On Accountability

I’ve spent much of my working life dealing with, and sometimes working in, bureaucratic institutions in the Public, Private and Voluntary Sectors and, if truth be told, there is often little to choose between them.

Anyone who believes that the private sector is somehow the ultimate antidote to bureaucracy has either never worked for a multi-national corporation or never read Dilbert. Work for any sizeable NGO, even a local one, and you rapidly find yourself working for a self-conscious homunculous of the Public Sector populated largely by people with too little talent to merit a decent paycheck and too many qualifications do a real job; and then, of course, there is the Public Sector, itself, the evolutionary apex of beadledom that sits atop the bureaucratic food chain and bestrides the realm of officialdom like a Collosus.

In all these years of tangling with bureaucracy I have, admittedly, learned many useful things. I know, for example, that micro-management is the surest possible indicator of incompetence known to man and that the primary purpose of strategy meetings is to make decision-making processes so diffuse and incomprehensible that it is impossible to attribute blame to any particular individual when things go pear-shaped.

I’ve learned enough over the years to have even formulated my own universal law of bureaucracy:

In a bureaucracy, any given question has three possible answers:

1. the right answer,

2. the wrong answer, and

3. the answer that best covers the arse of the person to whom the question is put.

The actual answer given is always number 3.

Yet there is no facet of bureaucracy more loathesome than the attitude of of its multitudinous functionaries towards the concept accountability. Put simple accountability is something that happens to other people, or more rarely still, to a carefully chosen sacrificial scapegoat chosen by the bureaucratic hivemind to carry the can on those rare occasions where it cannot shake off the consequences of a really major fuck-up.

Today brings us two examples of just such a thing, both of which beggar belief.

The first, is of course, the little matter of discovering that being placed on the sex offenders register for accessing child pronography does not automatically, as most people reasonably assumed, result in the offenders being added to the DfEE’s ‘List 99’ and, therefore, being prohibited from working with children as a teacher.

Instead we now discover that where offenders are merely cautioned, such a ban is in the discretion of the DfEE under powers granted to the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly – who, unfortunately, seems as bemused as everyone else as to how this could have happened.

So it is we get all the usual platitudes. Kelly has, naturally, taken ‘full responsibility’; there will, of course, be a review – and not
just any old review but an immediate review. The law may even be ‘tightened’ (yawn) and from now on she will personally consider any cases where a ministerial decision is needed to include people an offender on the list – which is, of course, what she should have been doing in the first place.

But on the matter of the single, patently obvious question that this issue raises; that of just exactly who the total fuckwit was who actually decided that man who had been cautioned for accessing child porn was fit to work as a PE teacher – nothing.

Just a lot of staring at the ceiling, shuffling from foot to foot and tuneless whistling – say nothing, admit nothing and hope it will all fade quietly in the background.

(Totally O/T BTW, but has anyone else noticed the similarity between the way bureaucrats act when put on the spot and asked awkward questions and public urinal etiquette amongst heterosexual males?)

It is thought that it may have been a junior minister who made this decision – although former MP Stephen Twigg who was the relevant junior minister at the time has denied all knowledge of this case – or maybe a civil servant. Whoever it actually was, the one thing we can we can be sure of is that they will not be brought publicly to account for the screw-up. In fact, unless this whole business blows up into a shitstorm of biblical proportions and Kelly, herself, is forced out of office then the worst that may happen to the actual culprit is that they may get a private bollocking for ‘letting the side down’, but that’s about as bad a sanction the hivemind will usually countenance.

Although the issue is serious, the consequences on this occasion seem thankfully very limited. The problem has, hopefully, been identified before any serious damage has been done and, with luck, the worst fallout there will be will be a few discrete dismissals as other similar offenders who may have slipped through the net of official scrutiny are identified and traced.

The second example is far more serious; that of the Rochdale ‘Satantic Abuse’ scandal – and scandal is the only word for it – highlighted by the BBC’s ‘Real Story’ documentary, which aired tonight.

If you missed the programme, the short-run version events is that back in 1990 – at the height of a media-driven moral panic about ‘satanic child abuse’ which had started in the US – social workers in Rochdale descended on a number of poor families living on a run down estate in the town and summarily removed their children into care, convinced that they had uncovered the first case of systematic ritual Satanic child abuse in Britain.

They had no evidence to support this idea.

They spent the next few months, interviewing these children – initially there were four from a single family but as the investigation progressed other families were dragged into it, and their children removed into care, on the strength of nothing more than their children knowing or having played with the children at the centre of this case.

These children, of which there were twenty in total by the end, were interviewed repeatedly by two social workers – the programme showed film of these interviews which demonstrated clearly, even to the untrained eye, that they were, im my personal opinion, simply not competent at the time to conduct such an investigation.

