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‘A big boy done it and ran away’

Ken Houston says whether the victims are small children or small shareholders , government ‘guardians’ never seem to accept responsibility; even by the dire standards of the social work establishment, the first week of October was not a good one.

Within a few days the press reported three distressing cases – one north, the other two south of the Border – which revealed how, yet again, failings by social workers led to the loss of human life.

Here in Scotland the subject was the death of a Lanarkshire foster parent who was not informed by social services about the violent tendencies of a teenage boy in her care. The two English examples – one in Bradford the other in Birmingham – repeated an already well-related story of social workers ignoring clear evidence of ill treatment towards children by parents and/or step-parents. The previous month, similar failings involving the death of a child in Coventry, another Midlands city, were made public knowledge.

On each occasion the reaction from social services spokespersons was depressingly familiar: much intake and sucking out of breath, then the usual excuses about lack of resources, shortage of staff, heavy workloads and, of course, dastardly Tory cuts.

It had not been my intention to raise this issue because, A), the failure to protect children (at a cost of £50k a year to the taxpayer for a basic qualified social worker if you add pension and other benefits to salary) is bad for the blood pressure; and B) the subject is normally not one appropriate to a business-related website.

However as these failings were being revealed, I had begun reading Hubris (*), a fascinating account of the downfall of HBOS by the veteran financial journalist, Ray Perman. And having finished the book I could not fail to infer a clear connection between the failings of social work and financial regulation.

In his book Perman, rightly, focuses on the unbelievable risks with shareholders’ money taken by the HBOS top brass and for their failure to heed warning signs before disaster struck.

But the author also devotes a chapter to the Financial Services Authority, the government-funded organisation set up by Gordon Brown, which was charged with monitoring HBOS and other financial institutions to ensure that shareholder funds were not put at exceptional risk.

In this, the FSA failed miserably. Just like social workers who (either through naivety, political correctness or moral cowardice) choose to take the word of cunning, manipulative or brutish parents that their children are not being abused, so FSA officials took the word of the banks that everything was hunky-dory.

For the sake of a quiet life, what they were told was what they wanted to hear.

When the whole thing went belly up, public opprobrium concentrated on the people in charge at HBOS (and at RBS and Northern Rock), their indignation heightened by the fact that those responsible walked away with huge pay-offs and with pensions intact, even though the consequences for thousands of small shareholders must have been devastating.

However, this partly meant that those who failed at the FSA were permitted to slope off into the night with little or no consequences. For example, the most senior official from the FSA to lose his post in light of errors in the handling of Northern Rock was rewarded with a £612,000 golden exit package and a £30,000 performance related bonus.

Consequently, the parallels with social work are chillingly obvious.

Failure by social workers to protect children hardly ever lead to dismissals or, if so, an appeal usually results in reinstatement or substantial financial compensation.

Indeed, if the first week of October was a bad one for social work, the month ended on a high note when it was announced that Sharon Shoesmith – in charge of social services at the London Borough of Haringey and, therefore, directly responsible for employees who failed “Baby P” - would receive compensation for unfair dismissal estimated to be at least half a million pounds.

Shoesmith was said to be “thrilled” by the outcome, just as previously she was “over the moon” when the courts initially ruled in her favour. Clearly this woman has moved on since little Peter was beaten and tortured to death despite being visited 60 times by a team of her social workers.

Shoesmith must wonder why she was not treated in the same way as Harriet Dempster, who retired from Highland Council (on a substantial pension) in 2010. Dempster was in charge of social work when the body of five-year old Danielle Reid (murdered by her mother’s boyfriend) was fished out of the Caledonian Canal, despite several attempts by other family members to warn social services that Danielle was being severely abused.

A subsequent independent inquiry described the structure and processes of the social work department as “chaotic”. Yet if Dempster had any regret at the failings towards this little girl, there was no evidence of mea culpa. In fact, not only did she keep her job but went on to accept a rise in annual salary reputed to be in the region of £15,000.

So where – and with whom - does the buck stop in social work?

Well, just as at the FSA (now reinvented as the Financial Conduct Authority) it seems not to stop with any individual, no matter how high up.

When something goes wrong, it’s all the fault of “the system” – the ultimate “get out of jail free card” all too regularly played by generously-remunerated public sector officials who fail to live up to their professional responsibilities.

(*) Hubris by Ray Perman is published by Birlinn