Public sector must adopt openness to avoid another Jimmy Savile
by Mo Baines
Outrage in the wake of the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal threatens to engulf the public sector far beyond the parameters of the BBC - we now need proper safeguarding policies to ensure such institutionalised abuse never happens again
'Auntie', so called because of the level of trust and affection the British public held for the BBC, is beginning to look more like a perverted Uncle. Each day new revelations throw light on a sordid history of ignorance and incompetence, which led to the abuse of vulnerable young people. Beyond the BBC questions are now rightly being asked of hospitals, prisons and charitable organisations as to how this systematic abuse was allowed to happen over decades. The whole sorry saga leaves public sector organisations asking 'could this happen again and could it happen here'?
There is no doubt that the public sector has seen its own fair share of scandals when young and old, disabled and vulnerable people have been failed. And yet after each inquiry and promises that lessons will be learned, a new scandal and another inquiry seems to always identify 'culture' as a significant reason for the failure in the first place. This is not to diminish problems of under-resourced services, lack of effective staff training, poor management or sadly the devious ways in which would-be abusers target the most vulnerable. But it is no coincidence that 'culture' runs as a common-thread.
In the recent Independent Safeguarding Board's investigation into the Rochdale abuse cases, a 'culture' of treating the victims of abuse as simply making 'lifestyle' choices was criticised. In the horrendous Winterbourne View case, in that instance a privately run hospital, there was reported to be a culture resulting in lack of patient care and bullying of staff who attempted to report the violent and degrading treatment. Most recently, two care workers were jailed for the abuse of vulnerable disabled adults in a council-run care home in Bolton. Following the court case, council chief executive Sean Harriss apologised not just to families of victims for past inadequacies but to members of staff whose reports of the abuse to managers fell on deaf ears for more than five months.
These findings from other abuse inquiries chime with the early analysis of what went wrong at the BBC. Former and indeed current BBC employees say they felt they would not be listened to - that some characters were too big to touch, that management was fragmented. Information from one part of the organisation did not flow through to other parts, so concerns were never properly followed through. It is too early to judge the outcomes of the now numerous inquiries into what went wrong at 'Auntie', but we should also recognise the fact that essentially the BBC is a media organisation. While the BBC had noticeable duties - for example to young entertainers being chaperoned, unlike areas such as health and local government - it does not generally have statutory responsibilities for young or vulnerable people. That is why most of the public sector is, thankfully, ahead of the game in its safeguarding responses.
Following tragedies such as the Soham murders, a raft of safeguarding measures were introduced. Alongside tightening inspection regimes, which put safeguarding measures at the heart of service provision, new vetting and barring procures were introduced. In an irony of timing, the British government backed 'Freedoms Act' has recently introduced measures which seek to scale back vetting and barring to 'common-sense' levels – with regulations coming into place in October 2012 and a new 'disclosure and barring service' taking over the Criminal Records Bureau and Independent Safeguarding Authority functions on December 1 2012. The United Kingdom government may yet face opposition to these measures, which some have described as 'weakening' safeguarding. But is it all about legislation or that vexed question of culture? If changing culture means creating organisational environments in which abuse is readily reported and staff, and service users, feel listened to - how do we go about embedding that in public sector organisations?
Recently the NHS employers and trade unions including the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the royal colleges of nursing and midwives, UNISON, Unite and other health service organisations signed a 'Speaking up Charter' - which is a commitment to work together to support those who raise concerns in the public interest. The charter outlines a commitment to work more effectively to create what is described as a just culture that is open and transparent. This culture would ensure individuals are fully supported to report concerns and are treated fairly, with empathy and consideration. An essential part of this new charter is a commitment by organisations to signpost individuals to support and guidance to ensure that they are fully aware of and understand their protected rights under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.
Within the public sector, there has to be a recognition that while we have statutory responsibilities for the care of vulnerable people - we also have responsibilities to support a culture of openness where staff, service users and relatives of those being cared for feel able to raise concerns; to be believed and supported, and to have effective lines to report their concerns. A culture of openness costs little but could bring great riches when it comes to safeguarding our most vulnerable members of society.
Mo Baines writes here in her capacity as president of the Manchester branch of trade union UNISON, in England, but she is also principal adviser at the Association for Public Service Excellence in the United Kingdom