Lockdown should not be used as a reason for Solihull council and other child safeguarding agencies to be “let off the hook” over the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, according to one influential Conservative MP, as Boris Johnson said ministers will leave “absolutely no stone unturned” to establish what went wrong in the case.
Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow and chair of the education select committee, said that while the pandemic lockdowns and school closures had led to an increase in safeguarding concerns and domestic abuse, the abuse of the six-year-old at the hands of his stepmother and father required a forensic investigation into the council’s responsibilities.
“You can’t just blame this on lockdown because it seems to me there has been a dramatic failure by children’s services and the relevant authorities. That is the elephant in the room, and they have to be held to account, and there will be an inquiry into what on earth has gone on,” Halfon said.
“While I absolutely believe that lockdowns destroyed people’s mental health and wellbeing, and that children have been affected by safeguarding hazards and domestic abuse, as well as joining county lines gangs, that shouldn’t let social services off the hook.”
Arthur’s stepmother, Emma Tustin, was sentenced on Friday to 29 years in prison for his murder, while his father, Thomas Hughes, was given 21 years in prison for manslaughter.
Speaking during a byelection campaign visit in north Shropshire, Johnson said it was essential that lessons were learned from what happened. “I just want to say, on the tragic and appalling case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, like many people I find it hard to read it, let alone to understand how people could behave like that to a defenceless little child,” the prime minister said.
“It is early days, but I can tell you this, we will leave absolutely no stone unturned to find out exactly what went wrong in that appalling case.”
The Conservative former children’s minister Tim Loughton told the Sun: “We all have a duty to make sure other vulnerable children are not let down by social care in the same way as Arthur … Funding for children’s social care has lagged behind and social workers are overstretched and undervalued, when in truth they should be revered as our fourth emergency service.
“Early interventions to stop the causes of safeguarding problems have been diluted to late interventions to firefight symptoms. This is a false economy where in this case a child paid with his life. We all have an interest in putting this right urgently and a duty to make sure it is.”
A serious case review is under way into the circumstances around Arthur’s death after it emerged that social workers had visited the house two months before he died and concluded there were “no safeguarding concerns”. West Midlands police are also being investigated for their actions after being forwarded photographs showing Arthur’s bruises.
Halfon said: “Every single one of them has to be held accountable, from the local council chief executive to the director of children’s services, to the people who came around to the house – every single person should answer for what decisions were made.”
Asked if the Solihull case was the tip of an iceberg of post-lockdown abuse, Halfon said: “God forbid that there are other cases as bad as this one, but there has definitely been a massive impact on safeguarding, of children at home vulnerable to domestic abuse, children facing pressure where parents have lost jobs, joining county lines gangs, and virtually vanishing from school rolls. This is a wider issue.”
Sir Alan Wood, the former head of children’s services for the London borough of Hackney, told the BBC that the tragedy could lead to the consideration of dedicated children’s protection officers taking over some local authority responsibilities in an independent review of children’s social care being conducted by Josh MacAlister.
“I think there’s no doubt that there is a need for significant additional investment into [children’s] services. But I don’t think one can simply say that the cause of the event is down to the lack of resources,” Wood said, citing difficulties in attracting staff and barriers between different agencies involved.
A Solihull council spokesperson said: “This terrible tragedy has had a shocking impact on Arthur’s family and across the whole community. We send our heartfelt condolences to everyone affected. The circumstances around his death will now be subject to an independent review – the local child safeguarding practice review – and clearly it would be inappropriate for the council to comment ahead of the findings of that review.”
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, said she felt “shock and revulsion” at the sustained abuse inflicted on Arthur.
“However, we can’t just ask ourselves ‘why did they do it?’ but ‘how were they able to?’,” she said. “We need systems that hear the voice of a child, a child clearly able to articulate the abuse they were suffering, and to be actually heard. We need repeated concerns raised by families to be taken seriously.
“The hard truth is there are no simple solutions to prevention, but Arthur deserves me as children’s commissioner and the rest of the system to be asking the difficult questions and confronting the hard changes that may need to be made to protect any child that might be at risk of such malevolent adults, adults he had every right to expect to love and care for him.”
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said he would address parliament on Monday on further measures. “We are determined to protect children from harm and where concerns are raised we will not hesitate to take urgent and robust action. We will not rest until we have the answers we need.”
Charlotte Ramsden, the Association of Children’s Services president, said: “Over the course of the pandemic, local authorities and partners have continued to support all children and families, especially those with the most acute needs. The social restrictions introduced to protect wider public health unfortunately added a layer of extra complexity to what is already an incredibly complex and challenging area of work. Sadly, it is not possible to eliminate all risk.
Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, is expected to address the case early next week when the inspectorate publishes its latest annual report. Last December Spielman said: “Teachers are often the eyes that spot signs of abuse and the ears that hear stories of neglect. Closing schools didn’t just leave the children who – unbeknown to others – suffer at home without respite, it also took them out of sight of those who could help.”
Ofsted rated Solihull’s children’s services as requiring improvement in its last full inspection report, published in January 2020, with inspectors noting: “For some children, plans are not progressed quickly enough, and in a few cases there is drift and delay.”
But Ofsted also praised Solihull for strengthening its children’s services workforce and reducing its use of agency staff, suggesting that resources were less of an issue than in some regions.
“There is an appropriate level of support for newly qualified staff. The local authority has ensured that staff overall have manageable caseloads. Staff are happy to work in Solihull, feel well supported and valued,” Ofsted’s inspectors said.