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Jo Warner Special Edition

Legitimate outrage? The Government Review of Children’s Social Care

With the Government Review of Children’s Social Care (hereafter the ‘Care Review’) comes a great deal of power. Any government-sponsored review or inquiry has the opportunity to define the relevant issues and shape the debates about them, potentially for many years to come. Most importantly, a process such as the Care Review has the power to provide a foundation for real and meaningful change.

A central question in thinking about power is that of its legitimacy, so we must ask what legitimacy the Care Review has or may acquire, and why it matters. If the Care Review does not have legitimacy, or cannot acquire it, then it will flounder and be destined to gather dust like so many reviews before it. Indeed, we should remember that this destiny is often baked into the initiation of a review or inquiry by governments. A review is perfect for kicking an issue into the long grass and appearing to act on it by creating lots of movement and activity. But we should not confuse such movement with action. At its worst, the Care Review will not just be benign in its effects. A review can be disempowering precisely because of the potential for effecting real change that is then not realised. Such a failed process can leave people feeling betrayed and thereby intensify the sense of unfairness and injustice that precipitated the process of review in the first place.

Many of the arguments that have already swirled around the Care Review are concerned fundamentally with questions of its legitimacy. Before going further, it is useful to break down the idea of legitimacy into its component parts by asking three interrelated questions[1]. Firstly, is the power vested in the Care Review legally held? Secondly, will its use of that power reflect ‘shared values’, and whose values will come to dominate? Thirdly, will the legitimacy of the Care Review be widely recognised and acknowledged, particularly once it has been completed?

The Care Review is undoubtedly legal, not least because it has been initiated by a democratically elected government. However, the question of the degree to which the Care Review can be said to reflect shared values or ‘normative beliefs’ is far less clear. In the decisions taken in the early days of setting up the review, questions of values and representation were deeply contentious. Could the Chair be seen as truly independent of government? Was the selection of people with lived experience of the care system fair and transparent? Immediately, the question of ‘whose values?’ has been fully in the foreground. The third criterion for legitimacy, that of the expression of consent and acknowledgement, can perhaps only be answered fully at the Review’s conclusion. But there will be critical tests along the way.

Two tests link directly to the question of the Care Review’s legitimacy. The first test will be whether the analysis of the issues as the process unfolds is critical and rational. Will the review seek out and then accept the evidence about Children’s Social Care in England and then represent this evidence robustly to the government that sponsored it? It is in this way that the review will express its independence (or not). The second test is in the domain of political emotions, specifically that of outrage at social injustice. Through its processes, can the Care Review distil and then harness the sense of outrage that must inevitably follow a critical scrutiny of the facts that will be placed before it? Even more important is whether the review can then represent its findings in a way that potentially changes the conversation about Children’s Social Care, ideally so that the conversation encompasses a wider set of constituencies. This is important, since politicians tell us that Children’s Social Care is not a ‘vote winner’ as it does not resonate with the public except during periods of crisis.

Processes of review and inquiry can sometimes acquire a legitimacy well-beyond their original terms of reference and even change the conversation about values. The Macpherson Inquiry[2] into the brutal racist murder of Stephen Lawrence has had a lasting impact. Its definition of institutional racism has been powerful enough to see off many attempts to delegitimise it, including the most recent effort by the current government in the form of its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities[3]. As Hugh Muir[4] has argued, Macpherson’s growing sense of outrage as the inquiry process uncovered the facts provided a vital underpinning to his conclusions. It was the robust, forensic synthesis of the facts of social injustice combined with outrage about those facts that ultimately secured the widespread acknowledgement of the report’s legitimacy and its subsequent influence.

If the Care Review is not outraged by what it finds in its scrutiny of Children’s Social Care, then it is not looking in the right places. If outraged, its legitimacy will lie in the degree to which it can synthesise facts and values to make even the most reluctant audience understand what is happening in the sector, why it is happening, and recognise that things must urgently change.

Jo Warner, April 2021


[1] Drawing on Beetham, D. (2013; 1991) The Legitimation of Power. Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan (2nd ed.)

[2] Macpherson, Lord, (1999), The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Cm.4262-I.

[3] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report – March 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

[4] William Macpherson: an establishment man with a sense of outrage | UK criminal justice | The Guardian