Fitzsimons: Councillors ‘naive’ in believing senior officials

Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on how some at the Town Hall are beginning to face up to uncomfortable truths

Croydon’s councillors are becoming increasing angry about the way they have been misled over the handling of the children’s services crisis at the council.

Councillors suggest that council officials were keeping the true extent of the children’s services crisis from them

Some of the council’s more measured figures have so far avoided accusing council officials of actually lying to them, but they are getting close.

Two weeks since Ofsted inspectors published their damning report on Croydon’s failing children’s services department, tonight will see an emergency council meeting staged at the Town Hall.

While a meeting last week had cabinet members whispering to colleagues that, “We mustn’t blame the officers”, a further weekend’s reflection on the detail of Ofsted’s report is prompting questions about whether the council’s most senior staff have been spending more time covering their own arses than caring for the borough’s most vulnerable children.

“We need complete honesty about successes and failures at all levels to be norm,” one senior Labour councillor said today. “No more explaining away uncomfortable truths. No more saying that failure is due to factors outside our control.

“We need true ownership, in other words.”

Some councillors have pointed to the children’s social care scrutiny meeting held in March, at which Barbara Peacock, the council’s executive director for the “People” division, attended alongside Ian Lewis, the director of children’s social care, the department which was to be the focus of the Ofsted inspectors in July.

The children and young people scrutiny sub-committee is chaired by Tory councillor Jan Buttinger.

“Jan’s a teacher,” one Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon. “She’s not someone who would necessarily conduct forensic-style investigations, she’s not someone who demands answers to hard questions.

Jan Buttinger: not forensic

“You get the impression that she reads the papers on the way to her meeting and is happy if she runs the meeting smoothly and everything’s done and dusted in an hour and a half.”

Buttinger’s committee in March included former social worker Bernadette Khan, as well as Sean Fitzsimons and it had Margaret Bird standing in for the absent beer salesman Mario Creatura.

The meeting minutes record that, “The committee stated that it was impressed with the work carried out on children’s social care and thanked officers for  their fulsome replies to their questions.”

This was just three months before the damning Ofsted inspection.

Six months earlier, soon after Peacock’s appointment to her Croydon job, the council had begun a review of its children’s department’s work. Council staff were well aware that the children’s department was struggling to cope with its workload, a steady churn of underpaid social workers making it difficult to deliver the high-level care expected under often difficult circumstances.

But by the March scrutiny meeting, Lewis was outlining to the panel of councillors his “new vision for children’s services”.

“Children and young people in Croydon will be safe, healthy, happy and will aspire to be the best they can be,” Lewis told the committee. “The future is theirs.”

It is not recorded whether anyone listening to this self-regarding, managementspeak bullshit suddenly felt the need to vomit in disgust. So they probably didn’t.

Lewis, with Peacock at his side, outlined “the key priorities in the division’s improvement plan”.

Barbara Peacock: Medway went from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ in two years

When questioned on staff turnover – a serious shortcoming identified by the Ofsted inspection in July – the scrutiny committee in March was assured that the turnover of permanent staff had fallen to 15 per cent per year.

And when the officials admitted to the scrutiny committee that at least half of those children under the care of the council who go missing are never interviewed on their return, they were told that “social workers were skilled at communicating with children and persevered in their efforts to ascertain the causes of absences even if this was not through a formal ‘return home interview'”.

The contrast, with Ofsted’s view a couple of months later, is stark. Ofsted’s report states that, “Responses to the needs of children who go missing are weak. Return interviews are not taking place for the majority of children, which means that the opportunity to gather critical information, identify risks and take timely protective action is lost.”

Lewis, of course, has since left his job at Croydon Council, and Sarah Baker, the chair of the Croydon Safeguarding Children Board, has also departed after Ofsted found “weak managerial oversight at all levels”.  The council has drafted in Philip Segurola as interim director of children’s social care and Di Smith to takeover as chair of the safeguarding children board.

If these changes are intended to inspire confidence throughout the council, then they may fail. Segurola, a qualified social worker, had been working as Kent’s director of specialist children’s services.

Di Smith: back to the council where she was once paid £10,000 a month

Smith, a one-time primary school teacher, enjoyed a profitable spell at Croydon Council Tax-payers’ expense before. Just weeks after she got a £300,000 pay off for being forced out of a similar job in Brighton, Croydon took her on as the interim executive director of what was then called children, young people and learners, for which she was paid £10,800 every month for a four-day week. It has not been made public what “compensation” Smith might be receiving for her latest interim stint in Croydon.

