Sharon Shoesmith: a case of incompetent government, incompetent minister, and all the reasons I voted Lib Dem (and lessons for good government)

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.

In Praise of The Guardian: Finding strengths in the Lib Dems and Coalition

It may be rare these days but the Guardian does occasionally see some good coming from the Lib Dems and in the article today Ed Miliband shouldn’t crow. It’s time to move closer to Clegg they praise not only the Lib Dem stance on the NHS but also the Lib Dems in Coalition. Interestingly, this article comes right behind Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem position showing our strengths can still be seen when delivered right:

Had the Conservatives won an overall parliamentary majority, then the Lansley plan would have been rammed through. It is thanks to the coalition, and the hammering the Liberal Democrats got in the local elections, that we now have this “pause”. David Cameron should thank his lucky stars for Nick Clegg. We keep being told about the drawbacks of coalition government; sometimes we should reflect on the advantages.

In Praise of the Independent: Finding strengths in Chris Huhne

The Independent writes Chris Huhne: the untold story which highlights some strengths of Chris Huhne which are worth highlighting

According to his admirers in the green movement, Mr Huhne has achieved more in a year than most Cabinet ministers achieve in a lifetime. That may be an overstatement. But there should be no doubt that in the battles to come – and the victories that Mr Huhne has won this month are only single engagements in a longer war – the green cause will need someone of his aggression, knowledge and persistence.

If Mr Huhne were shown to be guilty as accused, he would of course have to resign – but he would be hard to replace. He has proved himself a tenacious fighter in the bureaucratic jungle of coalition politics, for such an important cause.

The only lesson we need to learn from the AV referendum: Stick to what you believe in

Following the disaster for the Yes campaign in the AV referendum result there has been a mass of analysis on the lessons we need to learn. Yet there is only one real lesson we need to learn which has seemingly totally escaped all commentary.

As Neil Stockley points out

The strategy and the messaging are not just a concern for political geeks and future PhD students. There was no proportional voting system on the ballot paper, but both the “yes” and “no” campaign carried on as if it was. Both camps wanted to have a big argument about basic views of politics. A more pluralistic politics versus “winner takes all”. “Letting more people have a say” versus “giving my side all the power”. “More representative politics” versus “strong government”. Hope versus fear. Even though it would have meant a modest change in the way we elect MPs, AV became the totem for these bigger political arguments

But this was the problem. The Yes campaign wanted the change but did not really believe in it. David Owen even came out opposed to AV. A referendum asks people to vote for something. If people proposing a system don’t believe in what they are proposing then why would the rest of the country? The Yes campaign may have shouted like they believed in it but everyone knew this was not what they really wanted and the No campaign used this.

Politics is highly emotional and while the Yes campaign may have acted like this was a referendum on PR, emotions are about integrity, and there is no integrity in saying one thing and believing another. People sense when someone is saying something that they don’t really believe it. The No campaign had a simple message – ‘why bother to change the system?’ to which the answer people got was ‘this change is better than the current system, but it is still not that good (and we will try and change it again to a better system in the future)’.

The only lesson we really need to learn is that we should stick to what we believe in. People vote for that.

In Praise of the Daily Telegraph: Finding strengths in Chris Huhne

The Daily Telegraph writes Chris Huhne has achieved more in a year than most top politicians manage in a lifetime which has been picked up by LibDemVoice already but it is worth repeating, particularly as I will use it in the year round up of strengths within the party.

Both decisions were cliffhangers. Both were pushed by Huhne, resisted by Chancellor George Osborne and Business Secretary Vince Cable, and resolved only at the last minute by a top level intervention – from the Prime Minister over the target and his deputy over the bank. By widespread consent they would not have gone the way they did without the Energy and Climate Change Secretary’s commitment, competence and sheer cussed combativeness, and – though not greatly loved at Westminster – he has won wide respect for his nerve under fire. Whatever now happens to him – and environmentalists are desperately hoping he survives – he has achieved more in a year than most top politicians manage in a lifetime.

Gaining untapped Lib Dem votes from NHS reforms: some positive news for the Lib Dems

The NHS reforms are a nightmare for the Coalition and has the potential to split the government as the Lib Dems have made a firm stand. There is evidence that this will be beneficial to the party’s fortunes but there is another aspect of this that has been ignored which could boost the party’s poll rating come election time if the party had a focus on helping the right people to vote.

1 in 4 people are opposed to the reforms in the current form. The Government’s listening exercise was intended to give the Government some credibility. However, this is turning into a battle between the Tories and the Lib Dems as to who should get the credit for the pause and any subsequent changes. Currently Nick Clegg is getting the credit.

This is important for a number of reasons but mainly as the public see the NHS as one of the most important issues in the country today. If any party can be seen to have made the NHS better they will surely benefit.

Those who are most affected by health policies are those experiencing poor health and they have been shown to be less likely to vote at election time. Poor health is associated with lower turnout. Voters that are more likely to utilise the NHS support parties that are more closely associated with supporting public provision of health services.

