Friday, November 14, 2008

Passing The Rotten Buck

The Haringey social services scandal gets worse by the day. Not only has the Council presided over at least two horrific child murders, not only have its senior managers shown a criminal disregard for their own personal responsibilities, we now hear that Whitehall ignored a specific written warning direct from a Haringey social worker, Nevres Kemal, that children were being put a risk:

"In February 2007 her lawyer wrote to Patricia Hewitt at the Department of Health as well as the junior health ministers Rosie Winterton and Ivan Lewis, and David Lammy, the local MP for Tottenham, who was a culture minister at the time, saying that measures brought in following a public inquiry into the ClimbiƩ case were not being followed.

The letters were passed on to the Department of Education and Skills (DES) - now the Department for Children, Schools and Families - which has responsibility for social services departments, and where Alan Johnson was then Secretary of State."

But all the DES did was to pass the buck to the Commission for Social Care Inspection - to whom the lawyer had already written. Needless to say, the Commission did SFA - partly because in one of Whitehall's constant rearrangements of deckchairs, its responsibilities were subsequently reassigned to Ofstead. Meanwhile Haringey Council took out an injunction against Ms Kemal banning her from speaking about their child care services altogether.

Can you believe that? It’s outrageous – WTF would any responsible Whitehall official ignore a clear warning? Apart from anything else, Whitehall despises local councils, and bosses them around all the time, so why would they hold back here?

Was it because Haringey is Labour? Maybe that played a part. But something far more fundamental was at work.

Whitehall gets bombarded with letters like this one, and routinely shrugs them off. It has equipped itself with a bewildering array of commissioners and quangocrats to whom complainants can be directed, redirected, and re-redirected for years, until they finally lose the will to go on. It happens all the time, and has done pretty well for ever (see the current BBC adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, featuring - not heavily enough for Tyler’s taste - the Circumlocution Office).

And note too that this particular letter was not a simple whistleblow – it was a lawyer’s letter that formed part of an employment dispute between the social worker and her managers. And that highlights something right at the heart of public sector underperformance – the rotten dangerous relationship between the frontline and the senior management.

It’s something that infects the entire sector, as we constantly record on BOM. In mega-departments like DWP and HMRC, years of crap flip-flopping at Commissariat level have driven staff morale through the floor. At the unfit Home Office/Justice Department, top management appears clueless as to what happens below decks. At Defra, ministers and top mandarins imperiously ignored staff advice and forced through their disastrous agricultural support system.

Some of the very worst breakdowns occur in the supposedly "caring" bits of the public sector, such as our bloated benighted NHS. A couple of years back we all watched as Commissar “best year ever” Hewitt was confronted by the nurses at their conference – a classic Ceausescu moment crystallising the total divorce between top management and the frontline. And that divorce carries right down through to the management of all the hundreds of individual NHS quangos, including our hospitals.

Local managers know their top priority is to serve the Commissars, not their customers. Safely locked away in their offices, they don't actually meet the customers, whereas the Commissars are never more than a career threatening phone call away. Naturally managers prioritise the ticking of boxes and the filling of output quotas.

But their staff have no such luxury. They are caught in the middle, answerable to the bosses, but actually having to front up to the punters. The buck stops with them. They're the ones having to somehow square the circle between half-baked wish lists handed down from above, and the grim facts of the real world. They’re the ones having to do the fudging, and having to take the abuse from an understandably angry public - remembering all the while to fill in the appropriate dockets. And all the while knowing that if they make a mistake they can expect zilch support from above.

Unsurprisingly, it’s incredibly stressful (see the Doc for how it affects just one senior GP struggling through the treacle of the NHS). Unsurprisingly, it results in many staff feeling they just can't cope any more. And unsurprisingly, it produces widespread staff sickness, numerous industrial injury cases, and tortuous disciplinary procedures.

You can see that by looking at the case law on stress as an industrial injury (eg here). We're not lawyers but it's clear that all the landmark cases involve the public not the private sector. And the very first of those cases involved... yes, a social worker:
"John Walker, a social worker with Northumberland county council, suffered two nervous breakdowns due to stress at work. He was awarded £175,000 in an out-of-court settlement in 1995, in the first successful claim for damages on stress grounds."

God knows, private sector jobs can be stressful enough. But the fact that stress only seems to throw up court cases in the public sector is telling us the relationship between its management and staff is seriously rotten.

Now, we don't know the exact circumstances of Ms Kemal's complaint against Haringey. Stress may not have been involved at all. But we do know she was pursuing a claim for unfair dismissal against the Council. The relationship had broken down.

So it's little wonder that her letters failed to register in Whitehall. They would simply have been stamped "another troublemaker", and dropped straight in the gigantic WPB already bursting with countless other such missives.

Crass dysfunctional top-down Big Government will grind down anyone unfortunate enough to fall into its path.

PS According to the HMT analysis, we currently spend about £7bn pa on personal social services for families and children. That's a fair chunk, and as far as we can see (still checking fine print), it's virtually doubled in the last decade. Yet from everything we've heard in the last 48 hours, the incidence of child murder by feckless parents has not changed: it remains at about 50-60 pa. Yes, we know social workers do other stuff as well, but it does make you wonder what we've got for all that extra dosh.

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