Users pay price of failings at the top

Councillors and chief executives must take their share of
the blame when things go wrong, says Wally Harbert.

At the Victoria Climbie hearings, Haringey Council’s former
chief executive claimed that responsibility for social services’ failures lay
with subordinate managers – not with him. That view is probably widely shared
by local authority chief executives, but it assumes that management
responsibility stops somewhere between the social services director and chief
executive, making the latter post an overpaid, part-time job.

How can those who
make decisions and recommend policies not be responsible for the outcome? I was
a director of social services for 20 years. Decisions about expenditure levels,
staffing structures, staff training, recruitment, salaries and building maintenance
were almost entirely determined by others, often against my advice. Such
policies profoundly influenced the quality of social services staff and the
effectiveness of services.

I played a minimal
role in negotiations with trade unions. Behind my back, secret deals sacrificed
vital services. A child protection unit, paid for by health authorities, was
abolished in this way. Cosy relations between trade unions and politicians
place enormous pressure on personnel officers and chief executives. When faced
with a choice between pleasing councillors or protecting children, they may
show greater loyalty to councillors.

Over several years,
my reports on staffing in children’s homes were denied access to committees. I
told my chief executive that "an authority that shows such a callous
disregard for the needs of children in its care may come to be regarded as
unfit to have the care of children". This was leaked to the press. I was
severely criticised but retained my job because, at three separate inquiries, I
demonstrated the truth of these words. Staff ratios were raised by 50 per cent.

It is no surprise
that the police are investigating allegations of abuse in children’s homes for
which I was once responsible and that former staff have been charged with offences
against children. I have given the police a 50,000 word statement on corporate
failures to protect children, failures that must border on criminal negligence.
My experience is not unique.

When deficiencies
become evident, investigations must include those at the top. In local
government, that means the chief executive and the corporate team of officers
and councillors. Social services staff have been the scapegoat for local
government failures for too long.

Wally Harbert is a past president of the Association of
Directors of Social Services.

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