18 January 2005

Unanswered questions

Last week's Mercury carried the answers to a series of questions it had put to Cllr John Davies regarding the Ombudsman's damning report into the council's treatment of Stephanie Lawrence and her children.
The article carried the wholly appropriate headline "Defending the indefensible".
Anyone who has had dealings with the county council will be familiar with the leader's technique of attacking the question rather than giving an answer.
For instance, the Mercury asked : "As leader, and formerly cabinet member with responsibility for young people, what responsibility for this extended debacle do you personally bear."
Leader: "I refute your 'extended debacle' description. It is certainly not a phrase used in the Ombudsman's report."
True, but the Ombudsman does say that, in its dealings with Mrs Lawrence, the council was guilty of "repeated, prolonged and serious maladministration" which amounts to much the same thing.
Early last year, HTV broadcast its original account of what had occurred.
This was the programme in which the then leader Maurice Hughes slammed the door on the reporter and, as it turned out, his future election prospects.
Cllr Hughes was, however, more forthcoming in the Western Mail, probably because he could operate behind a press release written for him by one of the council's officers
He told the Western Mail that the council's social services department was under constant oversight by independent external regulators and that "There has never been any indication that they have witnessed the sort of activities that HTV is alleging."
The whole thing, he suggested, had been got up by a few malcontents on the opposition benches "just to try to gain a cheap political advantage" ahead of the elections which were due later in the year.
However, we now know from the Ombudsman's report that, six months before Maurice Hughes made these comments, the council was in possession of a report from an independent investigator, Mr John Fitzgerald, which upheld most of Mrs Lawrence's complaints.
Furthermore, we also know from the Ombudsman's report that Cllr John Davies was a member of a review panel that met on 13 November 2003 - some three months before Maurice Hughes' comments appeared in the Western Mail - to discuss Mr Fitzgerald's findings.
That panel concurred with Mr Fitzgerald's conclusion that six complaints by Mrs Lawrence should be upheld.
The panel commented: "We too are concerned by the issues that arose within the complaints made by Mrs Lawrence. They raise fundamental issues about the processes leading up to, and at the Child Protection Conferences and subsequent reviews."
It is inconceivable that Maurice Hughes was unaware of this when he issued his misleading statement to the Western Mail.
The panel also said that "...we would also want to make it abundantly clear that all possible lessons are learned from this unfortunate sequence of events and that a formal plan is adopted to ensure conclusions are quickly and clearly disseminated to both social care staff and other relevant professional agencies."
So what steps did Cllr Davies, the politician responsible for this area of activity, take to see that this was done.
None it seems.
Officer D, Team Manager told the Ombudsman that she had been told that the outcome of Mr Fitzgerald's investigations were "for certain people only".
"It was only when she saw a reference to it in the press [at the time of the first HTV programme?] and asked for a copy that she had been allowed to see it."
Officer C, Senior Social Worker, told the Ombudsman that "his [Mr Fitzgerald's] report had not been disclosed to social workers and he had found out about it only when he saw a television programme much later, in 2004".
So much for the fine words about the conclusions of Mr Fitzgerald's investigations being "quickly and clearly disseminated..."
The suspicion must be that this information was being kept under wraps because the council still hoped to pull off one of its trade-mark cover-ups.
Unfortunately for them, they hadn't reckoned with either the courage and persistence of Mrs Lawrence, or the thoroughness of Ombudsman's investigation.
Two other points made by the leader in his defence of the indefensible are that the regulations which the council breached were "new" and that this was a single case among the many hundreds dealt with by social services.
In fact the document "Working together to safeguard children" was published in 1999 - three years before these events took place. - and the "All-Wales Child Protection Procedures", which were routinely disregarded by officers in social services, came into effect in June 2002.
Yet a significant part of Mrs Lawrence's complaint is in respect of a Child Protection Conference held some four months later on 29 October 2002.
Surely we should expect new regulations to be enforced from day-one, as no doubt would the council's environmental health officers when inspecting food premises.
As for the hundreds-of-other-cases argument, that suggests that it was just Mrs Lawrence's bad luck that the only 15 times the council were guilty of maladministration happened to be in relation to her case.
And are we supposed to believe that during the four months June-October 2002, the chairman remembered to apply these "new" regulations in all cases other than that of Mrs Lawrence?
Next week I intend to examine what the report has to say about the relationship between the director of social services Jon Skone and, the main subject of many of Mrs Lawrence's complaints, the chairman of the flawed Child Protection Conferences, his wife Maria Hemingway.
For the Ombudsman's report in full click on Ombud

