Where does the buck stop?

Are senior figures appearing before
the inquiry right in denying responsibility and pointing the finger at staff on
or closer to the front line? Janet Snell reports.

United States president
Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk saying: “The buck stops here”. In
other words, it’s tough at the top and part of the deal is that you take the
rap when things go wrong.

In the lead up to Victoria Climbié’s
death things went spectacularly wrong and yet during the 55 days of evidence in
phase one of the inquiry Lord Laming has struggled to get key senior people
giving evidence to accept responsibility for what happened.

Nowhere was that more true than with
those in authority at Haringey Council, each of whom indicated to the inquiry
that they were unaware of the shambles they were presiding over and were unwilling
to be held accountable for what happened as a result.

A case in point was the authority’s
chief executive Gurbux Singh, who now chairs the Commission for Racial
Equality. He said in evidence: “My role in this matter was limited to the
period immediately following Victoria’s death.” This was despite the fact that
he had been running Haringey for a decade, but his argument was that he had put
systems in place and those below him had failed to operate them properly or
alert him to what was going on.

Asked by Lord Laming if he took any
personal responsibility he replied: “If I thought I was responsible for what
happened to Victoria I would say so. I have thought about that and I don’t
think I am.”

Singh was adamant that the
responsibility for day-to-day delivery of services was down to “directors and
the layers of management below that”.

When Singh’s director of social
services Mary Richardson took the stand she too was clear in her own mind that
the blame for any failures lay elsewhere. She is widely held to have put up a
“robust” performance at the inquiry. While Singh eventually began to wilt in
the face of the relentless inquisition by Neil Garnham QC, Richardson was made
of sterner stuff. When Garnham asked whether it was true that “no breath of Carole
Baptiste’s alleged incompetence” reached Richardson she responded “absolutely
none”. She then defused his incredulity by throwing in the suggestion that this
could be because of “collusion” on the part of staff.

Later she conceded that she was
aware Baptiste “was not the strongest manager that we had”. But when Garnham
suggested to her that alarm bells should have rung and that allowing Baptiste
to stay in her post for four years was opening up the authority to a potential
series of disasters, Richardson’s disarming reply was: “I cannot disagree with

When asked where she felt things had
gone wrong, she highlighted “the basic failure to do the basics” by front-line
staff. She brushed aside suggestions that when she was headhunted by a
neighbouring authority after just 18 months at Haringey staff saw it as “the
captain deserting a sinking ship”. Team manager Dave Duncan told the inquiry
that by setting in train a major reorganisation of the social services
department, and then moving on, it was as if she had “thrown all the cards in
the air and after they hit the floor she left”. But Richardson maintained: “I
did not see myself as being that important.”

The next in the chain of command,
assistant director Carol Wilson, also repeated the mantra that “I was reliant
on the people who reported to me and on the systems and procedures that were in
place”. She was surprised at earlier evidence to the inquiry that her staff
were demoralised and demotivated because of divisions in the team and also the
restructuring process. As for concerns about Carol Baptiste and her handling of
supervision sessions, the discussion of inappropriate matters and her frequent
absence, that was all “complete news to me,” Wilson told the inquiry.

Elected members at Haringey also
appeared to have little clue as to the true picture. Gina Adamou, lead member
for social services, was asked whether she was aware of problems among the
staff and her response was, “I can honestly say I was not told.”

Councillors may reasonably look to their
officers to keep them appraised of what is going on but they cannot shirk
responsibility for political decisions that had a knock-on effect on social
services, for example, channelling resources to education in response to a poor
Ofsted report.

Haringey’s standard spending
assessment for children was £26.9m but the authority spent just £16.3m. Laming
pointed out that Haringey “stands out as one of the authorities that
consistently spends below SSA on children’s services”.

Across the authority as a whole,
money was tight for a number of reasons. The inquiry heard that a huge drain on
the council’s budget was ongoing debts attached to redeveloping Alexandra
Palace. Without this millstone the authority would have an extra £7m a year to
spend on services (and Mary Richardson said she would have been able to provide
a “Rolls Royce” children’s service for an extra £5m).

Another decision by elected members
that added to the problems in social services was an attempt to reduce staff
terms and conditions as a further money-saving move. This prompted strikes, and
a series of resignations, eventually prompting a full-scale recruitment and
retention crisis. In the end the idea was dropped, but not before damage had
been done.

One of the authority’s former
councillors, Craig Turton, suggested that all the elected members were
collectively responsible for under-funding the service. He said he believed the
reason that happened was a lack of knowledge on the part of councillors about
the statutory duties of social services.

Of course those in government must
also take their share of responsibility. They slashed the SSA in  1999-2000 and they made “education,
education, education” the top priority. It was their policies that led to Haringey
becoming one of the main destinations for asylum seekers, which “threw the
authority off balance” according to a joint review in 1999.1

But overall that report gave a
glowing account of Haringey just a few months before Victoria’s death. Staff
were said to be “amazed” when it was published and Singh and Richardson said it
was one of the reasons they thought all was well (although Laming chose not to
call the inspectors before him to account for their actions.)

His final report is likely to point
to a failure of the system rather than a failure on the part of individuals.
But individuals in senior positions are the ones that devised the system and
oversaw its running. Meanwhile, elected politicians, both nationally and
locally, decided how much money was available to spend on services.

The police, the health service and
the four local authorities that dealt with Victoria have all had to examine how
they handled the case and how they can avoid anything like it happening again.
In Haringey, where Victoria spent seven of her 11 months in this country, two
front-line staff remain on suspension awaiting disciplinary proceedings over
what happened. At the same time, as Lord Laming has noted on more than one
occasion, senior managers have been promoted and gone on to better jobs.

Both Mary Richardson and Gurbux
Singh told the inquiry they felt they could not have done any more to prevent
the death of Victoria Climbié. Perhaps they couldn’t, but they might have run
things differently. And above all they could have demonstrated some sort of
acceptance that, as the people in charge, they were accountable for what
happened. Lord Laming will pronounce in the autumn as to where he feels the
buck stops but, as Neil Garnham put it during the inquiry: “There is a lack of
willingness to take responsibility… but willingness to acknowledge error is
at least at the root, is it not, of progress?”

1 Report of the Joint Review of
Social Services in Haringey Borough Council, SSI/Audit Commission, 1999,

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