CROYDON COMMENTARY: The children’s services report is the greatest crisis to confront the council since the riots six years ago. Except, says STEVEN DOWNES, it is just the local reflection of a national collapse of social work
“This is too important for politics,” one of Croydon’s most senior councillors said to me in the days after Ofsted delivered their devastating indictment of our council’s failing social services. And they are, of course, absolutely correct. And I say that even though the person speaking to me is a Conservative.
That didn’t stop the councillor’s colleagues, Tim Pollard, the Tory leader of the opposition on the council, and Chris Philp, the MP for Croydon South, weighing-in in the past fortnight with pathetic petitions and calls for the resignation of this or that Labour councillor.
For all the good it will do. Getting the resignation of Tony Newman, the leader of the council, will do little to address the immediate problems at hand within a demoralised council staff and under-resourced social work department, and when the well-being of the children in this borough should be their utmost priority.
Getting rid of Newman now could be compared to Crystal Palace getting rid of Frank de Boer and replacing him with Roy Hodgson. At the Town Hall, we have Alison Butler on standby. But the players on the pitch, or at their desks in Fisher’s Folly, are unchanged.
And it is there where the council’s priorities should be: getting the team of social workers to start playing well each week, and scoring a few goals.
What has happened in Croydon is not a failure limited to this borough, and is not an issue confined to Labour-run local authorities. It is merely a sign of the damage which seven years of austerity cuts to council funding has had on some vital services which too many of us have been able to take for granted.
Croydon is the fourth south London borough in the past 18 months to have been given an “inadequate” report for its children’s services by Ofsted. Wandswoth and Bromley, both Tory-controlled, and Lambeth got there before Croydon did.
Indeed, according to the Ofsted website, Croydon is the 16th local authority in England since June 2016 to be given an “inadequate” report for its children’s services. There were several others which have had “requires improvement”, too. After seven years of austerity cuts to local authorities, the scale of the crisis in social work is massive, and seems to be growing rapidly.
Trouble is, there is a national recruitment crisis for social workers. It’s not a job that appeals to anyone except those just this side of sainthood. It’s not as if the pay is terrific, especially not in outer London. In Croydon, agency social workers get £19 per hour; the rate in inner London is £24 an hour. If you were a qualified social worker, where would you choose to work?.
And then there is the stress of the job. In one district of another failing local authority, outside the capital, it has a staff of 10 social workers, none of whom are fully qualified. Last month eight were off work, sick with stress.Croydon’s executives’ immediate response to the Ofsted report was a typical misjudgment, to chuck money at the problem, with a somewhat ill-considered £1,500 “bung” to those in the inadequate department. Staff who also look after children and families who haven’t received the added cash are understandably furious.
It is not just social workers in the children’s services department who are struggling. Inside Croydon has received numerous calls and emails from parents, carers and whistle-blowers inside Fisher’s Folly concerned about the state of the education department, SEND provision and adult social care.
All these services are close to breaking point – if they are not yet completely shattered – because of staff cuts and round-after-round of redundancies merrily implemented over the past eight years by local politicians of red and blue, and by senior council officials keen to advance their careers and please their political “masters” by being ever more “efficient” – councilspeak for trying to do the same, or more, with ever fewer staff.
There comes a point when the council just cannot function because it has too few trained and experienced staff. In children’s services, that point seems to have been reached some time in the past four years.
How was it allowed to happen?There’s definitely a feeling that some more senior council officials, the managers, have been stringing councillors a line about what a good job they have been doing and how well their staff are coping, when the reality is somewhat different.
There’s also a realisation that the last council re-organisation, which siloed staff into Place, People and Resources, meant that the People department – including education, housing, adult social care and children’s welfare among its manifold responsibilities – is just too large a beast for any one executive director to properly manage. This was a reorganisation which was conducted for efficiency’s sake, in the face of austerity.
And children’s services and social care have probably been overlooked, as less a priority as this council has had its focus on the “regeneration” and massive housing schemes being driven forward by the council chief executive, Jo Negrini.
When the unnamed councillor said, “This is too important for politics,” we also both agreed that the decision of one of their Conservative colleagues, Maria Gatland, to sit on the council’s new improvement board was The Right Thing To Do, helping to take the politics out of the issue by trying to find a solution to the issues in children’s services, instead of using a crisis for a spot of political point-scoring.
Gatland told me, “This is a challenging and sensitive area but our first responsibility must be the welfare and protection from harm of the most vulnerable children and young people in Croydon.”
From the opposition benches, Gatland has regularly asked for figures for the number of children in the council’s care who have gone missing – a frequent and regular challenge for Croydon, where so many unaccompanied minors arrive as asylum seekers. Council officers have rarely been able to provide her with any figures – because they just don’t know the answer.
It’s a shocking lack of control. Gatland calls the latest Ofsted findings “so serious and so concerning”.
The report, she says, “cites serious and widespread failures on almost every page, leaving some children at the risk of serious harm”.
Croydon’s full-time professional council staff failed to give any indication of these failings to councillors – a demonstration of how relatively powerless our elected representatives really are.
Which is why the call from another councillor, Sean Fitzsimons, for more and better scrutiny of the council officials’ performance needs to be heeded. For too long, councillors have taken at face value the reports which council officers have submitted on their own work. This must end, in all aspects of the council’s work.
There is also a gathering realisation that, of Croydon’s 70 councillors, there’s more than a few who really are not quite up to the task.
Too many owe their council allowances to a form of patronage from a too-controlling leader, and are able to rely on selection each four years to go through the motions of “standing for election” in a ward which votes so overwhelmingly for one party or another that the identity and abilities of the candidates is irrelevant. This does not serve the residents of Croydon well.
For Newman to concede that he and his cabinet members do not know what was going on in children’s services is, indeed, of serious concern. It hardly reflects well on the council leader’s abilities to oversee and hold to account the likes of Negrini, Barbara Peacock or any other director-level council staff.
The government-appointed commissioner is due to report in three months on the progress, if any, in Croydon’s children’s services.
By then, with the local elections just five months away, Newman will need to demonstrate that he really does have a grip on all matters around the running of the council, and not just micromanaging the councillors around him.
- Damning verdict on Croydon’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services
- Commissioner appointed to oversee children’s services
- Negrini tells staff: ‘There are some things that we don’t do well’
- Two key figures leave council over Ofsted inspectors’ report
- Bromley Council leader forced to resign over Ofsted report
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