Sharon Shoesmith: a case of incompetent government, incompetent minister, and all the reasons I voted Lib Dem (and lessons for good government)
30 May 2011 6 Comments
Sharon Shoesmith is a product of the system created by an incompetent government incapable of asking the right people the right questions who then became a scapegoat to cover up for the government’s incompetence. Everyone in the Lib Dems should know the details, particularly if you are in a Council controlled by the Lib Dems, so that we can learn some very basic and simple lessons of how to run a government.
The New Labour Government peddled their agenda for a change in the Child Protection system coming across the tragedy of Victoria Climbie and milking it for all its worth to achieve this change. There were already about 70 reviews into child deaths with lessons for the government to learn, and unsurprisingly many of these lessons are the same. So what did the government decide to do? That’s right – have a review.
They could have decided to listen to the many people who prevent children dying at the hands of their carers every day or even the experts but no, the government ignored the voices of the majority who know something about the subject. They decided in their wisdom to listen to a single man who would then decide on how to change the whole system for the whole country, no matter how well an area was doing.
So who did they choose? A man with great knowledge and skill in the area who would change the system for the better? No. A man who was the head of a Local Authority which had made serious mistakes in a child abuse case resulting in the Local Government Ombudsman making a finding of “maladministration with injustice” of his authority, the strongest criticism open to him. This is currently worse than what Sharon Shoesmith has against her name.
So the government held the most expensive enquiry into a child death in British history (£3.8m) and headed it with a man who had shown his own incompetence in the area. So what did he propose? No, it wasn’t a beautifully designed system which ensured that children at risk were kept safer – in fact it was the total opposite. He proposed a system so bureaucratic and cumbersome that it reduced social workers time with families to 20%, with 80% of their time being spent on a new multi-million pound computer system that was not fit for purpose and took Local Authorities years of complaining before they started to dismantle it – this is still on going. So with such small budgets for at risk families, high workloads and then a new authoritarian and bureaucratic system in place it became more difficult for authorities to manage.
To make sure that authorities were using the system correctly they had Ofsted go in and give inspections. The inspection regime looked at how well the authority ticked the boxes and as the system taught professionals how to tick the right box, authorities became very good at leaving a very good paper trail. Sharon Shoesmith’s authority got an inspection of rating of good i.e. a good paper trail, not good social work practice so the poor practice was not picked up.
So was it a surprise that there was another child death? No, it was inevitable, and there have been many, it is just that this one caught the media attention. So what did the government do on finding out that the system they created, at a great cost, didn’t do what it was supposed to do? That’s right, first they got Ofsted in to reinspect to change their finding and get the ‘right’ answer – which was poor. Then they got the same man in to review his own system who then concluded that people are not using his system correctly and this is the reason the child died. If you create a system that cannot be used properly it won’t be.
Ed Balls waded into a debate he had no idea about, seemingly in complete ignorance of the fact that it was his own government and his own department that had created a monster of a system which created less time for professionals to do their jobs and an inspectorate which was designed never to pick up bad practice. He then blamed everyone except the system they had created and Shoesmith was gone. Now we have him saying he would have done the same thing if he were in that position again. It is therefore not a surprise to hear Shoesmith say
I’m still staggered by how irresponsible the secretary of state was. He almost demonstrated his lack of knowledge and understanding of children’s social care … This was his department yet he took steps that led it into complete disarray.
Mistakes were made and it is a tragic and sad affair when a child dies. We have a responsibility to create a system that works and put people who know how to do their job in the system well. The cases of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly at the beginning of the Labour Government and at the end show how not to create the system we need. Ed Balls shows everything that was wrong with the Labour Government: he did not trust the professionals, he ignored the voices of the majority, he was too susceptible to lobbying (particularly IT companies), he created an authoritarian and bureaucratic system, he was unwilling to accept responsibility for his mistakes, he had no knowledge of the brief of what he was supposed to be doing, he thought the law did not apply to him and he could do what he liked, and his department spent all the money in the wrong places at the wrong time in the wrong way.
Good government is the opposite of Ed Balls:
- trust the people we train to do the job we train them to do (we do not need to then create a system which takes more time proving they are doing their job than it takes to do the job)
- listen to the voices of the majority of people who work in the area (they have lots of skills and knowledge and will know better than anyone what needs to be done to get the system to work)
- Use technology requested by the professionals not by the lobbyists who say it will help the professionals
- be willing to accept responsibility for mistakes in government
- ensure ministers have some knowledge of the area of their brief
- always remain within the law
- money does not solve problems, well researched, advised, and consulted plans solve problems and the money helps create the right system. Sometimes money makes the problem worse.
See here for how Australia created a child protection system now being taken up by the world.
This practice in government was not isolated to the inappropriately named ‘children, schools and families’ department (only a Labour Government would out a state institution between a child and their family) and this was why I could not vote Labour and why I believe in the Lib Dem approach. Thankfully Gateshead Council have just been given the go ahead to do it as they see fit – a good start.