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20 Nov 2008 : Column 375

We know that Ofsted inspected Haringey’s children’s services department in October 2007 and gave it a three-star rating, saying that it provided a good service for children. We also know that that report was based on desk research and was conducted by an inspector who had served as an official under Haringey’s director of children’s services. The inspector was, in fact, a former head of school standards in Haringey. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that that was wrong? Given the importance of getting child protection right in Haringey, should not a totally independent person have been appointed to conduct that inspection?

The Secretary of State has rightly insisted on urgency in the current inquiry into Haringey, and one of the principal issues in question is the threshold for taking a child at risk into care. We know that medical professionals believed in December 2006 that baby P had suffered non-accidental harm, and we know that in June 2007, medical professionals warned that baby P had probably been physically abused. The police were anxious that he should be removed from an abusive environment, but the council’s lawyers refused to apply for a care order. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the legal advice given by Haringey’s lawyers is published in full when the inquiry reports, so that we can all see just what went wrong?

I agree with the Secretary of State that it is crucial that we ensure that in future there is clarity on when and how children can be taken into care. Does he agree with me that there is an absolute need to ensure that the child’s interests are paramount, and does he also agree that the increase in the costs of taking a child into care imposed by the Ministry of Justice this year now need to be reviewed?

Looking at current systems will be at the heart of Lord Laming’s inquiry, which we welcome. The Secretary of State will be aware that when social workers deal with new child protection cases, current targets monitor how quickly they fill in the common assessment form; they do not monitor child protection outcomes in the same way. Will he specifically ask Lord Laming whether we should consider changing the system to ensure that it is child protection, not bureaucratic compliance, that the system prioritises?

The Secretary of State knows that the hon. Members for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), and I have asked to see the serious case review of the handling of baby P’s case. Regrettably, the Secretary of State’s hands are tied, because the Information Commissioner has ruled that serious case reviews cannot be released to Opposition politicians because of the risk of identifying the professionals involved, and the fear that the professionals who made a mistake may not therefore co-operate with reviews. Does he not agree with me that it is quite wrong to put the interests of a bureaucracy that has failed ahead of proper scrutiny? Is it not wrong that the law as it stands prevents the constituency Member from finding out what happened in the case? Does he agree with me that the law needs to change?

Does the Secretary of State also agree with me that whatever legal or procedural changes follow, the most important change is a change of culture? The public are tired of hearing that the correct procedures have been
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followed, when a child died in agony. The public are astonished that a director of children’s services can say, after the death of a child:

The public are rightly insistent that we act swiftly and comprehensively to hold those responsible in this affair to account, and to make the changes necessary to improve child protection across the country, which is why we will give every support that we can to the Secretary of State in his work.

Ed Balls: Let me start by saying that I appreciate that support and co-operation. It is important that, together, we do everything we can, where possible. It has been the case since Every Child Matters and Climbié that, where possible, we make such issues cross-party matters. That is certainly my commitment, too.

The hon. Gentleman will know, as I wrote to him and to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) this morning, that yesterday I endeavoured to see whether I was able to release the full, confidential, serious case review to parliamentarians, but the clear professional advice given to me was that that would be the wrong thing to do, given the ruling of the Information Commissioner and the importance of making sure that in future, serious case reviews are done properly. I absolutely want them to be done better in future. However, I am happy to continue to reflect on that. What I can do is ensure that when I receive the inspectors’ report on 1 December, both the Opposition spokesmen and the local MP get a chance to study it before I make it public, so there will be an opportunity, at least at that point, to make sure that everybody is properly and fully informed.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is quite right: in the end, it was the deception and the evil of the adults involved in the family that was to blame, and it was they who inflicted that cruelty on the child. That is very clear in the serious case review executive summary, which is public, and it is even clearer in the fuller report. At the same time, when these issues come to light and to the attention of professionals, there is a responsibility for us to act. Our judgment, having read the detail, is that actions were not taken when they should have been taken. It is that collective and singular failure that we are asking the inspectors to look at as a matter of urgency.

On the particular points that the hon. Gentleman raises, I do not think that the case of Ms Kemal suggests that the inspection regime is flawed. I agree with him entirely that this is not about procedures, but about making sure that proper investigations were carried out. There was a legal case between Haringey and that individual, which had been settled, and it was about cases that happened three years previously—there was no connection at all to the case that we are considering. When the letter came to the then Department for Education and Skills, it was not seen by Ministers in the Department. On the advice of experts in the Department, the complaint was referred to the inspectors who, in law, were the right people to carry out the investigation. I am reassured that they had a meeting with Haringey representatives and satisfied themselves, independently of Ministers, that the matter had been dealt with properly. Of course, that was in the minds of Ofsted inspectors when they completed their investigation in autumn last year, but
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that was not a full joint area review. They did not go in on the ground in the way that the inspectors whom I am now sending in will. I do not think that there was evidence that the inspection regime was flawed.