Given the low participation rates of the unhealthy, a political party which formulates an attractive policy package aimed at such potential voters could therefore mobilise a previously untapped source of the electorate.

So if we look at the proportion of people who did not vote in the General Election 2010 but say they will vote in the next election we can see that the Tories are doing much worse than the Lib Dems who have picked up nearly twice as many.

So the changes to the NHS reforms are as important to the Tories as the Lib Dems. Yet the Lib Dems have played this one much better than they have other issues. Clegg is getting some credit for the pause and the changes. The Tories are worried that they are not being seen as having a conscience. There is an untapped voter source in those who use the NHS and so a focus on getting them to vote in future elections would benefit the Lib Dems.

Lessons from successful politicians: The hidden secrets of Lloyd George

David Lloyd George practised as a solicitor in...

Image via Wikipedia

There have been many pages written about David Lloyd George and a search on the internet will bring up pages of very similar information. Many will know him for his success and personality, or even his position in the Liberal Party and his part in its decline. However, he is considered to be one of the most successful politicians the UK has ever had. But what isn’t so obvious is how he achieved this success and this is something we can all learn from.

Lloyd George was chosen by a majority of the governing coalition to replace Asquith as prime minister and is attributed to the UK’s part in winning the First World War. He is also very much associated with reforms that benefited the majority of society such as the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Health Insurance Act of 1911, which did much to aid the poorest in society.

Many look at why Lloyd George produced his success and conclude that this was due to his flouting of established conventions and his irresistible combination of charm, energy and ruthless determination. However, this attributes much of his success to his personal characteristics, which undermines a larger and more important part of how he achieved success.

Lloyd George also had a huge capacity to forge partnerships and energise the process of government. Until the collapse of his coalition, he got big things done. With Asquith, he launched the welfare state and emasculated the peerage. With Bonar Law, Arthur Balfour and Douglas Haig, he won the war. With President Wilson, he negotiated a peace settlement. Lloyd George became a government man adept at compromise, constantly looking for coalitions and combinations to co-opt the very Conservatives and monopolists he condemned in public.

Lloyd George played the politics game but to be successful in politics you have to build support outside of your natural base. As Clement Attlee showed forming coalitions, formal or informal are crucial, and being able to collaborate with others is a key leadership attribute and one anyone can learn and something Lloyd George demonstrated well but often gets forgotten in the annals of history.

In Praise of the Guardian: Finding strengths in Nick Clegg

Today the Guardian writes NHS shakeup: From malignant to muddled and outlines the difference Clegg has made in government. It shows some strengths for Clegg which are worth highlighting:

Nick Clegg is making a real difference. These are not common words to read these days, and yet they are becoming hard to dispute with the stalled English health reforms. It is true that the deputy prime minister would be better placed to claim credit if he had not initially nodded Andrew Lansley’s bill through, and true, too, that not all the sweeping concessions he now demands fit with the scepticism about the NHS he has sometimes shown in the past. Nonetheless, Mr Clegg has responded decisively to his party’s democratic will, and is training his sights on the heart of the Lansley plans.

Making opinion polls more useful: Why our current opinion poll ratings are actually fairly average

Following on from Making opinion polls more useful: Learning from the highs and the lows the second major point is making opinion polls useable as a campaigning tool. If we could use opinion polls in a more meaningful way with voters to find out what they wanted in small, specific steps, it would significantly increase our understanding of what people want from the national or local party. So here we can see how to make opinion polls more useful.

The Liberal Democrat party was formed in 1988 and for many the merger between the SDP and the Liberal Party will be remembered for many difficulties where the party sank to a low of 5% (ICM). Many in the party hoped the days of such a low were behind them but were all shocked by the result of the Barnsley Central by election this year which gave the Lib Dems 4.2% of the vote. I imagine that anything less than 5% in opinion polls would question the integrity of the party altogether. We could therefore say that the 5% mark can be seen as the lowest for the party.

Following the TV leaders debates before the 2010 General Election many in the Lib Dems eagerly read the papers and the polls and felt excited by the Lib Dems recording 30%, which was above what many had dreamt of. These two figures give us the range that opinion polls can move between for the Lib Dems: 5% – 30%

Opinion polls in the red and we can be seen to be doing very badly historically, while anything in the green can be seen to be doing particularly well. In this context the 15% that was being recorded by ICM just before the local elections is fairly average for the party (and this turned out to be accurate in the share of the vote the party got in the elections).

Everyone has an opinion on how to move the opinion polls up but many conflict and to it is the leadership which selects what they want to act on. However, we can place these polls into a context that makes opinion polls simpler and more useful. Creating a scale, which can be used with members and the public, can produce simple specific things which people want to see the party doing which would improve their opinion. This makes the job of selecting what to listen to easier.

Scales have been used in many areas of life to produce simpler solutions and one ICM poll even asked people in July 2010 to rate the Lib Dems out of 10 and gave them an average score of 5.5. Iain Roberts said at the time “…but what do the marks out of ten actually mean? … Is that good? Bad? Middling? I’ve no idea”. So how do we interpret these results?

