I read a totally bizarre press report last week about Barry Sheerman MP, Chair of the House of Commons Children, School and Families Committee. Sheerman and other members of the Committee grilled Christine Gilbert, Head of Ofsted, in the wake of Baby P’s death and the conviction of the adults who should have cared for him.
Sheerman was apparently surprised at the figure given by Gilbert of 282 child deaths in the 16 months to August 2008, with 210 being attributable to abuse or neglect. He is reported as saying, “You have brought to us the most horrific figures I’ve ever seen brought into the public domain”.
The figures are shocking, and a real indictment of the way our society treats children. But why on earth was Sheerman surprised? The data on child deaths was included in Ofsted’s annual report , published on 19th November 2008. Presumably Barry hasn’t got around to reading it yet. He’s obviously a very busy man, but someone heading up a Select Committee that’s investigating child protection might have brought himself up to speed before a key meeting.
It isn’t just November’s report that Barry missed. The November data was an update of figures released by Ofsted in early July in a detailed report entitled Safeguarding Children. Again, Barry and his researchers seem to have missed the report – and gone on missing it for the last five months.
The reality is that around 150 children each year in the UK are likely to die as a result of abuse or neglect. Recent research published in the Lancet flags up that around a million children in the UK experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect. A press summary is here. Barry Sheerman probably missed this research as well.
Blaming individual social workers for a society where a million children suffer harm isn’t particularly useful. Even Barry Sheerman got this half right, commenting “There is something deeply wrong with a society with this number of child deaths a year and a child protection system that does not save them” (my emphasis).
Of course child protection procedures can and should be improved. But can an effective child protection system on its own deal with the problems faced by children in the UK? A recent review of child deaths and serious injuries from abuse and neglect highlighted the overwhelmingly strong link with social deprivation. And the issues are far wider than child abuse and neglect. Will a child protection system tackle the plight of the 3.9 million children in the UK living in poverty? Will a child protection system reduce the health inequalities of poor children, or end a situation where children from poor families are thirteen time more likely to die than children from rich families? The UK locks up more children than any other country in Europe. Will a child protection system sort that one out? Probably not.
If we’re serious about the welfare of children, then we have to demand that Sheerman and his pals take responsibility for the policies of their own Government. Poverty kills children – through illness, accidental death, and through child abuse and neglect. Hysterical witch hunting of social workers solves nothing. Shouting at the boss of Ofsted isn’t all that useful either. Sheerman might usefully stop shouting and try a bit of thinking.
The wider political context, though, is a frightening one. The economic crisis will drive more families into poverty. Labour’s assault on the welfare state will sharply increase family stress and poverty. The likelihood is that the number of children experiencing abuse or neglect will increase, however good we get at tightening up our child protection policies and procedures.