Nor do I think that there was evidence on the supposed relationship between the inspector who signed off the annual performance assessment last autumn and Mrs. Shoesmith. I have looked into the matter in detail. She signs off all those reviews, but the review was not done by her. I see no evidence that there was a conflict of interest in this case, and it is very important to me that the Ofsted inspectors now go and do their job in Haringey independently, thoroughly and in a very professional way, which is what they currently do. I hope that we can all support and have confidence in the integrity of the processes that they are following as we speak.

The legal advice will be examined by the inspectors as part of their work. At this stage, I do not know whether there was clear and definitive legal advice not to make an application, or whether more information was needed. The executive summary and the full report make it clear that it took far too long to get information from health experts. When the information was provided, it became clear that some of the consultations were not thorough. The paediatrician in the case has been suspended. It is true that clear signs of non-accidental injury were not acted on. Those matters will be examined, and we will get the report in a week or so.

I carefully considered the issue of legal costs at the end of last year. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has expressed the view that the fall in case numbers since April is due not to the increase in fees but to wider changes in the system. We provided £40 million for councils to make applications, and it would be appalling if any council were not to proceed with an application for a care order because of the financial cost of the legal process. I have asked Lord Laming in the terms of reference to examine that issue in particular. If that is happening, it is a gross error, and that issue is explicitly part of Lord Laming’s work.

We will ensure that Lord Laming looks at all other barriers, too. If there are bureaucratic obstacles to social workers doing their jobs effectively, those barriers need to be looked at, but we must be careful. It is important that social workers ensure that information is properly recorded in every case and that they write down their judgments, which is the only way to obtain proper accountability after the fact and ensure that things are done properly. If those records did not exist, the inspectors who are trying to identify what went wrong would find nothing. When social workers have meetings and conversations, those judgments must be recorded.

The important point is that we are discussing judgments. In the end, whatever processes or procedures are followed, the question is whether social workers, with the police and health professionals, are making the right judgments. That is what social workers do every day. In my view, wrong judgments were made in this case. If the inspectors find that in their report, we will hold people to account and act to make sure that such mistakes cannot happen again.

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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend may know that the Children, Schools and Families Committee has been examining the issue of looked-after children for some time. We are extending our inquiry to cover the most vulnerable children—those on the at-risk register. When such a tragedy occurs, nobody wants, at one extreme, a whitewash or, at the other, a witch hunt. If we really care about vulnerable young children, we must do everything that we can to ensure that such things never happen again. However, will my right hon. Friend remember that to raise the expectation that vulnerable children will never be murdered again is to go against human experience? Today, we are discussing not only baby P but the 35 to 50 children who are murdered every year in our country. We must learn from not only this case, but all the other cases, and we should bear it in mind that the improvement in the past few years has been quite good.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should not make a speech.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right. His expertise and that of his Committee will be important in advising us on how we can make sure that we learn the right lessons and take the right actions to prevent future tragedies. I am sure that his Committee will want to input into Lord Laming’s work.

My hon. Friend is right to point to improvements. Over the past 15 years, there has been a 40 per cent. reduction in deaths of children under five and a fall in overall child deaths. However, thousands of children die every year, and too many of those deaths are preventable. Our job is to do everything that we can to prevent those deaths. Our society does not seem able to stop adults who conceal despicable acts perpetrated against children, which seems to happen in every society in every generation. Where such cases come to the attention of GPs or social workers, we should be able to ensure that those children are protected. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, we should see things from the child’s perspective and always make sure that the child’s needs are paramount. My fear is that that did not happen in this case, which is why it is important that we take the necessary action to ensure that we do better in future.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I start by thanking the Secretary of State for advance sight of today’s statement and for his letter this morning on serious case reviews. I understand his problem with publishing serious case reviews, but does he accept that the current situation is deeply unsatisfactory? When he considers the published executive summary, which has been made available by the local safeguarding children board, does he agree that in the light of what we now know about the baby P case, the executive summary is an extremely bland and incomplete assessment of the case that is of little real value? When a child dies in such a way, are we not entitled to more accountability and openness? Will he re-examine that particular issue?

