Tim Loughton MP: Ed Balls' pathetic response to the Edlington torture case is a tragedy
You have to hand it to Ed Balls: he never misses an opportunity to make a human tragedy into a party political crisis. Last week was another bad week for the Prime Minister's 'mini-me'.
Last Monday, Newsnight revealed the horror of the Edlington torturers case after the full Serious Case Review into the case was leaked to them. The full brutality of what these 10 and 11 year old boys were capable of without any shred of remorse is mind boggling. Barely a year on from the horrors of the Baby Peter case - where Ed Balls echoed the hopes of everyone that lessons would be learned and such cruelty to vulnerable young children must not happen again, especially when that vulnerable child is on the radar of local agencies - here indeed we go again. And again this case involved children who were well known to local children's services, local police and a lot of people in the local community whose families had been terrorised by them.
Most worryingly of what Newsnight revealed was that the full 150-page Serious Case Review which has to be produced by the Local Safeguarding Children's Board, after cases like this, bore little resemblance to the 11-page 'Executive Summary' that accompanied it. One of those pages was the cover. The problem is that the full SCR is not published and available to wider scrutiny, only the summary. We have been here before of course, when the executive summary of the Baby Peter murder proved not worth the paper it was written on and the full SCR was panned and had to be rewritten too.
Commissioned by Doncaster's LSCB, authored by an 'independent expert' and inspected by OFSTED, this is another case of a potentially dodgy dossier the dodgy extent of which only a few chosen people will be in a position to assess. Newsnight had Doncaster and the DCSF bang to rights. Surely in this case above all there should be strong grounds for making a fuller version of the report available to wider scrutiny?
David Cameron challenged a poorly briefed Gordon Brown on the issue at PMQs last week. The Prime Minister waffled, Balls fulminated a few seats along to his left. It has long been Conservative Party policy that the norm should be for Serious Case Reviews to be published in full where that cannot compromise the welfare of a surviving child or siblings involved, duly anonymised and suitably redacted where appropriate.
We have drawn a parallel with Mental Health Homicide Investigations which are published in full, refer to Doctor A or Nurse B and give a much fuller account of what went wrong and why and how this can be avoided in the future. We believe that only by such transparency and thoroughness in the public domain can we start to restore the public confidence in this country which had already reached a pretty low ebb after Baby Peter and taken the morale of the stressed out social worker profession with it.
So what was the Balls response? As usual he prayed in aid the NSPCC who have always opposed full publication though their position has been getting decidedly 'flaky', particularly as social workers on the front line have been rallying behind the support of Community Care magazine - trade mag of the profession - who now want to see full publication of SCRs and back our position.
He accused Conservatives for making this into a party political matter and then condemned David Cameron for going to Kent to make his excellent Broken Britain speech on the day the Edlington boys were sentenced. What he didn't reveal is that until the last minute he had planned to go to the Martin Wells Centre in Doncaster and hold a press conference after the court case on that day himself.
He was also interviewed on the World at One straight after me, having declined to go before me or indeed alongside me. He couldn't resist making the backhanded comment that of course the Edlington boys were the product of married parents - a hardly subtle and pretty low swipe at Conservative marriage policies announced earlier in the week.
On Monday at DCSF questions he remained in denial. Doncaster would learn the lessons of Edlington, despite the fact they had apparently failed to learn the lessons of seven child deaths in the previous five years and that we are not allowed to know what the lessons are in any case. All these calls for publication of SCRs are purely party political, whipped up by the opposition.
Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Victoria Climbié which was the trigger point for much of Labour's child safeguarding proposals. Ten years on just as many children are dying at the hands of their parents or carers and it is hard to make the case that children in this country are any safer now than then.
Many suspect that the system has become so proscriptive and bureaucratic that child protection is in danger of becomig more about protecting the system than protecting the vulnerable children and families social workers went into the profession to protect. No wonder so many of them are feeling disempowered and demoralised or have left altogether. Restoring their position and empowering them to spend more quality face-to-face time at the sharp end is key to the reforms that we set out in our Commission on the future of Child Social Workers which first reported in 2007.
Laying bare the details of what went wrong through SCR publication is the minimum which will start to restore public confidence that lessons have been learend and the right ones being acted on. That Ed, is why your response to Edlington is also a tragedy.