The council must take responsibility for the children’s services debacle

By - Thursday 5th October, 2017

The verdict is damning, and there isn’t much ambiguity over where the buck stops

There’s not been much good news for Croydon lately. The latest in a long list of bad news to be laid at our council’s door is the assessment by Ofsted inspectors that Croydon’s children’s services have failed on all counts.

From the failure to deal with flytipping through delays to the Fairfield Halls and Westfield (still awaiting planning permission), and this latest, the abject failure to run children’s social services, it is a litany of failure, made worse by Labour’s stock responses. The emergency council meeting on the Ofsted report was typical. Nothing is ever their responsibility, everything is someone else’s fault.

The Ofsted report says otherwise. It did not mince its words. The very first sentence of the first paragraph of the Executive Summary is: “There are widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children and their families in Croydon that leave some children at risk of significant harm”. So clearly this is not a small problem.

This is an independent inspector confirming that the services failed on Labour’s watch

The second paragraph begins “Since the local authority was inspected in 2012, there has been significant deterioration in the quality of service provision”. The system was working in 2012, it isn’t in 2017. I may be personally a Conservative, but this isn’t tribalism: this is an independent inspector confirming that the services failed on Labour’s watch.

Again from the report, problems were recognised in July 2016. Detailed external service reviews were commissioned when the breadth and depth of the decline became apparent. Yet action plans to address deficits were “focused on process or structure and there is insufficient consideration of improving outcomes for children. This has created delay in addressing and targeting the areas of greatest concern”. Even when they saw things were going wrong, they made wrong decisions that failed to address the problem.

Here is a fundamental difference between Labour’s approach and that of the Conservatives. Labour concentrate on inputs whereas what matters for Conservatives is whether the whole thing works efficiently to deliver better results. Labour’s knee-jerk response to problems is to spend more money. Money, usually your money (frequently disguised as ‘resources’), solves all problems in Labour’s world view.

There was a clear connection from elected members and senior managers to what happened on the ground

Money is indeed important, and sometimes more money is needed, but you can spend an awful lot of money chasing the wrong target or doing the wrong things and not solve the problem. Even more money spent still doing the wrong things doesn’t make that wrong decision right or have any better chance of fixing the problem.

The first place Conservatives look is whether the process is delivering for those it is intended to help, in this case Croydon’s most vulnerable children. Process is important, on that we can agree, it is what delivers results, but a process can be run well or badly.

The leadership and governance section of the Ofsted report points out that there is a dedicated children’s and young people’s scrutiny committee with regular meetings between officers and elected members, clear lines of accountability and governance arrangements between political, strategic and operational roles. In short, there was a clear connection from elected members and senior managers to what happened on the ground.

Leadership and governance are the critical areas where the calibre and competence of elected representatives is crucial

However, “a significant number of meetings and discussions take place informally and there is a lack of formal minutes to demonstrate and evidence accountability and agreed actions”. Essentially, there was a sound governance system in place but nobody made sure it was working. A good system poorly executed. It should have been clear that things were going wrong but because the system wasn’t managed properly, Labour’s councillors in charge had no clue whether the system was working and whether Croydon’s most vulnerable children were being well served.

As a consequence, “the serious and widespread issues across the service had not been fully understood by elected members or senior managers until this (the Ofsted) inspection and this corporate failure has led to a lack of prioritisation and timely action. This has resulted in too many children remaining at risk of escalating or actual harm characterised by drift and delay.” Drift and delay, the Croydon Labour way.

Leadership and governance is the critical area where the calibre and competence of elected representatives is crucial. It is their job to know what is going on and to have evidence to prove to themselves and others that the process is delivering for Croydon’s vulnerable children. If they don’t have that evidence, then it is their job to get it. “Nothing to do with me, guv” or “the officers didn’t tell me” is just not good enough. Otherwise, what is it that they are they paid for? If those responsible had any shame they would resign.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Charlotte Davies

    This is a complex subject. During my last 25 years+ working in this area both as the Director of a CIC and as a senior teacher (also as a parent) I have not seen a deterioration in services from Croydon Council or South London NHS. I have seen a continuation of a dreadful service that is badly out of touch with the needs of vulnerable young people and would rather spend money on lawyers than on working with the community to find cost effective ways of solving problems. I suspect things are so bad inside the Council that individual officers are frightened: by their lack of knowledge; by their lack of funds; by internal bullying; by distressed parents and other stakeholders who are at their wits end crying out for better, more coherent support.
    Croydon riots involved a significant number of youngsters who felt marginalised by society – that was the point at which all stakeholders including the NHS and the local Council staff should have been coming together to discuss the real underlying causes. In South Croydon we had such conversations at South Croydon Community Association and identified a wide variety of issues that destabilised society that stemmed from failure to deal with vulnerable young people in an appropriate manner, on a timely basis, hence leaving us with long-term expensive problems. On the micro-level we knew that not a lot was happening for our youngsters in Care because we were battling an out of control hostel for minors on Heathfield Road – that was under a Tory administration.
    It is not about politics this debate – it is about basic humanity. It is about the basic steps that ought to be taken to ensure that every child in Croydon has the support to develop properly and securely.
    Given we only have finite resources those resources need to be used very wisely and we all need to play our part as it takes a village to raise a child. Croydon is a town with strong community groups and big faith groups. People who visit Croydon are impressed by the social cohesion that exists between all the community groups. We can choose to sink into an infantile blame game or we could all accept that we are all responsible for raising our children and that we all need to take on the role of parents and make sure that this aspect of our local Council works a lot better. The serious conversations on this matter were had at the Scrutiny Committee – there were very few people from the community or the political groups really stepping up to get to grips with the serious questions.
    Raising children is hard work day in day out. Raising traumatised children is the most demanding job in the world – let’s work together to be the best at it.

  • David White

    Resolving issues regarding children’s services is not helped by ridiculously partisan articles like this, Robert.

    As I understand it the children’s and young persons’ scrutiny committee is chaired by a Conservative councillor. Also several nearby Tory councils have also received adverse Ofsted reports.

    Instead of political mudslinging let’s look objectively at what needs to change. In my view two things which would help are 1) less agency staff and more staff directly employed by the Council, and 2) a return to the Committee System of local government in Croydon (rather than the Leader and Cabinet system).

    A Committee involving a wide range of councillors is more effective at overseeing the work and policy of a department than a single Cabinet member, no matter how conscientious he/she is. Also by meeting regularly and receiving reports and recommendations they are better placed to spot problems than a scrutiny committee looking at things less regularly and often after the event.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks David.

      Good try but the Council is run by the party who has the most seats. At the moment that is Labour whose style of governing is to keep as much from the opposition as possible and to ignore any questions that are raised. The effectiveness of scrutiny in such an environment is very limited. What is clear is that this is firmly at Labour’s door.

      Where I can agree is that it is worth looking at the committee system which you are not the first to commend. I have no experience of this option. The Leader and Cabinet system can work but much is determined by the style of the Leader. The style of Councillor Newman is in my opinion a large part of the problem.