I want to ask the Secretary of State about the urgent joint area review, which he commissioned a week or so ago. Is that review really looking at what happened in the baby P case, or is it merely checking the effectiveness of existing child protection services in Haringey? My
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hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) has been informed by people within the council that some local managers in Haringey are selecting the staff to whom the investigators can talk. If that is true, it is a matter of great concern. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is true? If not, will he investigate as a matter of urgency? Given that he cannot publish the serious case review and that he has been left with a very short inquiry of a couple of weeks, which will not get to the bottom of the issue, particularly in relation to baby P, is it not now obvious that we need a full, independent public inquiry?

The Secretary of State has indicated that the nub of the case is not a lack of contact but a wrong judgment on taking the child into care. This week, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said:

Clearly, that should not happen following the Children Act 1989, which placed the protection of the child at the centre of all those agencies’ work. Will he give us his views on that issue and assure us that he will review the concerns of the agencies, which have great expertise?

I want to ask the Secretary of State about wider issues around child protection arising from this case and from yesterday’s Ofsted report. A moment ago, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) mentioned thresholds. The Ofsted report states that

Ofsted first identified that concern three years ago. Will the Secretary of State tell us what has been done, because, given yesterday’s report, it seems that not enough has been done? Will he tell us whether he is concerned that the number of children on the child protection register and its successors has fallen by about one third since the early 1990s?

Will the Secretary of State comment on Ofsted’s criticism that one third of serious case reviews were inadequate? Will he also comment on why almost all the serious case reviews, including this one, were not completed within the four-month target? This one took well over a year.

The Secretary of State has already commented on the issue of higher court charges, which have increased significantly of late. I have heard his observations on the issue, but will he retain an open mind on it until Lord Laming has completed his inquiry?

Finally, back in 2003, Lord Laming described as breathtaking the unwillingness of those at the top to accept responsibility in relation to the case that he was then considering. This week, the Secretary of State said that, in this particular case, he was

That is a damning judgment. In the light of it, why is Haringey borough’s director of children’s services still in her post when she is directly accountable under the Children Act 2004? Is it not clear that the borough needs new management, and that we need a full public inquiry into the issue?

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Ed Balls: I will not repeat why I could not hand over the full serious case review, although, again, I looked very hard to see whether I was able to do so. Alongside the Information Commissioner’s view, the clear advice that I received was that, if we were to set such a precedent, it would make it much harder in future to go through the full independent process. Although I accept that the executive summary is just that—a summary for public consumption of a much longer, more detailed and, I have to say, more harrowing account—the evidence of the problem and the failure to act are clear to see in it. Our concerns when we read the summary last Tuesday were confirmed by the full and more lengthy confidential report. I spoke to Christine Gilbert from Ofsted this morning to confirm that the inspectors are looking at safeguarding in Haringey, including management practices, and they will do so on the basis of an investigation of individual cases and their wider implications. The issues about the handling of the baby P case and the case file will be looked at by Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, as they prepare the wider report. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some assurance.

I have written to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) today, and I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of local managers making the decisions about who the inspectors interview—there is no question of that at all. The Ofsted professionals, and those from the other inspectorates, are highly experienced and highly professional, and I hope that I have reassured him that the report will be thorough and based on the highest standards. It does not do any of us any good at this stage to pre-judge the quality and professionalism of the report, because we may have to make some very difficult decisions on the basis of it, and I want to do so on the basis of the best report.

Of course, the report would have been more thorough if I had asked the inspectors to spend three months preparing it, but I judged that three months was too long to wait, and that two weeks was the shortest period in which they could do the work and the longest period for which I was willing to wait before we made decisions. I could have decided to act in advance of the report and to allocate the blame to particular individuals in a particular way. That was not my responsibility. I judged that it would have been the wrong thing for me to do. The right thing for me to do is to send the inspectors in, to get the detail and then to make the decision, and that is how I have proceeded in this case.

As for the wider issue of public inquiries, when I read the Ofsted inspection reports, talk to Lord Laming and look throughout the country at the consensus that was created around the Every Child Matters report and the reforms that are being put in place, I note that, of course, we have more to do to ensure that the reforms are properly implemented. We may need to reform and change, and that is why Lord Laming is doing his work, but my judgment was that to have waited for a public inquiry before acting, which would have meant waiting many months, or to have thrown the whole system into pause while we waited for the inquiry, would have been the wrong thing to do. It would not have been the right way to ensure that children in Haringey and throughout the country were safe. I do not rule anything out, but people want action, and they want it in the fastest possible time. That is the action that I shall take.

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I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and take very seriously the NSPCC’s views, but I do not believe that there is any evidence to show that, since 2004, the regime has taken the focus off safeguarding children. In fact, the opposite is true, and July’s joint chief inspectors’ report, which is mentioned in yesterday’s Ofsted annual report, states:

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