Wednesday 24 August 2011

Pembrokeshire Council Slated

Just over the border Pembrokeshire County Council have come under a severe slating over the past few days following the publication last week of two damning education and childrens services reports (Estyn and CSSIW - Photon has the full reports) and senior Council officers have been accused of worrying more about the reputation of the council than the welfare of children. During the week the Western Telegraph has reported how Council officers 'managed' information given to Councillors, removing details leading to a 'significant risk to transparency' undermining 'the ability of elected members to challenge and hold officers to account'. A key issue highlighted was a leadership culture that did not provide or record necessary information and an over-reliance on informal discussion. This “masks important issues”, the report states, adding that there was evidence of a “closed, not transparent culture”.
'Significant risk to transparency', report finds
Chief Officers' Group has no agenda items or minutes to review
A Welsh Assembly team has stepped in to try and help improve matters;
Final appointment made to Child Safeguarding Group after scathing reports

Today's paper has the full text of an extraordinary letter to the authority from Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Minister for Education and Childrens' Services. It is surprisingly blunt and so I have copied it here in full;

We continue to have serious concerns regarding Pembrokeshire County Council’s approach to safeguarding children and young people.
As we explained in our telephone conversation with you on the 19 August, you met with our officials and the Ministerial Advisory Board (MAB) on 18 August where these issues were explored in detail.
A number of issues stand out. You have assured us and the MAB that you take these matters very seriously, but you, your officers, and elected members appear to us to have taken steps to play down the seriousness of the issues.
We are particularly concerned about some of the statements that have been made in the media, including:
• "No harm came to these children, to say that it was luck is not right"
Councillor Huw George, BBC Online, 12 August 2011
• When you read the report, and it has been recognised, it is about the potential of harm, rather than actual harm.
Councillor John Davies, BBC Good Evening Wales, 12 August 2011.

These and other statements, in the media, to the MAB, and to Ministers all point to a lack of appreciation of the gravity of the position.
Amongst the cases, there are examples where children and young people have been put at risk as a direct result of the action or lack of action by the local authority.
The gravity of the circumstances of some of these cases must be recognised by you and the elected members of the authority.
They involve serious cases of children being harmed as a result of actions taken by staff employed in schools and by the authority.
For this reason the inspectorates have repeatedly asked your authority to review the management and handling of these cases to ensure that all the necessary action has been taken.
Your authority has demonstrated a lack of rigour and urgency in undertaking this work, as evidenced by the fact that it was not until the inspectors started to point out some of the issues that your authority even realised that there was a problem.
Even then, in one case inspectors had to refer back to your officers four times before all the action that was needed was taken.

Furthermore, it took two and half weeks for your authority to share the necessary information with Dyfed Powys police after being asked to give these cases urgent consideration by the inspectorates. As you are aware, Dyfed Powys police are currently considering a number of issues.

Other statements in the media are misleading. The press notice issued by Pembrokeshire County Council following the publication of CSSIW and Estyn’s joint investigation report states that
"the Council has acquired the services of Mr David Hopkins, former Director of Education with Caerphilly County Borough Council; Mr Phil Hodgson, Chairman of the Welsh Safeguarding Children National Forum and a former Director of Social Services with Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council plus a third independent expert."

This was untrue. Your authority had not acquired the services of either Mr Hopkins or Mr Hodgson.

The seriousness of these cases has been minimised. Pembrokeshire’s Chief Executive told the Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services and Welsh Government officials at the meeting on 9 August that some of the cases were ‘minor and were dealt with at the time to the satisfaction of everyone, including the parents’.
A school’s actions in providing false information in a reference, stating a teacher had resigned, when in fact she had been dismissed, were excused by the fact that the former teacher was not applying to work with children.
Councillor George incorrectly said, in his interview on BBC Good Morning Wales on 13 August, that school staff, in providing the reference, had not lied, but had simply omitted information.
This lack of acceptance of serious flaws in HR processes is extremely worrying. It is made worse by the results following the inspectorates’ direction to your authority to confirm the position on references and up to date CRB checks on staff potentially working with children during the summer holiday period.
This revealed that over 9% of these staff either did not have the required CRB check or written references in place.
In some cases, action has been taken only when this has been prompted by Welsh Ministers and their officials. A helpline for parents was set up only following direction by Welsh Ministers and no pro-active action was taken to contact parents directly; links to neither the CSSIW and Estyn joint investigation report nor the Estyn inspection report appeared on Pembrokeshire’s website until this was suggested by the MAB.

We are concerned about levels of transparency. We were surprised to learn that inspection reports do not routinely go before Council.
We understand that the last time this happened was in 2001, when the adverse Social Care report was brought to Council. The failure to provide a link on Pembrokeshire’s website to the CSSIW / Estyn joint investigation report and the Estyn inspection report made it difficult for parents to understand the reason for the helpline.
Meetings between Cabinet and officers are informal and, since minutes are not taken, there is no audit trail of decisions.

The lack of challenge of officers by Cabinet is unusual. It is insufficient to state that the constitution delegates operational matters to officers.
Council should have a strategic overview and must provide direction and challenge to its officers, and you must accept that your role as Leader is to ensure this happens.

We are copying this letter to Assembly Members.
Yours sincerely,
Leighton Andrews,
Minister for Education and Skills Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services

From the Western Telegraph;
Council accused of making misleading statements and playing down the seriousness of Child Safeguarding issues
The Photon Blog - Pembrokeshire Council - The Leighton Andrews Letter

There has been something of a reaction to this with the Council Leader, John Davies stating that some of the comments in the letter were misleading (BBC News). Perhaps someone will elaborate on this.

Let's hope that these serious issues raised in the reports are now being dealt with properly rather than denied, although it doesn't look like anyone's been sacked yet of course.
One commenter does give a word of warning though and suggests that this could well be used as an excuse by the Assembly to push forward plans to re-organise local government and warns that Pembrokeshire could end up suffering the terminal fate of being run by Carmarthenshire. They wouldn't want that; officer-led? reliance on informal discussions? prioritising reputation? Carmarthenshire Council are experts.

An interesting view from Y Cneifiwr here; Reorganising Local Government in Wales 
And from Peter Black AM who questions whether the Assembly should be flexing it's muscle at all; Welsh Government is so Macho!
and back to The Photon as the Leighton Andrews flexes more muscle in Blaenau Gwent; Commissioners; First it's Anglesey, now it's Blaenau Gwent

25th August;
The row heats up with the Pembrokeshire Council Leader accusing Leighton Andrews and the Welsh Government of using these critical reports for political gain running up to the local elections next May.
 'Authority leader says ministers targetting councils' (BBC)

And while were on the subject of Welsh Councils, just seen this excellent post from Y Cneifiwr; Welsh councils - the vultures come home to roost

26th August;
Pembrokeshire Council admits employees harmed children (BBC News)

27th August;
Pembrokeshire Council's scrutiny system blasted as 'self-congratulatory tea-party' (Western Telegraph). Same goes for Carmarthenshire's.

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