All posts tagged 'social-services'

Why Kent is right to demand action over councils placing vulnerable children in county. Plus: Under the bonnet of KCC's new cars policy

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, June 14 2012

There are few things that councils do that are more important than the task of safeguarding vulnerable children.

Yet it can appear that decisions taken by social services authorities are not always ones that have the welfare of the child as the sole concern.

Not for the first time, Kent County Council is highlighting the practice of some councils to send children into the county to be looked after. It is an issue KCC has been trying to bang heads together on for years yet, for all its efforts, nothing has materially changed.

Far from home: how councils from Wales and Scotland and London are placing vulnerable children in Kent>>>

That is wrong and the current and previous government must shoulder some of the blame for failing to take any action. But it could be that things are about to change. Why? 

One reason is the publicity surrounding the sex grooming trial in Rochdale, that involved the deeply distressing exploitation of underage vulnerable girls, one of whom was in care. As a result of that trial and the convictions, the leader of Rochdale council said recently he was unable to guarantee the welfare of children at risk in care homes because so many were outside the area and had been placed in them by other councils.

Kent county council has invoked Rochdale in its latest plea for something to be done, as have headteachers in Thanet who have issued a stark warning that Kent 'could be the next Rochdale.'

Scaremongering? Not really, when you look at the data and consider the challenges facing parts of east Kent in dealing with desperate levels of social deprivation and hardship.

Councils - particularly London boroughs - are making decisions based as much on their budget books as they are on children's welfare. They cast around and see east Kent as a cheaper alternative. Decisions are made that satisfy the bean counters.

That can never be right and if the government is to heed the warnings, it must act quickly and take up some of KCC's recommendations.

If councils simply ignore voluntary agreements about placements, the solution is for them to be compelled to do so through law.

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County councillors have finally agreed a new policy and rules about when our democratically-elected representatives at County Hall can use chauffeur-driven cars.

One not-so-subtle change to the policy, as I predicted, is that the word "chauffeur" no longer appears in the policy document. Instead, the council refers to "county cars".

On whether councillors can avail themselves of chauffeur-driven cars, sorry "county cars" - to get them from home to County Hall, there is a new clause.

This states that such travel should be regarded "as an exception to normal travelling arrangements for all members" and only authorised in specific circumstances.

And what are these specific circumstances? "To drive the chairman, leader or deputy leader of the county council or their spouse/partner or other guest from home and back for the purposes of attending formal meetings or engagements that [they] are required to attend on behalf of KCC as part of their official duties."

This is interesting as it comes against the background of an investigation by HRMC examining whether the use of KCC cars to and from home to County Hall could constitute a taxable benefit.

The investigation has not, so far as I'm aware, determined the matter.

Another clause permits states that where the chairman, vice chairman, leader or cabinet members wish to combine official council journeys with "journeys of a private nature" they may do so - by arranging for the services of a KCC driver to be provided to "drive their own cars."  Any costs will have to be met by the councillor concerned.

How much? In each case, it will be "based on a formula to be determined on each occasion by the Section 151 officer."

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Categories: Councils | Politics

Better news for Kent's most vulnerable children

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 9 2011

There is, finally, some good news for children who are among the county's most vulnerable.

Vulnerable childrens' services showing improvements>>>

A year after the county council was stung by a highly critical report by Ofsted which labelled virtually all aspects of its childrens' services as inadequate, inspectors have been back - and have concluded that things are getting better.

At the time of the original critical report, KCC was adamant that it would turn things around and rectify what were truly damning shortcomings which, it transpired, had left thousands of children at risk without a dedicated social worker.

It is too early to say that it has done everything that is needed - Ofsted makes some valid points about the fact that analysis of risk assessments is too variable and the timeliness of core assessments remains low.

But the authority has undeniably made significant progress in turning around the failing services and it would be churlish to deny otherwise. Of course, questions remain about how things have descended into such a sorry state without the politicians being aware but I suspect we will never get a clear answer to that.

The challenge now is not just how KCC can sustain those improvements but how it can develop preventative services which means fewer children get to the stage where they are deemed to be at risk.

In Cllr Jenny Whittle, the cabinet member for specialist childrens' services, KCC has someone who is genuinely committed to sorting out the mess and has successfully overseen a potential political banana skin that might have tripped up others.

But it will come at a cost. The council has had to plough millions of pounds into measures to address the crisis, creating an £8m pressure on its budget.

It has to address that at the same time as facing up to the fact that turning off the investment tap now risks reversing the progress it has made to date.

That is a real danger at a time when KCC will have to trim its overall spending by £65m next year.

If the recently-defeated leadership contender Keith Ferrin is to be believed: "We have to make the system work properly and that will require more investment than we have made so far."

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I have been taken to task by KCC cabinet member for finance, Cllr John Simmonds, over my recent blog on the recovery of the £50m it had on deposit in former Icelandic banks.

He has written to say he feels the content was misleading. You can read his take here.

John Simmonds.doc (28.00 kb)

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Why a 1.5 per cent pay cut for councillors is too little. Plus: KCC and children at risk

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 13 2011

County councillors have, after much hand-wringing, agreed to take a pay cut. It's a small gesture in every way. The 1.5 per cent cut in their basic yearly allowance will lop a modest £200 off their £13,000 they get.

If you want an illustration of why it is fairly small beer, I've worked out that it accounts for 0.017 per cent of the £95m of savings the council is making this year. 

