Debate over Laming report rages on


With Lord Laming’s scathing criticism of services still
ringing in their ears, few within the world of child protection
have been prepared to put their heads above the parapet and
publicly review the implications of the Victoria Climbie report in
detail, writes Mark Hunter.

With 108 recommendations to wade through, covering policy at
both national and local level, the leadership of social, health and
police services have all restricted themselves to a general welcome
for the report and expressions of sorrow and regret at the failings
that led to the tragic death of the eight-year-old.

Nevertheless, amid the hand wringing and protestations that
“this must never happen again” there are some who have
dared to suggest that Laming’s report, for all its worthy
intentions, may, at best, be an opportunity missed, and at worst,
it could plunge child protection even deeper into crisis than it is

The crux of the matter is whether a demoralised, underfunded and
understaffed service can withstand Laming’s radical reforms.
These include the replacement of child protection committees by new
inter-agency boards; the establishment of a children’s
commissioner-type post to head a new national agency for children
and families; the creation of a national database of all children
under 16, and a ruling that children must be seen and interviewed
within 24 hours of allegations of abuse being made.

Certainly within social services’ academic sector, there
is a belief that the Laming report risks meeting the fate of some
of the other 35 public inquiries into child abuse since 1973.

At Nottingham Trent University, senior lecturer Jim Wild
believes that Laming has blown the “best chance we had to
transform child protection services”. Instead of radical
modernisation, the report offers just “another line of
overbearing management structure in a vastly under-resourced
service”, he says.

At Birmingham’s School of Public Policy, Martin Willis
criticises the report for blaming social services managers, while
failing to take account of government targets that “drive
managers to focus on procedures rather than whether children are
safe”. “Failure to achieve these targets results in naming
and shaming, more bureaucratic reporting, low morale and staff

Eileen Munro, lecturer in social policy at the London School of
Economics, believes that the restructuring called for by the Laming
report could actually make things worse, hindering recruitment and
causing demoralised staff to leave the profession.

“The most serious problem for the child protection service
at the moment is the recruitment and retention of staff,”
says Munro.

“Child protection agencies have been subjected to
countless re-organisations at either a national or local level. 
Research shows that they have not had a significant impact on the
quality of frontline work, but they are inevitably expensive in
staff time and energy.”

“The Climbie inquiry will make even more experienced
workers decide they are in a no-win situation, and it is time to
leave child protection teams.”

Munro blames much of the demoralisation within child protection
services on the new culture of “guidelines, protocols and
frameworks” that are designed to improve the quality of
service, but often end up doing the opposite.

“The Laming Report quite rightly stresses the need to
ensure that effective, high quality services are provided, but
fails to recognise that current measures to audit practice are
seriously limited,” she says.

Munro claims that “the accountants” who have
developed performance indicators in child protection have chosen
factors that are easily measured rather than those that give a true
picture of the quality of the care received.  This increased
emphasis on paperwork has distorted both the practice and
supervision of social work.

“Research shows that, for most people, it now concentrates
on managerial aspects not on the professional issues of the case. 
But frontline workers need someone to help them stand back from a
case and re-evaluate the information they have. Otherwise, as
happened in Victoria’s case, they make new evidence fit the
picture they have formed.”

Meanwhile, others affected by the Laming proposals are also
beginning to express their reservations.

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) has criticised
the fact that the head of the new children’s and families
agency will not be independent of government. This, according to
CRAE’s Veronica Plowden, means the new appointee will be
unable to act as a true children’s rights commissioner.

“Victoria’s appalling suffering and death provided Lord
Laming with an ideal opportunity to urge the Government to
establish an independent human rights institution for children,
which has sadly been missed” she says. The charity is also
disappointed that the report does not recommend that smacking
children should be outlawed.

The Local Government Association, while welcoming most of the
report’s recommendations, has described the timetable for
bringing about the changes as “challenging”. Of 108
recommendations, Laming has demanded that 46 are implemented within
three months, a further 38 within six months and the rest within
two years. The LGA has also expressed concern about whether local
government has the capacity to provide a specialist child
protection reaction service within 24 hours, seven days a week.

“Capacity is the key,” says the chairperson of the
LGA’s social affairs and health executive Alison King.
“None of this will be possible unless there are sufficient
numbers of social workers, of sufficient calibre and with
sufficient training.”

The public sector union Unison has welcomed Laming’s plans
to develop clear national standards and to strengthen inspections.
However it has questioned whether the new national agency for
children and families will be able to achieve these functions.

“We will study these proposals carefully, but we will need to be
convinced that setting up a new national body will promote more
effective child protection services,” says Unison’s
senior national officer Owen Davies.

The union is concerned that unless their relationship is made
absolutely clear, social services departments and the new agency
may end up “passing the buck” between themselves while
vulnerable children remain unprotected.

Inevitably there are also concerns about staffing levels.   

“At the heart of Alan Milburn’s response to Lord Laming’s
proposals must be a commitment to break the cycle of underfunding,
understaffing and overworking in social services departments, the
common feature of inquiry after inquiry,” says Davies.

“Without a big investment of extra money, services will not
improve because even the best policies and procedures in the world
will not work if you still have the same demoralised and
stressed-out people, working in teams with 30 per cent vacancy

For all the background of the Victoria Climbie case
click here

To read Lord Laming’s report
click here

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