Croydon’s Ofsted failings have brought closer scrutiny to Peacock’s track record from her previous job at Medway, where she was director of children’s services.

There, a 2013  “inadequate” Ofsted report – much like Croydon has just been given –  was followed up with a still unsatisfactory “requires improvement” in 2015. In Medway, even after two years of trying to improve, Ofsted found that in Peacock’s department, “leadership, management and governance… needed to be worked on”. These will be sentiments which are familiar to anyone who has waded through the 39-page report on Peacock’s department in Croydon in 2017.

Sources in Katherine Street suggest that, even when the dire nature of the Ofsted inspectors’ findings were becoming clear to the elected councillors by the end of July, Peacock argued against taking any action over the man in charge, Lewis.

Croydon’s Tories have called for more resignations, from their political opponents on the opposite side of the Town Hall chamber, something firmly rejected by council leader Tony Newman.

But even Newman has begun to admit publicly that maybe, just maybe, the senior council officials he has always steadfastly supported may not always be up to the job. Newman has said that councillors have been “utterly let down” by assurances from officials.

A meeting of the Labour group’s councillors last Thursday was notable in that neither Peacock, nor her boss, Jo Negrini, the council CEO, attended. Those who were there suggest that councillors’ anger with council’s senior staff was palpable.

Today, Sean Fitzsimons, Labour’s chair of the scrutiny committee, who spoke at that meeting, told Inside Croydon that the days of councillors accepting officer reports without question should be over.

Sean Fitzsimons: councillors need to work harder

“I believe that the impact of this issue will go far beyond children’s social care,” Fitzsimons said.

“The current operating model, which has been in place for years, will need to change dramatically, if we are to truly ensure the safety of Croydon’s children.

“We have been naive, we have been too trusting of officers, accepting reports. But we have also lacked training and support – the role of scrutiny has been pared down, and any additional support for the scrutiny function has become regarded by some people as a luxury. But it is a vital function of holding to account the decision-makers.

“Frontline staff need to be empowered and supported, with significantly better pay and training. Data collection and its use has to improve.

“Councillors will need to work harder, too. This includes backbenchers of all sides. We need a new training programme so councillors feel confident in challenging officers and senior councillors. Both political parties will need to rethink the role of councillors.

“Potentially, this is transformative. We have got to make sure that we do it properly because if done correctly it could result in huge improvements across the council.”

More on this story:

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This entry was posted in Alisa Flemming, Barbara Peacock, Children's Services, Croydon Council, Jan Buttinger, Jo Negrini, Sean Fitzsimons, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fitzsimons: Councillors ‘naive’ in believing senior officials

  1. Lewis White says:

    Local Government is important, and is paid for by the public.
    Councillors and Officers, at all levels of payment and responsibility, need to take responsibility for their actions, and need special training in some cases to fulfill their roles, rather than occupy a post.

    It’s alarming when any area of local government goes wrong, and starts to fail.

    Let’s hope that this situation is solved by root and branch reform, by and with the Councillors as well as the officers, not by importing a consultant to carry out a sticking-plaster improvement..

    The area of Children’s services must be a very difficult area in which to work, and is emotion -charged and politically charged too.

    Cllr Fitzsimon’s words give great hope. Will these be carried forward into a new bright future for Croydon? Will Tony Newman take these on board, seriously? Training for councillors is important. Competence in the role is much more than just getting elected.

    Many councillors know a lot about their area of responsibility, but there are some who fail to live up to the required standards (eg looking at Crystal Palace playing while sitting in a council meeting in the council chamber). Are they just taking the money–and the piss?

    Has too much of the decision making has gone to cabinet members, away from the ordinary councillors.

  2. I was always opposed to the Cabinet system replacing Committees as very few Councillors have the detailed knowledge of their portfolio areas to run them without the support of other Councillors who have different knowledge and skills that can fill any gaps. Scrutiny or services cannot be just the function of a Scrutiny Committee. The first and most important level of scrutiny lies with the Cabinet Member themselves, and possibly their deputy. Having been a Cabinet members, I spent a day each week scrutinising the departments and services I was responsible for (and the finances in detail once a month) and had to face questions by the appropriate scrutiny committee. Like fellow Cabinet members at the time, I found the interrogation by scrutiny committee very mild or ineffectual as the members knew little or nothing of the subject matter. I don’t recall any challenging questions, which I would have welcomed, which is a shame as constructive criticism or challenging questions is necessary to keep the Cabinet member focused on the bigger picture.

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