Don't hold the front page

Yesterday morning the BBC's Beijing correspondent reported the death of the former Chairman of the Chinese communist party, Zhao Ziyang.
As the BBC's man said, the passing of Zhao, who was sacked for objecting to the use of force against the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, merited only a single paragraph on an inside page of the Chinese People's Daily.
Still, the Daily Telegraph did the old boy proud with a half page obituary.
This is the second time this week that Old Grumpy has noticed a disparity between the the coverage of stories in the Daily Telegraph and the local press.
On Monday the DT ran a prominent article, complete with photograph, on the Stephanie Lawrence case.
Contrast that with the Western Telegraph which was so overburdened with hot news last week that it was forced to tuck the story away on page 27.


Dunce's cap

Old Grumpy has received a mild ticking off from my unpaid proof reader over the quotation attributed to Herbert Morrison in last week's column.
You will remember I said that, in reply to someone saying that Aneurin Bevan was his own worst enemy, Morrison replied "Not while I'm alive he ain't".
This was not only wrong, but doubly wrong, because it was actually said by Ernest Bevin with reference to Morrison.
The person who put me right is is a W S Rees who many of you will know better as Mr William Rees the headmaster of Monkton School.
It is nice to know that accuracy is still valued in our education system.
However, things seem to have changed since I was in school because William's email alerting me to this gaffe was a gentle, almost apologetic: "are you sure that's right Mike?"
How different from my old primary school teacher Miss Fanny Tate whose remedy for forgetful or careless children was a sharp crack across the knuckles with the edge of a wooden ruler.
Persistent offenders were made to stand in the corner wearing the dunce's cap.
Still, I suppose Miss Tate's treatment must have done terrible things for our self-esteem, though I am pleased to report that, in my own case, I have made a, more or less, full recovery.

Eton wall bangers


One question has been on everyone's lips this week: what sort of history do they teach at Eton?
Are the boys told that the democracies won the Second World War?
Or is it banging their heads up against that wall that makes former pupils do and say silly things?
My own particular interest in this subject flows from reports in the Western Telegraph in which Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse is quoted as saying that the decision of the Council for National Parks to seek leave to appeal the Bluestone decision is "disgraceful" and "intolerable".
Previously, the deputy leader of the county council had been reported as describing the CNP's actions as "an attack on the democratic process."
Clearly, the development of the British constitution is not high on the Eton curriculum, otherwise Cllr Allen-Mirehouse would have known that we live in a democracy under the rule of law.
Which means, roughly speaking, that decisions taken by elected politicians are subject to supervision of the courts, as even the Government found recently when the House of Lords ruled that the practice of locking up foreign terrorist suspects without trial is inconsistent with the Human Rights Act.
This is to ensure that we avoid what former Tory Lord Chancellor, the late Lord Hailsham, referred to as "an elective dictatorship".
On this subject I notice that this week's Western Telegraph reports Bluestone's promoter Mr William MacNamara as saying that "..the people of Pembrokeshire have voted democratically in favour of it.."
Have I missed something?
But even if 99% were in favour it would make no difference because the right of citizens, or groups of citizens, to challenge the state, and its various offshoots, in the courts is one of our fundamental democratic rights.
Of course, you can understand the developer's frustration at the delays caused by this lengthy legal process, but that's the price you pay for living in a free society.

Control freaks

Hardly a day passes without the Government announcing a crackdown on something or other.
As an old fashioned liberal, who believes that people act more responsibly when left to run their own lives, I regard these initiatives as futile and self-defeating.
As evidence I offer the reports in yesterday's newspapers that more than 30% of the inmates of Liverpool jail had tested positive for drugs.
If the Government can't control drugs in a closed society like a prison, what hope does it have in the wider society.


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