For some time now, I have been concerned about the management of Children’s Services in Somerset. The services we provide to children are some of the most important areas of responsibility for the County Council and it is worrying how poorly the service is performing. Since election in 2009, the Conservative administration has presided over a steady slide in performance from good to inadequate, where it remains. In that time, the County Council has parted company with 2 chief executives as well as Directors of Children’s Services at the rate of about 1 per year. Around a quarter of all Somerset’s social workers are temporary agency staff. In order to try and turn the situation around, the Council appointed, in April 2013, an interim Director costing the Council, over £400,000 per year, pro-rata. Peter Lewis was heralded as the saviour of the service but despite his appointment, the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, was so concerned that in November 2013 he issued an improvement notice, requiring that the Council drag up its performance in this area.
Following a slew of further inadequate ratings* this autumn, Mr Timpson is clearly not impressed by the rate of improvement and has summoned the Leader of the Council to a meeting in Whitehall. Regrettably, the Council issued a press release in response, describing the meeting as ‘perfectly routine’ and ‘entirely expected’. Such complacency gives little comfort that the current leadership even recognises the gravity of the situation, let alone has the capabilities to resolve the problems in the service. Unbelievably, the Cabinet Member for Children at Somerset County Council launched an astonishing rant at members of the public and opposition councillors, blaming their (legitimate) questions about Mr Lewis’s astronomical cost for his ‘slipping performance’. You can watch it here. Again, such a flawed assessment gives no confidence at all that those in charge are capable of improving the service. In October 2014, the County Council terminated its contract with the fabulously-remunerated Peter Lewis. The Council says it sacked him. Mr Lewis says he resigned.
Last month it was revealed that a Somerset County Council staff member had had sex with a 16-year-old resident. It just gets worse.
The Leader of the Council and the Conservative prospective MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow have both expressed confidence in the political and officer leadership in Children’s Services. This is yet more complacency and begs the question “If it’s not a question of personnel, what is the problem?” Is it finance? Children’s Services is already £2.7m overspent this year. If money is the problem, let’s not forget that the Leader and his Cabinet are equally responsible for the budget as they are for personnel. Either way, the buck stops with Frances Nicholson, Cabinet Member for Children and the Leader, John Osman, who incidentally was the previous Cabinet Member for Children. It is hard to fathom what else needs to go wrong before they accept that they are not up to their jobs and step down.
*Taunton Children’s Centres were found by OFSTED to be Inadequate
South Somerset Children’s Centres were found by OFSTED to be Inadequate
Somerset Children’s Services were found by OFSTED to be Inadequate
Two Somerset Children’s Homes were found by OFSTED to be Inadequate