The cost of a media-led outcry

In two articles in yesterday’s Guardian, Patrick Butler warns of Armageddon in children’s services. A combination of spending cuts and the increased pressure on councils following the Baby P case have, he says, stretched children’s services budgets to breaking point:

Making cuts to services is hard at the best of times: it looks particularly tricky to be trying to make savings in the overheating, post-Baby Peter economy of children’s social care, where councils are struggling with dramatically rising numbers of child protection referrals, more kids on the protection register and hundreds more youngsters being taken into care.

There is a bitter irony about this. The newspapers that demand public spending cuts and a shrinking state are the same ones that scream ‘never again’ and ‘something must be done’ every time a child is abused. The hysteria they create makes sure that, far from shrinking, the cost of social services will continue to grow.

The new procedures and regulations imposed on local authorities after the Baby P case have increased the number of children being taken into care. Nottinghamshire County Council estimates that its costs have risen by £1.7m as a result. That’s just the cost to the social services department. Add in the involvement of other council departments, schools, the courts and the police, then extrapolate it for the whole country, and the Local Government Association’s estimate of £226m looks about right.

Whether any of these new procedures will make children any safer is debatable. The Audit Commission reckoned that the reforms brought in after the Victoria Climbié case actually made things worse. Here again, a media outcry led to a disproportionate and hugely expensive response.

Thanks to the tabloids, and to the last government’s terrified reaction to media pressure, local authority social services departments have, over the last decade, spent millions implementing new procedures and systems. In all probability, these will make little difference to their ability to prevent children from being killed.

Throughout history, some parents have abused children or entrusted them to carers who abuse them. They always have and they always will. Those who work in the field know that the ‘never again’ demand of cynical tabloids and their well-meaning supporters is unachievable. In deprived areas with transient populations, where families and communities have fractured, trying to identify and protect the victims of abuse is an uphill struggle. The most that social workers can hope for is to limit the damage as much as they can. Considering what they are up against, their success rate is pretty good. Inevitably, though, some children slip through the net. Demanding that people are sacked and that the whole system restructured every time that happens is unrealistic. To collude with those demands, as the government did, is simply irresponsible.

The deaths of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly were tragic but they were not the first children to be murdered by adults whom they trusted and they won’t be the last. As a result of media-led outrage after their deaths, a small fortune has been poured into social services. With the money drying up but the regulations and increased demands still in place, the whole children’s services infrastructure is now close to collapse.

It’s tempting to blame the newspapers that simultaneously demand spending cuts but, with their something-must-be-done campaigns, put pressure on the state to spend more. However, the job of such newspapers is to create mischief. More at fault are the politicians who colluded with the outcry and, in some cases, made their own political capital out of it, while knowing that the measures they put in place afterwards would cost millions and wouldn’t work. If we are to manage the long-term reduction in state provision of public services, we will need politicians and public servants who can look the tabloids and their frothing supporters in the eye while telling them, politely but firmly, where to go.

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4 Responses to The cost of a media-led outcry

  1. Pingback: The cost of a media-led outcry - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Charles Cotton says:

    Interesting to note that according to the report Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2008/09 Supplementary Volume 2 to Crime in England, there were 78 people under the age of 16 that were murdered in 1998/99. By 2008/09 this had fallen to 50, though I admit that there have been fluctuations over this period. However, I guess you never want to let the facts get in the way of a good headline!

    Click to access hosb0110.pdf

  3. Rick says:

    Thanks for this Charles.

    There’s nowt like facts for debunking hysterical idiocy. The trouble is, amidst all the noise, getting people to calm down and look at the facts is very difficult.

  4. cb says:

    Here’s my ‘more-than-140-character’ response!

    Unsurprisingly I agree with you. I think that the media can almost be forgiven (not completely however) their rabble-rousing tendencies. Harm to children makes headlines. Some of the most damaging responses to the death of Peter Connolly came though from the politicians promising it would ‘never happen again’. That’s just setting up services to fail. Ed Balls did all he could to string Shoesmith up. I’m no defender of poor practice but there was no-one able to explain what responsibilities Social Services have in an undramatic way.

    This makes for defensive practitioners and managers who are frightened that they will be crucified when a parent (or step-parent) kills a child.

    The problem in social services is that the constituency of people who might be most affected do not tend to want to defend the support they might receive and this support does not equate to votes. Politicians just see these issues as vote-catching capital and the media are after headlines and ‘campaigns’. However, Children’s Services are a black hole of spending and social policy is at the behest of the government of the day – leading to more spending and reconfigurations that then are reconfigured again to the nth degree. With management consultants advising at every level.
    But back to the issue of the effects that the knee-jerk reactions – more children in care, more costs to the state and potentially more costs over the longer term in paying the price for children who may have been removed as a precautionary measure.
    Social workers can’t afford to take risks when they see the cost in terms of their names and details ending up on the front page of the Sun if they make mistakes. The most cost-effective way of working is by doing more preventative work – but that can’t be quantified or measured in the same ways as one is balancing potential benefits against present costs.

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