The use of scales are simple and easy for everybody and everyone can give a mark out of 10 for the party without much thinking about the reasons why. Taking the worst the Lib Dems could do – 5% – and make this 0, then take the best they could do – 30% – and make this 10 we get ourselves our scale.

Now according to this scale, 5.5 given by the public in July 2010 would have produced a poll of 19.5%. So compare this to the actual opinion poll of the Lib Dems for July 2010 we can see that it was 19% – suggesting this scale could be fairly accurate.

The last opinion poll (ICM) and the local elections showed the Lib Dems on 15%. What the party wants to know is what they need to do to make this go up. However, what we often do is think about what needs to happen to be at 23% (election result) or higher. This results in opinions involving major changes. However, using the scale is a simple way of getting useful information from people about what the party needs to do to improve opinion polls in small, specific steps.

15% would put the Lib Dems at 3 out of 10. There is no way that the Lib Dems would go from 3 to 10 as they need to go to 4 first, then 5, all the way to 10. So we ask people ‘what would you be noticing differently if this was a 4 out of 10’ or ‘what would you need to see for this to move to a 4’ or some variety. This gives small, specific things that the party can do which would build poll ratings.

Examples of this can be seen here:

So what would you rate the Lib Dems out of 10 today? How do you think the public would rate the Lib Dems out of 10 today?

The Lib Dems should make a new coalition of shared beliefs and reach out to the 4th largest party in Westminster

The Lib Dems have caused a headache for Labour and the Tories. So first Tony Blair moved Labour to Lib Dem territory. Then Cameron moved the Tories to Lib Dem territory. Now Cameron and Miliband are closing in and the Lib Dems are being squeezed. Why should anyone vote for the Lib Dems if Labour say they stand up for social justice, fairness and have become more liberal while the Tories are now compassionate, liberal and care for the environment? The Lib Dems need to reach out to others to build support so perhaps they need to look at who believes in what we believe and begin working with them in a smarter way.

The current Lib Dem strategy is not working. People are skeptical of the Coalition being good for the country and the Lib Dem vote has significantly decreased. So lefts get back to basics. What works in politics in building a voter base? Parties are not built from the inside out they are built from the outside in. Labour was not a Labour Party until it had recuited many factions and interest groups who eventually became a united party. The Lib Dems were not the Lib Dems until the Alliance formally united. Each of these moves increases your voter base and electoral chances. What we know works is when a party works with others on shared beliefs.

So I was interested to read Nick Clegg’s recent email/letter to members about the first year of being in the Coalition. He wrote that the Lib Dems were:

a party which knows we can do more together than we can alone.

This maybe a statement of the obvious to many in the party but it is also a founding statement of the fourth largest party in Westminster, The Co-operative Party. They bill themselves as the Party of social justice who

believe that people will achieve more by working together than they can by working alone.

So the Lib Dems and the Co-operative Party have a shared belief. They are therefore natural allies. Their objective is to support the efforts of those who seek success through co-operatives. And there are many good examples of co-operatives around the country – not least the bank which faired the financial crisis rather well.

So this offers the Lib Dems a perfect opportunity to work in the Coalition for the good for the country while reaching out to others, except that the Co-operative Party has an agreement with the Labour Party, which makes reaching out to them difficult. However, there is a perfect way to do this which could benefit not only both Parties but also the Coalition.

David Cameron sought to move away from the state as the preferred provider of public services and this has attracted a lot of criticism from the Labour Party. The Lib Dems sensing voter backlash at the fear this creates in the public have sought to apply brakes to Tory proposals. This in itself is destabilising for the Coalition. But what if the Lib Dems worked with the Tories and the Co-operative Party to form a more agreeable policy.

As John Redwood points out the Lib Dem website states

Both the Conservative (p27) and Lib Dem  (p 42)Manifestos promised that new social enterprises would be created to deliver NHS services.  The Conservative (p45) and Lib Democrat (p42) manifestos promised that all types of providers – NHS, voluntary or independent sector- would be free to deliver NHS services.

So the Tories want to move away from a state monopoly, the Lib Dems acknowledge this could improve services but Labour are deeply distrustful of any such plans. So the Lib Dems should promote the belief that ‘we can do more together than we can alone’ and seek others who believe this i.e. the co-op party, to work towards making co-operatives which can run public services.

The Co-operative Party should relish the idea that the Government is realising their dream, the Tories should relish the idea that there would be no state monopoly of public service provision, and the Lib Dems should relish the idea that this could improve standards. A win-win-win situation. Except the Labour Party would not see it this way which would cause tension between the Co-operative Party and the Labour Party. This should be seen as a good thing. Beliefs drive politics and shared beliefs attract each other. Those shared beliefs belong together – the third largest and fourth largest party in Westminster joining forces.

The Lib Dems should be reaching out to those who believe what we believe. Here is a great opportunity to do just that.


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