There is more I would say, as a psychologist, having seen the interviews with the children, carried out by these social workers, included in the programme but on this rare occasion an understanding of the pernicious nature libel laws cautions discretion – suffice to say if you do manage to see the programme, then I’m firmly behind the expert witnesses in their opinion, which is stronger than that expressed by the family court judge at the time

At first, Rochadale Social Services tried to bring criminal charges against these families, spinning lurid and whole ficitious tales of animal and human sacrifice, of babies being microwaved and eaten and of children having fingers amputated, to the Police, stories which came rather unstuck when the Police, as they are wont to do, raised the trivial little matter of corroborating evidence.

There was, of course, none.

Still, undeterred, the social workers proceeded to take the matter to family court in an effort to have these children permanantly removed from their families – only for their case to be systematically destroyed in court.

If this all carries with it a sense of horrific familiarty, then yes, it does resemble the basic plot of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’.

This was, of course, accompanied by the usual media furore, which the same newspapers that had stirred the moral panic in the first place, regaling Rochdale Council with every ounce of hypocritical venom they could muster. There was the obligatory sacrifical scapegoat – the Director of Social Services resigned – children were returned to their families, internal inquiries were held and training policies and good practice guidelines revised.

And the bureacratic hivemind did what it does best – closed ranks, battened down ther hatches and waited for it all to be forgotten.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Not all the children were returned were returned to their families.

Instead the, first family to be investigated; to have their children taken away by Police and social services in dawn raids, were left in limbo. They weren’t abusers – and certainly not Satanic abusers – so now, in the eyes of the same Social Services department, they had ‘poor parenting skills’ and ‘too much debt’; they were just too poor and too stupid to be trusted to care for their own children and so those children remained in care – in the case of one of them for 10 years during which time access visits from his family were reduced from one hour a month to one hour a year. This was ‘justified’ by social services on the grounds that these visits were distressing and difficult for the child.

If you’ve dealt with bureaucracies for long enough you’ll recognise instantly what happened here. Bureaucracies are never wrong and never make mistakes. Even if proven wrong, there is always some other reason, some other set of grounds on which they are right, something that the people who proved them wrong missed or didn’t take into account, something which justifies them continuing on a course of action that, once set, brooks no deviation.

Nearly 16 years on, 12 of the 20 children who were snatched from their parents by officialdom in 1990 are taking legal action against Rochdale Council.

Why? Damages, yes – and who can blame them. But with that they also want an apology from Rochdale Council – a straightforward, formal apology, something that the council has never once, in 16 years, had the courtesy to offer to the children. To the parents, yes, but not the kids whose lives were blighted by bureaucratic and professional incompetence.

In fact, Rochdale Council, together with the two social workers whose blind zeal created this whole sorry mess in the first place, even went to court to try to prevent the programme being shown, the main body of the injuction sought being based primarily on the objections of the two social workers on the grounds that:

1. Social workers as public servants working in a confidential environment should be protected by a cloak of anonymity save where there has been dishonesty or bad faith;

2. They support open public debate and do not oppose the making of the documentary;

3. They left the local authority’s employment as a matter of personal choice not in consequence of the judgment and have both in their different ways gone on to considerable professional success elsewhere;

4. Their professional competence has not been called into question since the judgment;

5. Their Article 8 rights are engaged and having regard to the nature and extent of the agreed disclosure the maintenance of their anonymity is a proportionate restraint whereas the publication of their identities would add so little of value that it would be a disproportionate interference;

6. They both fear:

a) A negative impact on their professional standing with colleagues and families with whom they now work;

b) A negative impact on future career prospects (I deliberately do not enlarge on this issue because it would tend to identify the social workers present professional activities and the BBC has undertaken not to reveal their present employments but I stress that I have considered the detail of that which is set out in the affidavits that have been sworn);

c) The possibility of an unfair or inaccurate portrayal of them including by any failure to consider the actions of others with whom it is asserted they acted at the time (e.g. management representatives);

d) Intrusive media interest;

e) Harassment and/or behaviour from others towards themselves or their families that they would regard as threatening;

f) A seriously detrimental emotional impact (described as enormous) upon their closest relatives, including children who do not know of their past involvement with this case and parents who are elderly.

The full ruling in the case can be found here and is well worth reading out of general interest in human right law and practice even if you have no real interest in the specifics of this case.

There are two points in the application and grounds for injunction stated by the two social workers that I specifically want to address.

First there is this:

1. Social workers as public servants working in a confidential environment should be protected by a cloak of anonymity save where there has been dishonesty or bad faith;

Save where there is dishonesty or bad faith? So the public has the right, in their opinion, to know if a public servant is dishonest, deceitful or wilfully negligent but not if they are merely incompetent, irrespective of the consequences of that incompetence.

No. That cannot be correct. not when there are matters of professional competence at stake.

