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Coalition, councils, cuts and corporate accountability

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As the coalition government confirms with councils how little money they will have next year, where does the responsibility lie for the cuts ahead? This is not only a question of morality or of political prioritisation. It may also be a question about legal liabilities.

Nowhere is this more so than for those crucial and critical services which, when appropriately resourced and working well, protect tens of thousands of very vulnerable children every day. Indeed the number of children referred to and receiving child protection services has escalated in the past few years. There are now over 44,000 children with child protection plans in England, 17% more than year ago.

This has followed the media coverage and frenzy following the terrible killing of Peter Connelly (‘Baby P’). Ministers in the new coalition government, such as David Cameron and Lynne Featherstone, were central in looking to allocate responsibility beyond ‘Baby Peter’s’ carers for his death. They targeted the services of Haringey LBC, and its leading councillors, managers and social workers.

All the more surprising, therefore, that it is the coalition government in which they hold significant posts which is now generating cuts in services for families who need assistance and for children who need protecting. But whilst the coalition government is generating the cuts in care services, the legal accountability is likely to lie with local councils. They have a ‘duty of care’ and it is local councillors and manager, both collectively and individually, who may face the consequences of creating services doomed to fail.

Is this over dramatic? I have little doubt that the combination of cutting care and protection services at a time when they are already struggling to cope, and where the workloads continue to increase, will lead to families being less well assisted and children less well protected. This is not dependent on the wisdom of hindsight. We already know that social workers and others with high caseloads, and in organisations which are unstable and changing, are less able to practise well and with children then left in danger.

This raises the spectre of legal liability, and even of criminal accountability. I know this as I was employed to assist the police with their investigations a few years ago following the deaths of a mother and her disabled son. One of the questions on which I was asked to advise the police, crown prosecution service and the coroner was whether a charge against the local council and individual councillors, managers and workers of corporate manslaughter might be relevant if there had been significant shortfalls in the provision of services by the council.

What view to take now if councillors and councils, despite knowing that their care and protection services are already under great pressure and with demand continuing to increase, then cut these services or fail to respond to the growing demand? What view to take if even more crazily the councillors have not taken the opportunity to raise council tax, at least in line with inflation, to compensate a little for the loss of government funding? What action to take if a lawyer for a child who is seriously injured or killed as local care and protection services deteriorate and that child was left less well protected? What view to take if asked to advise whether this was predictable and whether there is a corporate and personal liability?

The political choices and policies of the coalition government may have caused the escalating care crisis, but the accountability is likely to land on local authorities. Sensible councils and councillors will now be seeking advice on liabilities from their legal advisers and will be ensuring that open and honest risk assessments are being completed to inform their decision-making.

They are amongst a rock and a hard place, but even more so are those children and vulnerable adults who need care and protection.

Ray Jones, professor of social work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. From 1992 to 2006 he was director of social services in Wiltshire.  

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