There are depressing similarities between the case of the two young French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez, brutally murdered in south London last July, and the case of Baby Peter, who died a slow and painful death in 2007 at the hands of his carers.
In each case, the supervising officer involved was carrying a caseload well beyond the recommended levels.
In the Bonomo/Ferez case, the newly qualified probation officer supervising Danno Sonnex, one of the two men who carried out the murders, was responsible for 127 offenders, as compared to the London average of 37.
And in each case, the New Labour ministers involved – respectively Ed Balls and Jack Straw – have denied any responsibility and have instead demanded the resignation of the senior manager involved.
Yet whatever mistakes may have been made by individual workers and managers in the Bonomo/Ferez case, the truth is that New Labour carries a heavy load of responsibility for these deaths.
Britain now has a prison population of 93,000 – an all-time record, and one of the highest levels of incarceration in Europe.
To keep prison numbers down pressure is put on the probation service to supervise offenders in the community.
There are already huge workloads and high levels of understaffing. Yet the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) says that government cutbacks mean that at least half of the 400 probation officers finishing their training this year will not get jobs, or will be offered only temporary contracts.
For those who do find work, workloads of upwards of 80 or 100 cases mean there is no possibility of forming personal relationships with those who they are supervising.
The lack of opportunity to spend time with clients is also a major complaint of social workers.
Most offenders are young men, aged between 18 and 25, from the poorest estates in the country.
Yet New Labour has followed the Tories in cutting back on what was once a flourishing youth service. Instead it has relied on punitive measures such as Asbos, despite evidence that shows they are an ineffective way of controlling behaviour.
As Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo and a consistent critic of New Labour, has argued, the lack of a youth service is a glaring fault in the system.
He has campaigned for a statutory duty on local authorities to provide youth services, to improve the infrastructure of problematic estates, to increase equality of opportunity to education and work, and to provide counselling and support for individuals and families in trouble.
In reality the current recession means that the opposite will happen. Existing services will be cut back further, not expanded.
And growing poverty and unemployment will add to the stress on already poor families. This means that children are more likely to experience the kind of neglect and abuse which study after study shows contributes to people becoming violent adults.
Opposing the scapegoating of social workers and probation officers who are doing their best to help individuals and families, and supporting approaches which seek to address the trauma that many offenders have suffered, is a basic duty of every socialist.
At the same time, until we have built a society which is not based on the structural violence of inequality and on systematic disrespect for the vast majority of its members, then sadly such tragedies will continue to occur.
Iain Ferguson is a co-founder of the Social Worker Action Network. For more go to » www.socialworkfuture.org
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