This leads, however, naturally to this:

3. They left the local authority’s employment as a matter of personal choice not in consequence of the judgment and have both in their different ways gone on to considerable professional success elsewhere;

Indeed both are still social workers and both, according the programme, still work in child protection.

Now while they may well have learned, and learned well from their mistakes of 16 years ago and may be all the better professionals for it, to find that they left Rochdale Council by choice and for reasons unrelated to this case, to continue and develop their respective careers elsewhere seems to me to be the clearest possible evidence that there has been no real accountability, and therefore no real justice in this matter.

There may have been the obligatory scapegoating of the Director of Social Services at the time, but if these two social workers, whose actions were central to this case, can apparently walk away and continue their lives without having been subject – it appears – to any substantive sanctions – let alone others whose failings in this matter may be manifest but whose identities remain a secret – then justice has not been done.

Because accountability, ultimately, is just a function of justice, which is why it is something that the bureaucratic hivemind is so keen to avoid at all costs.

Oops, almost forgot.

The two social workers – their names are Jill France and Susan Hammersley.


Further to my cautionary note on libel, The Times helpfully notes the opinions of Professor Elizabeth Newson (second page), one of the expert witnesses in this case:

Elizabeth Newson, a professor of developmental psychology, was drafted in as an expert witness for the court case. She quickly noted the “poor standards

5 thoughts on “On Accountability

  1. being placed on the sex offenders register for accessing child pronography does not automatically, as most people reasonably assumed, result in the offenders being added to the DfEE’s ‘List 99’

    I’m not at all happy with the way this story is being presented. Firstly, we don’t know what (if anything) Reeve actually did, or whether his Web surfing habits had any bearing on anything he was ever likely to try and do with another person; we don’t even know whether he was supposed to be into boys or girls. I assume that most paedophiles do have a preference. I don’t know about you, but at my school a male PE teacher hanging around the girls’ showers would have got some very strange looks.

    Secondly, we don’t know why the police offered him a caution him instead of prosecuting – did the strength of the evidence had something to do with it? Thirdly, we don’t know why he accepted the caution. In most cases anyone who thought that the evidence against him or her wasn’t good enough to convict could be expected to refuse a caution, but paedophilia isn’t ‘most cases’ – it’s the kind of mud that will stick. Nor do we know what the police told him about being put on the Sex Offenders’ Register. Did they tell him it would stop him ever working with children again? I imagine not.

    Fourthly, we don’t know what the school thought about it all. I’ve read variously that Reeve told them he was on the SO Register and that the DfES told them so; either way, if they’d wanted to turn him away on those grounds they had the opportunity. But they gave him a job – which he kept until the local police said… well, (fifthly) said what? “Told you he was on the Register, did he? Well, what he didn’t tell you…” Is this something they should be doing?

    Maybe I’m just over-reacting and instinctively bashing the police and defending the criminal and all those things us wet liberals do. But it doesn’t seem obvious to me that a police caution for a sex offence should be automatic grounds for List 99 – and it doesn’t seem obvious that the DfES have actually done anything wrong here.

  2. Apologies for sullying an obviously heart felt piece of writing, but I thought I should alert you to another formatting thingy; text on the right hand side of the main column seems to slowly disappear so that by the time I get to the bottom of the page (or the piece, if it is a long one like this) one or two words from the beginning of each line vanished. Thought you should know.

  3. Rochdale is by no means the only case. Take a look at the Broxtowe files to see what a social worker can believe ..


    “The neighbours do maintain that the family used to frequently return from the pub and continued ‘parties’ with a lot of shouting and swearing.

    Despite this the social workers have accepted that the family were having witch parties at which sheep were being slaughtered in the front room or the back garden and the front garden and were subsequently left in the garages in wheelie bins, that abortions were committed in the front room, that more than eight witches danced around singing in the front room, that later one of the children had her stomach cut open on a table in the front room and that [Mary] witnessed seven children being killed along with acts of cannibalism. We do not consider that the belief that this could be kept secret matches basic commonsense or reality. Outside of the babies and the children, sheep are large, noisy, difficult animals and when one was slaughtered by an Indian on a council estate in Leicester it hit the national newspaper headlines the following day. In our view another explanation has to be sought. “

  4. Laban:

    While doing a bit of background reading on the Rochdale case I found several references to their having been of the order of 80 cases during the period of the satanic abuse panic where children were removed by social workers – Orkney was another.

    In not one of those cases was any of the allegations of ritual abuse substantiated, on which basis I think the obvious comparisons to Salem stand up as accurate.

    Having seen the video footage in the programme, what I hope is that part of the case being brought by those caught up in the Rochdale case is based on a claim that their article 3 rights (prevention of torture) were violated, so psychologically abusive was some of what I saw.

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