There is no doubt that the tragic events leading up to the death of Baby P present a huge challenge to government, both local and national. However, they also present a challenge to politicians who, in their role as tribunes for the public, have multiple responsibilities. I've now watched the incident at Prime Ministers' Question Time which has caused so much controversy, and I'll return to that in a moment.
In his initial intervention, David Cameron condemned Haringey Council for having one in four social work posts left vacant. Interesting, really, given how many of his party's supporters are so critical of social workers in general, claiming that they are overpaid, irrelevant and, in general, unworthy of our support and/or sympathy. That said, he makes an excellent point. In the modern era, where local government comes under tremendous pressure to cut costs whilst meeting various obligations placed upon them by central government, leaving unfilled posts vacant helps to square the circle of falling grants and rising expectations.
That said, even if attempts are made to fill the vacancies, the general derision poured upon social workers tends to discourage applications. On one side of the debate, social workers are condemned for acting too precipitously - see John Hemming's blog for tales of inappropriate interventions, and at the other, they are condemned for failing to act quickly enough. Who would be a social worker under such circumstances? It is the sort of job where it is difficult to avoid taking your work home with you, and not one that I would fancy.
This is not to excuse any failings that the enquiry ordered into Haringey's Child Protection Services exposes, and I have little doubt that it will uncover them. However, finding errors of judgement and of process is only part of the task of fixing a department which is now perceived to be in crisis. We need to know why these mistakes were made, and whether the lack of staff led to a culture of shortcuts and superficiality, so often what happens when an organisation - public or private - is insufficiently resourced to carry out its allotted task.
Politicians have a responsibility to avoid hyperbole and nurture an environment whereby high quality, lasting solutions can be found - and implemented. And so I return to the events in the Commons...
David Cameron condemned "a social services department that gets £100 million a year and can't look after children". That was a cheap shot, unworthy of a serious politician. Is it really the case that Haringey Council is so awful, or was this a one-off case where, once things started going wrong, they kept going wrong? Does such a blanket accusation serve any purpose other than to get an easy headline?
Gordon Brown's response was ill-advised, although Conservative claims that he accused David Cameron of 'party politics' are on slightly shaky ground. He said, "I do regret making a party political issue of this issue..." - unwise, although not necessarily an accusation of the type alleged by David Cameron in his response. Equally, I thought that David Cameron's cheap comment, "I don't expect an answer, you never get one.", was wholly inappropriate given the gravity of the debate.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the debate itself, it is a sad reflection of our political culture that the issue appeared to overshadow the root problem, that of a critical failure of child protection services to do their job in a specific instance.
Frankly, I expect better. I want my politicians to engage in measured debate rather than lapsing into outrage. Unlike some commentators, I presume that David Cameron's outrage was genuine, if ill-directed, but government by outrage is government by knee jerk. It prejudices outcomes and leads to the sort of snap legislation that stores up trouble for later on.
So, ladies and gentlemen, take a deep breath, encourage the enquiry to do its job and do it well, and then come up with a measured response. If you do that, then perhaps Baby P will not have died in vain...