Peer pressure

    Lord Laming’s Climbié inquiry pointed the finger
    directly at managers. And he doesn’t see why another recent
    inquiry by a peer skirted round the issue of blame, he
    tells Mark Ivory.


    In his Victoria Climbié inquiry report, Lord Laming said
    that “the single most important change in the future”
    would be to create a clear line of accountability from the front
    line right to the top of the child protection system.

    Apart from the recommendations that led ultimately to the Children
    Bill, the report was notable for its attack on managers for leaving
    practitioners to carry the can for their mistakes. Laming spoke of
    the “breathtaking unwillingness of some of the most senior
    people… to accept that they were in any way accountable for
    these failures”.

    It was in this context that the recent Butler report into the
    intelligence that led to the Iraq war caught Laming’s eye. In
    that report Lord Butler said there had been a collective failure in
    the handling of intelligence but refused to blame anyone in
    particular for what had gone wrong. It looked, Laming believes,
    suspiciously like one law for central government, another for
    everyone else.

    Butler’s failure to blame anyone ran against the grain of
    other recent inquiry reports – not just Laming’s own,
    but also Sir Michael Bichard’s into Ian Huntley and Lord
    Hutton’s into the death of David Kelly, where the bosses of
    Humberside Police and the BBC respectively found themselves in the
    limelight. Laming thinks that Butler was misguided.

    “Lord Butler talks of collective failure, but there’s
    no place for it in a hierarchical organisation,” Laming says.
    “Collective failure is an outdated notion that I don’t
    recognise – you’ve got to go on to say who was

    “Butler said there was intelligence coming through from Iraq
    that changed in tone. It was translated into bolder, more definite
    language with no caveats. Someone was responsible for changing
    question marks into exclamation marks, speculative statements into

    Even more important, says Laming, is Butler’s reliance on
    good faith. Since no one intended to cause harm in the process of
    interpreting the intelligence, no one was individually to blame,
    according to Butler. Laming begs to differ. Good faith, he says,
    never exonerates anyone on its own, since satisfactory answers must
    also be given to awkward questions about the following of
    procedures, the gathering of information and the judgements that
    came afterwards.

    “Good faith is only the start of an evaluation and analysis.
    There was no one social worker, doctor or police officer who
    intended any harm to come to Victoria [Climbié] – they
    all acted in good faith.”

    Laming argues that if local “operational” services,
    including social care, are to be subject to more intensive scrutiny
    and more demanding standards than public services at the centre,
    there are huge implications for the recruitment and morale of
    staff. This applies even more so given that the stakes are
    typically so much higher in central government – for example,
    a decision concerning the welfare of one family versus a decision
    whether to go to war. 

    “Inquiries are a really important part of our open and
    democratic society, but there must be consistency of treatment. As
    things are, we’re in danger of saying that in some parts of
    our public services you have to bear a heavier burden of
    He hopes that two new reports on the future of inquiries will put
    the emphasis back on accountability. The House of Commons public
    administration committee, to which he gave evidence, is due to
    publish one, while the Department for Constitutional Affairs has
    just finished consulting on another. The reports are both expected
    in the autumn.

    So should heads have rolled after Butler? Laming responds with his
    characteristic caution, though he does think it odd that John
    Scarlett, the new head of MI6, received special treatment.
    “What did surprise me was that Butler, having declined to
    criticise individuals, then suddenly became an advocate for one of
    them, John Scarlett.  Matters of employment are the responsibility
    of employers once the inquiry is over. It is not for inquiries to

    But he doesn’t think Butler let Tony Blair off the hook.
    “By the time the material got to the prime minister, the
    caveats had already been removed. The question is, how did it get
    to the PM in that form?” CC

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