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Everyone is to blame

Boundary wrangles between social services lie at the heart of the Baby P case, argues Marian Brandon

The brutal circumstances of the death of Baby P are hard to bear, and made more harrowing still by the publication of photographs of him, showing the toddler as an icon of childish vulnerability. Gordon Brown says such deaths must never happen again, but the truth is that even if best practice were the norm, it would not be possible to prevent all children dying from abuse.

Our recent study, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and carried out by a team from the University of East Anglia and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, examined 161 serious case reviews of child death and grave harm through abuse and neglect in England between April 2003 and March 2005. We concluded that the wealth of factors which raise or lower the risk of harm to the child was in most cases too complex for death or serious injury to have been predictable. In the current climate of moral outrage and panic, however, it seems this finding is unacceptable.

Rates of physical and sexual abuse appear to be falling in most high-income countries, including the UK, although not rates of neglect or psychological abuse. However, much abuse goes unrecognised (and hence not reported) and most abused children do not get help. Unlike Baby P, almost half of the children we studied were not known to the children's social care services, but their families were in contact with health visitors and midwives. Many families were also known only to specialist adult services for which the well-being and safety of children were not priorities (an omission, which must change). We found that many older, often suicidal, young people had histories of abuse and neglect. They were challenging to help but were failed by a range of agencies that squabbled over whether they had met their criteria for services. A recent Barnardo's study highlighted the demonisation of adolescents, whose vulnerability goes unnoticed.

Learning the lessons of the "worst cases" can lead to misinterpretation and bad decision-making. Although domestic violence, substance misuse and mental ill-health among parents were common, we found no cause-and-effect relationship between this and child death or serious injury. Repeat attendance at accident and emergency departments for babies with minor injuries, or hospital admission (as in Baby P's case), does, however, appear to be a marker of abuse, according to study evidence. Many families live in great adversity, which increases the risk of harm to children, but it is important to remember that most children do not suffer serious abuse in these circumstances.

With hindsight, the individual death of Baby P was preventable. He should have been protected because there were already heightened concerns for his safety. He was the subject of a multi-agency protection plan and had been seen on numerous occasions. The responsibility for protecting him was, appropriately, shared between many agencies, although blame is falling as usual on children's social care. This is wrong: the Children Act 2004 makes clear that all agencies are responsible for safeguarding minors. The reviews we studied reflected a preoccupation with boundaries and wrangles over which professional group was "responsible" for the child. It is a function of the new Local Safeguarding Children Boards to agree thresholds and ensure referrals. The extent to which the boards can achieve this will be a measure of their success.

Chaotic families, in which neglect often happens, tend to have complex histories and are confusing and overwhelming for practitioners. In Baby P's case there was not even a clear understanding of who was living in the household. The child is often "lost" in the midst of parental needs, hostility or even apparent co-operation. An assessment that this is a simple "neglect" case shuts off critical thinking and makes it hard to spot the combination of physical danger and other forms of abuse, as well as risks from others in the household, particularly new partners. Social workers should be (and evidence from audit studies says they usually are) approaching complex cases rigorously. Careful collection of information about the child, together with the parents' profile and history, should help them understand the stresses the parents are under - and what makes them, as well as new partners or visitors in the household, tick. It should also answer the question: "What's it like to be a child in this household?" What stops social workers thinking and acting systematically is the triple pressure from families, employers and bureaucratic demands. Work overload, a target- driven culture and poor support make workers stressed and ill or paralyse them into inactivity. Good support and supervision should not be solely about meeting performance indicators such as a reduction in numbers of children in care. This highly responsible role is crucial, but supervisors are not adequately trained or resourced. The vitriol attracted by high-profile child deaths will do nothing to bring good candidates into child protection work.

It may be that the threshold for removing children who are suffering chronic neglect is set too high. When social workers bring these cases to court they are often sent back to "start again" with the family; sometimes the consequences can be grave. Most child protection policy is effective, and when failings happen they are caused by human error. However, there is also a lack of guidance about acceptable standards of adequate parenting. This is a problem, not only for social workers, but for families themselves.

When the firestorm of the Baby P case is over, social workers and other professionals who protect children will need to be able to trust each other enough - and be trusted enough by the public - to start challenging their own practices and decisions.

Marian Brandon is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of East Anglia and lead author of a new study for the Department for Children, Schools and Families into child deaths from abuse and neglect in England

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.



This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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