My New Year’s resolution to attend a wider variety of council meetings has
gone the way of most such resolutions. On one occasion a more attractive
alternative presented itself - not difficult - and another time I was unwell,
but yesterday I was free to attend the Children’s Social Care Improvement Plan
In recent months the responsible cabinet member, Philip Read, has been crowing loudly about how much Children’s Services have improved since he took responsibility last May and in the process been incredibly aggressive towards his Labour counterpart, councillor Mabel Ogundayo. Read doesn‘t like her because she is young and doesn’t think she is capable of independent thought.
Children’s Services are of particular interest to me following correspondence with two families who have lost children to Bexley’s social services. Their stories are remarkably similar and from one I have seen evidence of Bexley council’s clear failures. Both make the same criticisms of social workers - they are liars - and again one offers proof.
Yesterday’s meeting was scheduled for four o’clock and I turned up in plenty of time only to find the day time receptionist was unfamiliar with the concept of a public meeting. I couldn’t go in unless I was invited. As the starting time loomed and a reference to the Local Government Act made no impression, the day was saved by councillor Brenda Langstead (Labour, North End) who averted another Cheryl Bacon incident by explaining the situation to the receptionist and kindly led me to Room G07.
Clearly no one was expecting a public presence and I squeezed into one of the two spare seats. The Agenda did not state who would chair the meeting but councillor David Hurt assumed the role. He may not have been any more aware of the Local Government Act than the receptionist because he asked the committee members if they were happy to accept the presence of a member of the public. They were.
After the less than perfect start things improved immeasurably.
Chief Executive Will Tuckley indicated he would speak for ten minutes but spoke fluently for 25, grabbing my attention throughout. I have heard him say the same before but he was “shocked, appalled, embarrassed and felt guilty” about the failings revealed by OFSTED three years ago. I do not doubt his word but my thoughts strayed to Trevor Lawrie who lost his grandson Rhys after the boy’s mother had told medical workers that she was likely to harm the child, she had been sectioned under the Medical Health Act before moving to Bexley and health workers and teachers had all told Bexley council of their concerns.
Bexley council did absolutely nothing about it claiming that one report had come in during the Christmas party season. Rhys died from 39 injuries and the police said it was death from natural causes. To this day Rhys’s grandfather believes that was part of a cover up to save Bexley council from a Haringey Baby Peter situation.
Bexley council clearly recognises the seriousness of the situation that was allowed to prevail and their first actions following the OFSTED ignominy were to “intervene earlier” (hence more families having children taken away) and employ more staff; 38 of them and inevitably temporary.
The costs have been very significant but in Mr. Tuckley’s opinion the council “struggles with consistency” and “we haven’t got there yet and considerable work still needs to be done“. “The practice is not one we can be proud of”. So Philip Read’s crowing is somewhat premature and he has been in position for only eight months while Will Tuckley and his team have been working on the problem for three years.
The newest member of the team is Director Jackie Tiotto, recently of OFSTED itself, who outlined her plans for the future and kindly provided me with my own copy of her summary.
She was well received by councillors although as her address was a little more ‘technical’ than the Chief Executive’s was not quite as illuminating to the casual observer, i.e. me. She said that temporary staff remained too high at about 50:50. The 40:60 figure (claimed by Philip Read) referred to all departmental staff and not “front line social workers”. Philip Read’s constant message to councillor Mabel Ogundayo that her statistics are out of date would appear to be undone by the Director.
Councillor John Wilkinson (Conservative, Brampton) asked how Bexley managed to get itself into such an awful position three years ago which Will Tuckley accepted was a good question but if there was a straight answer it passed me by, except perhaps that the CEO suggested it was dangerous for a borough to be “insular”. Councillor Sybil Camsey (Conservative, Brampton) had noticed “improved morale” among the staff and said that a weakness had been “communication” and this had been much improved between “partners”. (Schools, police, probation service etc.)
Councillor Brad Smith (Conservative, Christchurch) asked another good question. “How long would it be before Bexley obtained a ‘Good’ rating from OFSTED?” Director of Children’s Services Jackie Tiotto thought it might be “two years; it is a big tanker to turn”.
The meeting was a good example of people apparently working hard for a common goal and on the surface at least there is nothing to carp about, but I cannot forget that some of the managers are unchanged since Rhys Lawrie’s life took second place to the Christmas booze up.