Yet another inquiry into the failure of child protection services will achieve nothing without ministerial commitment, policy imagination and true accountability
We must not avert our eyes. When the dramatist Emlyn Williams was researching Beyond Belief (1967), his famous account of the Moors murders and the terrible crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, he was often asked: “But how can a self-respecting writer like you be spending over a year writing a book, about such a ghastly case?… I wasn’t able to read the details of it in the paper, never mind a book!”
For Williams, the answer was professional, vocational even: “the proper study of mankind is Man. And Man cannot be ignored because he has become vile. Woman neither.” This, to put it more bluntly, was his job.
These words came back to me last week when Emma Tustin, aged 32, was convicted of the murder of her stepson, six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, and his father, Thomas Hughes, 29, was found guilty of manslaughter at Coventry Crown Court.
Arthur had sustained what the court heard described as an “unsurvivable brain injury” at the hands of Tustin, on 16 June 2020, after “a campaign of cruelty” in which he was repeatedly assaulted, denied food, force-fed salt, and made to stand in the hallway for up to 14 hours a day.
Nobody who has seen the horrific video of this desperate, weakened child trying to pick up his bedding from the floor, and heard him howling “no one loves me” and “no one’s gonna feed me”, will ever forget it. Indeed, what right do they have to do so?
The very least that is owed to Arthur is that his suffering is remembered – both as a catastrophic failure of the duty of care owed by any decent society to its most vulnerable, and as a cause of deep collective shame, inspiring decisive action to prevent such horrors from happening again.
But what action? Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, has announced a national review into the case, to be led by the chair of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, Annie Hudson. In addition, the four key inspectorates – Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, and HM Inspectorate of Probation – will oversee a report of local agencies in Solihull, in the West Midlands.
The risk of such inquiries is that they formally discharge the responsibility to investigate without inspiring fundamental change. As Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday: “No doubt with these reviews and national reviews, that is absolutely right that they happen –[but] they tend to make the same recommendations. My challenge to the system is going to be – and this is what I’ve done – let’s look at the best places where [children’s] social care is delivered. It’s not a matter of system recommendation, it’s a matter of delivery.”
This really is sound sense. There are already shelves full of reports, analyses and recommendations on the past failures of child protection services: Lord Laming’s 2003 inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbié; a series of reports after the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly (“Baby P”) in 2007, including a second Laming report, ‘The Protection of Children in England’; Professor Eileen Munro’s 2011 review of child protection; and –most recently – the interim report, published in June, of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, chaired by Josh MacAlister.
To retrace the footsteps of these investigators and policy auditors, stretching back a generation, is to observe a national pattern that is hardening into something close to ritual. A terrible tragedy occurs; a justified outcry follows; ministers promise action and announce full-spectrum inquiries.
These investigations identify a reasonably predictable convergence of problems: under-resourcing of social services; failure of communication between agencies; inadequate training; excessive paperwork, reducing the time social workers actually spend with families; and a paralysis of decision-making, with sometimes fatal consequences.
Simply repeating or updating this standard analysis will achieve very little in itself, as De Souza rightly warns. Indeed, one of the first questions the Education Secretary needs to answer is how the new national inquiry is intended to work alongside and not simply duplicate MacAlister’s investigation, which was only launched in January. The greatest risk is that what sounds like a grand reckoning – a fearless confrontation with failure and a declaration that this must never happen again – becomes little more than an exercise in institutional virtue-signalling by rote.
In Arthur’s case, the evidence of total failure is, prima facie, all too clear. His paternal grandmother, Joanne Hughes, had seen bruises on his back, and listened aghast as he told her that Tustin had slammed him into the stairs, calling him “an ugly, horrible brat”.
After Hughes alerted social services in April, weeks before Arthur’s murder, two social workers visited him and reported that they had “no safeguarding concerns”. His uncle, Daniel Hughes, supplied photographs of the bruising to the police, but they took no further action, apparently satisfied by the inquiries made by social workers.
A teaching assistant raised concerns about Arthur but was told by his father on the phone that he was “playing happily in the garden”. When his school reopened after lockdown a week before his death, no inquiries were made about his absence. Neighbours and Tustin’s stepfather expressed anxieties to social services. The list goes on.
There were numerous red flags, many opportunities for emergency intervention under section 47 of the 1989 Children Act. Instead, the story is a dismal catalogue of inaction that ended with a child’s death in unspeakable pain and solitude.
Needless to say, there is still much more detail to uncover. But, even now, we can see the lineaments of what went wrong, and something of what this tragedy has to teach us:
- The pandemic: Inescapably, all inquiries into Arthur’s death will draw attention to the singular social context of lockdown and the huge practical problems this posed for social workers. Under the Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response plan issued in the first phase of the pandemic, the services they offered were subject to “partial stop”: a confusingly vague instruction, which reduced much contact with families to online check-ins rather than real-life visits. It is becoming appallingly clear that many cases of child abuse, like domestic violence against women, slipped through the cracks. Whether this was relevant to Arthur’s fate is far from clear. But it poses extremely important policy questions for future national emergencies.
- Resources: Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, winced on The Andrew Marr Show when challenged on the under-resourcing of child protection services, and ministers strongly resist the idea that cash is anywhere near the heart of the problem. Yet the independent review that they themselves commissioned has already concluded that, in MacAlister’s words, the system is a “tower of Jenga held together by Sellotape”. On Saturday, Laming told the BBC’s Today programme that lack of funding had led to a “tremendous reduction of preventive services and family support services”.
