
While James Lawson’s counsel was asking a judge to place him on
probation for aiding his 22-year-old daughter to take her own life
after suffering from manic depression for a decade, Hutton
confirmed that child and adolescent mental health would be included
in the forthcoming National Service Framework for Children.
Big deal. Mental health professionals have been arguing for at
least a decade that services for children and young people with
mental health problems are unsatisfactory. Including their needs in
the NSF for children and giving £15 million to councils and
£20 million to health authorities, which do not have to use
their allocation on these services, is not enough. Campaigners want
a specific NSF for those aged 16 to 25 with mental health problems.
It’s too late for Sarah Lawson but the government can act now to
ensure young people with mental health problems no longer slip
through the net of substandard services.