opinion POLITICS

Published: 06/02/2003, Volume II3, No. 5841 Page 21

Whenever a child like Victoria Climbié suffers a dreadful fate, my mind goes back to my 21st birthday. October 21 1966 also happened to be the day a water-sodden coal tip slid down the hillside in Aberfan, South Wales, and swallowed 144 people, including over 100 pupils and teachers of a local primary school.

Then it was the National Coal Board's neglectful fault for letting something happen to one of their own communities that could have been avoided. This time the roll-call of culpable parties identified in Lord Laming's report was a longer one.

In his Commons statement, health secretary Alan Milburn went through a dismal list of those who 'did nothing to help her'. The police, social services, the NSPCC and, of course, the NHS, which encountered Victoria during numerous visits to hospitals with fearful symptoms of assault, bites, belt marks and scalds, yet failed to intervene to save a young life.

MPs and peers who heard a parallel statement from junior health minister Lord Hunt all had their say - and fierce some of it was, too. Some of them are doctors and exsocial workers.

There is nothing so 'stomach-churning and terrifying' as telling parents you suspect them of child abuse, recalled Conservative health spokesman Dr Liam Fox. 'Most social workers are appalled by the case, ' confessed Baroness Howarth, herself a social worker by trade.

Mr Milburn was sensible in tone. As HSJ reported last week, he embraced the practical core of Lord Laming's 108 recommendations, which seek to impose common standards, clarify guidance and improve co-ordination between myriad agencies.

He rejected the national child protection agency scheme and refrained from endorsing the call for a national agency for children and families with a voice round the Cabinet table. Reports that Paul Boateng, Gordon Brown's deputy, backs the idea and Mr Milburn does not may be exaggerated.

There must be something for the promised green paper to discuss or else it becomes fixed:

a white paper in all but name.

Coincidentally, the next day's newspapers were full of the overturned conviction of Sally Clark, the solicitor who had served three years of a life sentence for killing her own children, the court having been told (wrongly) that two cot deaths were a chance in 73 million.

Not Westminster's problem, that one. But any further blow to public confidence in the system is a blow to politics. Lucky Mrs Clark, many voters must have thought, a solicitor to whom other lawyers rallied. What chance the rest of us, what chance Victoria Climbié?

In the Climbié case, senior managers and officials were named for failing Victoria alongside the harassed and overwhelmed frontline social workers.Tough-guy Laming even threatened his Whitehall successor as chief inspector of social services for withholding papers. In the Clark case, the forensic pathologist is up before the General Medical Council.

Quite right, too; that is what accountability means.When we reflect on what went on in orphanages and children's homes a couple of generations ago, exposed horror is better than horror suppressed.

But it does make you think about the groups which are rarely held to account in these successive scandals. For instance, the politicians who make the laws, not always well or wisely; the newspapers which police them after a fashion, often with a very short and selective memory; the wider public, which constantly demands higher standards in combination with lower taxes and is too rarely told by the first two groups that you cannot easily have both.

Tony Blair is (at last) trying to rectify that failing. But last week, Mr Milburn told health and local authorities to try harder to protect vulnerable children. Home secretary David Blunkett told the police to do the same.

Yes, they are currently getting extra cash resources, though Brent was barely spending half its allocation on children like Victoria. But the fresh burdens imposed by central government of all parties on social services of all descriptions have been growing for a generation without ceasing.

Powers are removed, duties are imposed.No wonder the talent pool shrinks. As we speak, Opposition peers are gearing up to destroy or delay the Community Care (Delayed Discharges) Bill which threatens to set the NHS and social service departments at each others' throats in a good cause.