The number of youngsters on child protection plans has grown by 32 per cent since 2009-10 to 51,500, while the pressures upon the care system have increased almost as much. According to local authorities, there will be a £3 billion shortfall by 2025. In the words of this summer’s MacAlister report: “There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more on children’s social care in future years.” Zahawi does not need another inquiry to tell him this.
- …but bureaucracy is no less a problem: Having identified shortage of cash as an inescapable problem, MacAlister goes on to make a crucial clarification: “the question is whether this investment is spent on reform and long-term sustainability or propping up an increasingly expensive existing system.” However well-intentioned, too many of the changes made to the system in the past quarter century have made life harder for social workers by burdening them with more bureaucracy, more managerialism and more tick-box procedures to follow.
In 2009, Laming warned that “the tradition of deliberate, reflective social work practice is being put in danger because of an overemphasis on process and targets”. The problem has been compounded by the almost religious conviction of ministers of both main parties since the Thatcher era that the public sector is invariably improved by the importation of practices and people from the world of business. All too often, however, this has amounted to little more than an alphabet soup of quangos and strategies, a belief that spreadsheets cure all ills, and a crushing burden of paperwork. The Department for Education’s own data suggests that social workers spend only one third of their own time with children and families.
- Accountability: Having left her position as director of Solihull’s social services in August – a role for which she was paid more than £122,000 a year – Louise Rees has declared on LinkedIn that she is “retired and loving it.” By quitting before the verdicts in Arthur’s case, she also pre-empted the possibility that she might be sacked – mindful, no doubt, of the fate of Sharon Shoesmith, head of children’s services in the London borough of Haringey during the “Baby P” case, who was summarily dismissed in December 2008 by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, after a preliminary report into the local authority’s procedural performance (she later accepted a six-figure sum for unfair dismissal).
It is commonplace to assert that such cases should not be politicised: David Cameron was criticised for doing so over the authorities’ failure to protect Peter Connelly. But it can also be argued that child protection is under-politicised; that responsibility is too widely dispersed among officials, police services and health workers, and that there needs to be much clearer democratic accountability – principally to encourage the implementation of necessary reforms.
A good example: Andy Street, the metro mayor of the West Midlands – including Solihull – is not responsible for child services, a function that is still delegated to town halls. But imagine if, in every region, a high-profile politician such as Street were directly accountable for the performance of child protection agencies and could be electorally destroyed by one such tragedy. There might be some tasteless campaigning along the way. But – high-stakes politics being what it is – you can bet that fewer mistakes would be made, too.
- The problem of evil: Contemporary culture encourages us remorselessly to look for the “systemic” and “structural” flaws that underpin injustice, unlawful behaviour and social breakdown. This is often a useful and rewarding approach (it has, for instance, transformed our understanding of the treatment by the police of racial minorities and of women).
In social work, an understanding of socio-economic context, kinship groups, and local pressures is essential to any case work. Polly Curtis’s fine work for Tortoise on family separation highlighted the huge value of helping parents and children to stay together, and the equally high cost paid when the state too readily sunders a household.
But it is entirely consistent with these findings to recognise that there will be cases where no remedy is available, no family assistance sufficient, no dialogue of any use. The 2018 statutory guidance on child protection, ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’, explicitly warns those on the frontline against allowing goodwill to escalate into credulity: “A desire to think the best of adults and to hope they can overcome their difficulties should not subvert the need to protect children from chaotic, abusive and neglectful homes.”
At the other end of the spectrum is a feeling of powerlessness. In an article posted by the Guardian on Friday, Harry Ferguson, professor of social work at Birmingham University wrote that “far from being optimistic, when faced with such aggressive and manipulative parents, social workers’ states of mind are often closer to helplessness. They are outmanoeuvred and overcome by the suffering and sadness in the atmosphere of such homes and in the children’s lives.”
Evil is an unfashionable concept in modern philosophy, partly because it implies that some forms of wickedness defy rational explanation and partly because it shines a light upon personal moral responsibility rather than social structures. But I am not sure what other word will do to describe Emma Tustin and Thomas Hughes (and I am not remotely surprised that the Attorney General Suella Braverman is reviewing their respective sentences of 29 and 21 years – the next step being their possible referral to the Court of Appeal).
How are social workers to know evil when they see it, and act accordingly? There is no glib answer, of course. But part of the solution surely lies in the professionalisation of a sector that has become demoralised, often unfairly vilified and encouraged to stick to flow-chart procedures rather than to exercise discretion and accumulate experience. It is encouraging, in this respect, that MacAlister, at least, wants social services to “consider complexity instead of defensively following process”, and, in the review that he is leading, “to resist solutions that may seem simple but could add proceduralism and undermine high-quality relationship building.”
As the American commentator, George F. Will, teaches us, statecraft is soulcraft: the challenge posed by the death of Arthur strikes at the very heart of social responsibility and the duty of society (as opposed to the family) towards each and every child.
Facile slogans, “world-leading” oversight bodies, euphemisms and jargon as a substitute for truth, noisily premature declarations of excellence: these are not the answers to a problem that demands a seriously heavy lift by government and a cultural transformation of the way in which we protect the youngest and most vulnerable.
If the past 20 years has a lesson in this respect, it is that political incantation alone gets you nowhere: just saying that something should happen is emphatically not the same as it happening.
But what, really, could matter more than this? Does “levelling up” mean anything at all if it does not mean lifting every child who tumbles into the depths of hell from the wretched place where Arthur Labinjo-Hughes met his terrible fate?
It is good that we feel collective shame that such a thing should happen in a civilised society, and it is essential that we keep feeling that scratch of conscience so that those who lead us are forced to respond – over years, not months.
Above all, we must not seek a safe space from the horrors in our midst. We must be ceaselessly vigilant. We must not avert our eyes.