There has been yet another revelation of gross child abuse in the London borough of Haringey. It led to an angry exchange between David Cameron and Gordon Brown at Prime Minister's Questions, and a rather more considered question by Lynne Featherstone, LibDem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.
Most commentators (for instance Jonathan Calder) have been kind to David Cameron, but I believe he lost his temper and the plot. He thought he was on a winner with the assumption that the only inquiry into the Baby P case was one to be conducted by the head of Haringey social services. Indeed, he had prepared the ground with a press release to London's "Evening Standard". Brown's answer was that not only was the critical executive case review already with the Children's Secretary, but that Lord Laming, who had conducted the Climbié inquiry, was looking at shortcomings in social care. Cameron's suggestion that the government should take over failed social services departments, as it already took over failing schools, was a reasonable one. Instead of following it up with his last three questions, or of leaving it hanging by switching to the unemployment figures, he allowed himself to be side-tracked by Brown's gibe (clearly justified, but incidental) that Cameron was playing party politics with the issue. It would not be the first time that Cameron failed to adjust to unexpected answers from the prime minister.
Lynne Featherstone showed that she had been listening and took account of the new information: "I was leader of the opposition on Haringey council at the time of the Victoria Climbié tragedy, and I was told that lessons would be learned and it should never happen again and yet it has happened again and whilst I welcome the prime minister's announcement yesterday that Lord Laming would lead a national review of child protection services, in terms of Haringey that doesn't go far enough and while I hear what the prime minister says about looking at the report, that is not a report that will guarantee the safety of children in my borough. So I would ask the prime minister, look at that report but call for an independent public inquiry."
It is probable that the failures in Haringey stemmed from peculiar circumstances. The social services department was under-staffed and underfunded in the year 2000. Reports yesterday suggest that the situation has not changed. Morale appears to be low, and recruitment difficult, not aided by the department's reputation.
We must not allow the Baby P, and the Shannon Matthews cases, to encourage child protection officers to swing to the opposite extreme and seize children on the slightest evidence. In all cases, the facts must be carefully evaluated. Social services departments should be open (with all the necessary safeguards of confidentiality, of course) to democratic scrutiny.