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.