Laming defends proposal for new management boards and director

In the week since his report into the death of Victoria Climbie was
published, Lord Laming has learned a little about what it is like
to be on the receiving end of criticism rather than the one
dispensing it.

Having criticised the work of front-line staff as “lamentable” and
of “very poor quality” as well as slamming management and other
agencies, Laming has seen his proposal for a national agency come
under fire for threatening the service with a new bureaucratic

But if he is bothered by the criticisms, he certainly doesn’t let
it show. He defends his recommendations, saying they will “create a
system with a much clearer, sharper focus.”

At the heart of his suggested reforms is a desire to strengthen
multi-agency working which, as with the majority of inquiry reports
into child deaths, was identified as a key reason for the failure
to protect Victoria.

The proposed new management boards for children and families, which
would replace area child protection committees and report to a
committee for children and families, would be responsible for
monitoring the effectiveness of multi-agency working.

Overseeing the work of the board would be a director of children
and families, a newly-created role designed to give responsibility
for the co-ordination of joint working to an individual. Among his
or her tasks would be ensuring attendance of all agencies at

But the creation of such a new role is in itself unlikely to
guarantee that more police and health professionals will attend
meetings, particularly when the most commonly cited reason for
their non-attendance is lack of time and, crucially, money. This is
especially true for GPs, who say they cannot attend meetings
because bringing in locum cover is costly and, with a national
shortage of GPs, increasingly difficult.

Huge funding increases are needed, not just for social services but
for the NHS and the police, in order to implement Laming’s
proposals, costs that will figure largely when the government
decides whether to act on the report.

But how much money will be needed is not yet known. Laming has not
made a calculation himself. “I haven’t done any forecasting. What I
have done is set out a framework for arrangements. But I recognise
that it would require new legislation and it would be up to
government to do an assessment,” he says.

As well as strengthening joint working, Laming’s recommendations
are also designed to remove any doubt about who is accountable for
the protection of children.

Some may argue, however, that ultimate responsibility should rest
with the director of social services. Adding more tiers to the
structure and creating new roles may lead to a more confused system
and one in which a greater number of professionals, councillors,
and now ministers, may try, should another child death occur, to
pass on blame elsewhere for mistakes made.

The report’s focus on accountability is unsurprising, especially
given the unwillingness of many of those who attended the inquiry
to admit to failing Victoria.

Many of the 277 witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry
attempted to deflect criticism of their actions by blaming others.
Of the scores of professionals who gave evidence, just a handful
offered apologies.

Those in senior positions, such as the then director of Haringey
social services, Mary Richardson, who claimed staff had “colluded”
to prevent her becoming aware of the problems in her department,
come in for harsh criticism from Laming.

Many observers have applauded the focus on senior managers but some
media commentators have questioned whether he lets front-line
workers off too lightly.

Undoubtedly, it is to his credit that he targeted blame at the top.
But does his report under-emphasise front-line staff accountability
for the standard of their own practice?

Laming says he believes that many on the front-line see their jobs
in terms of daily “survival”. Pointing to Lisa Arthurworrey,
Victoria’s allocated social worker, he says: “She had only been a
social worker for 18 months and I am pretty sure she had never
completed a section 47. Social workers must be provided with the
support they need to do their work.”

Few in the profession would fail to sympathise with the position
Arthurworrey found herself in as a new social worker, working
effectively unsupervised for months because those in charge failed
to take action when Arthurworrey’s manager, Carole Baptiste, began
to slide towards mental collapse.

But for all the examples of bad practice by front-line workers
which clearly resulted from poor management, there were also others
that seemed to be down to poor practice on the part of individuals.

Warning signs about Victoria that she seemed “stunted in growth”,
unkempt compared with the smartly dressed Marie-Th’rŠse Kouao,
and that there appeared to be no obvious mother-daughter
relationship, were all noted by several of the Ealing social
workers she came into contact with. But none of them recorded

One social worker, who described Victoria as looking like “one of
those adverts you see for Action Aid”, was so concerned she raised
her doubts with colleagues but still did not document them.

If such basic bad practice could have been avoided it would, says
Laming in his report, have made all the difference. But he still
insists that he hopes front-line workers will “take encouragement”
from the report, adding that “they are employees and reflect the
values and the standards of the organisation”.

He adds that the under-resourcing of children’s services – Brent in
1998-9 spent just £14.5m of its £28m allocation – puts
front-line staff “in an impossible situation” because they are
unable to deliver.

But even if Haringey, Ealing and Brent had spent all the money at
their disposal instead of diverting it to other services it may
well not have been enough. At the same time councillors and senior
managers at these councils were starving their children’s services
of funds, most around the country were overspending their SSA, a
sign they were struggling to manage with the allocated

It is a point Laming accepts. But he says that if social services
departments need more money then they have to be more sophisticated
about the way in which they go about asking for it. “It is not just
a case of saying we need more resources. The drip, drip message of
‘we need more resources’ is not enough. We must be able to show a
clear analysis of how much money we need and what it is for,” he

Issues around resources, human and financial, would be addressed
through the new structure, Laming says, adding that the idea behind
the national agency is that it will close “the yawning gap” between
central government and local services.

“Let me be blunt. If I was the director of the new agency, I would
not want to be caught out giving a false picture to them [the
government] of what services are like,” he says.

There are no guarantees that the government will implement the
recommendations, especially as they may not be compatible with the
soon-to-be-piloted children’s trusts. Laming says he knows nothing
about them so cannot say how they would work with his proposals.
For now he is content that the government will consider his ideas
within the children at risk green paper.

Only when the green paper is published in the spring, will the fate
of his report be known. 

– For more background information on the Victoria Climbie Report go

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