Comment on Laming report

The last months of Victoria Climbie’s life are too appalling to
contemplate for long. It is almost impossible to reconcile the
details of Victoria’s suffering with the photograph of a smiling,
optimistic child, trustingly looking forward to all the
opportunities a life in the West could offer, taken only a few
months before her death.

It is, of course, impossible to prevent every murder of a child.
And if the public do not accept this fact, professionals are being
set up to fail. But we must never forget that it was possible to
protect Victoria. Those who were charged with doing so, on behalf
of us all, failed utterly and repeatedly. Yet public accountability
for that failure remained largely in one profession – social work –
and largely at the front line.

Lord Laming’s report fiercely criticises the senior managers in
all agencies who did not appear to consider themselves accountable,
while the careers and in many ways the lives of more junior staff
were destroyed. This must be the last tragedy in which blaming a
front line social worker replaces a genuine search for solutions in
the public arena.

It is clear, however, that Lord Laming has conducted a genuine
search for solutions, despite the sometimes alarmingly adversarial
nature of the inquiry process. He has accepted that when the system
works, it works well, and has managed to temper his shock and shame
at Victoria’s fate with his knowledge that radical structural
change always exacts a heavy price.

Lord Laming has recommended important changes which, if
implemented, should improve the way children in danger are
protected. But unless the same sense of shock and shame – both in
government and among the public – impels the government to take
radical action in support of sensible change, these new
accountability and standard-setting mechanisms will not of
themselves ensure others are not failed as Victoria was.

For radical action is needed, not in terms of structures, but in
resourcing the infrastructure Lord Laming has proposed. Lord Laming
has so comprehensively and clearly explained why a new national
child protection agency will not work, that even Paul Boateng will
now find it difficult to recommend one. We will have to wait until
spring, when Boateng’s green paper is expected, to find out for
sure. What we know is that chronic under-resourcing played a part
in the failure to protect Victoria, and will undermine the success
of Lord Laming’s proposals, if the government decides to implement
them, as it has undermined the collective desire to do better in
the past.

As far as social work is concerned, the mechanism for the
regeneration of the profession – and nothing less will do – is
already in place. A recruitment campaign exists, the three-year
degree starts in September, registration and regulation of the
profession has started, and work is under way to set standards and
establish a credible knowledge-base. But if a new recruit, despite
all this, can still end up in the position in which Victoria’s
social worker Lisa Arthurworrey found herself, children are not
safe. Significant extra investment is needed, over and above the
existing funding Health Secretary Alan Milburn made much of in his
response to Laming’s report.

Milburn’s response begs other questions too, for it relied
heavily on the new children’s trusts, and we do not yet know how –
or if – they will absorb child protection.

Lord Laming’s recommendations rely on local authorities as the
lead agency, held accountable by a National Agency for Children and
Families. If all commissioning trusts are led by local authorities,
who also assume responsibility for Sure Start, as is planned, it is
easy to envisage a context in which Laming’s measures to promote
greater inter-agency co-ordination can work, if the necessary
resources are assured.

A lot of ifs, which the green paper must resolve – but in
the right way.

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