But there's another issue here. Namely that the £16,400 that the 1.5 per cent cut will achieve represents a fraction of the £200,000 savings package the council has agreed for members' services. Once you've accounted for the other measures - such as a reduction in special responsibility allowances for cabinet members - our elected politicians together will be saving the taxpayer the grand sum of £80,000. And the rest? That is to come from cutting jobs in the staff who support members.

Opposition parties argued at this week's full council meeting that the cut should be greater. Labour and the Lib Dems pushed for an eight per cent cut, taking them back to the annual levels of allowances that they had before 2009, which is when the independent panel last set them.

Of course, there was - as Conservative leader Paul Carter pointed out - an element of political posturing going on here. (The race to be holier than thou is never more intense than when politicians are involved.) 

But he forgot - until he was reminded by departing Labour group leader Les Christie - that it was the Conservative administration who decided to make a virtue of the original plans for a pay cut when it first unveiled its budget plans in January.

I don't believe that county councillors should have to go around wearing hair shirts. They deserve some financial compensation for the work they put in. But these are uniquely challenging times for councils wrestling with the impact of austerity measures forced on them by the government.

In a week they unveil proposals to raise care charges for elderly and vulnerable people, their decision to agree a fairly miniscule reduction in their own pay does look a little selfish. Was it too much  to expect them to take a bigger hit - even if only for a year or two?

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Social services chief Malcolm Newsam is to be commended for deciding that transparency is the best  policy when it comes to dealing with the challenges of turning around Kent's troubled children's services.

One of the greatest problems KCC had over recent years is what one county councillor described as "the culture of fear" that existed as things started to unravel - staff knowing that things were going badly wrong but finding it impossible to tell anyone.

For years, KCC basked in the glow of independent inspection reports that suggested it was a five-star service. When it commissioned internal reports assessing the resilience of children's social services, they came back saying everything was more or less OK - with the odd caveat about workload pressure.

At last, the politicians have grasped that they cannot take these things for granted. Too late for some but better late than never.

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics

After damning Ofsted report, how much progress has KCC made improving services for vulnerable children?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 30 2011

Just how much progress has Kent County Council made in responding to a damning Ofsted report issued last year that said it was failing to provide looked after children with adequate services?

The report – just about as critical as it could be – led to a public apology and KCC was put on notice to improve things within a year.

But if there has been progress, it seems backbench councillors don’t know much about it. And many are not at all happy that they don’t know much about what is - or has been going on - to remedy the shortcomings.

And they are distinctly unimpressed by the rather parsimonious amount of information that has been shared with them. The matter was ventilated at a meeting at County Hall of the cross-party Children’s Services Policy Overview Committee and it is fair to say that several members who might normally avoid saying boo to  a goose – or at least say boo to the powers that be – gave free reign to their frustration.

The chief critic was the Conservative backbencher Kit Smith, who at least has been consistent in his criticisms of a failure to be provided with information.

KCC, said Kit, had “a cat in hell’s chance” of complying with Ofsted’s Improvement Notice within a year on the basis of what he’d seen; and KCC’s overall response was “woolly”.

The normally mild-mannered Cllr David Hirst politely remarked to the meeting that among members “there is a growing anxiety on a number of things.” Translated: “What on earth is going on?”

Meanwhile, the rather more blunt-speaking Cllr Chris Wells said that whatever strategy KCC had, it wasn’t doing a very good job of communicating it to staff or politicians.

There was, he said, a culture at KCC that some people ought not to be taking an interest in this particular area of work. “It is not something that was seen as a driving force that should have members’ interests.”KCC had  little chance of turning things around within a year, he averred. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we are,” he said. “We are looking at progress that will take much longer than a year and we have to be honest about that and face it.

Acting director of children’s services Malcolm Newsam and cabinet member Cllr Jenny Whittle made efforts to offer re-assurances that things were moving in the right direction. It seems the full 50-page improvement plan will be signed off next week when it will become publicly available, with targets and deadlines.

But as one member of the committee remarked, KCC was in danger of sounding like a “gonna” organization – in other words, had plans for lots of things it was going to do but hadn’t yet done much.

My own impression – amid lots of rhetoric about outcomes being  measured against seven pillars – was that KCC has not been inactive but has certainly fallen down in letting people know (in coherent, intelligible language that we can all understand)  what it is up to.

And it cannot afford to be seen to be dragging its feet – even if it is not.

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There was something close to an admission that KCC’s frantic approach to filling vacant social worker posts has not been an unqualified success.

Mr Newsam told the committee that while it had helped address shortages in some areas, recruiting from abroad was not without problems, as they and newly-qualified social workers needed to be managed by those with considerably more experience.

“There is nothing sensible attracting inexperienced new people if we end up losing our most experienced people.”

He also questioned whether the additional money invested had had much impact. “It is very hard to see the impact of where that money is going. There is no coherent analysis of which funding streams are delivering real impact and better outcomes.”

Some interesting and illuminating comments.

 

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Categories: Local Politics

The austerity era begins at County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, October 11 2010

Every time I venture to County Hall, I half expect to come across county councillors dressed not in suits and ties but hairshirts. These are grim times for councils and KCC, as one of the biggest, is bracing itself for considerable upheaval as it confronts a budget black hole of £340m.

The "big ticket" item at today's cabinet meeting - as it was described by leader Paul Carter - was the plan to slim down the number of directorates that deliver 300 services to 1.6m people, which will mean far fewer senior managers. County Hall's re-organisation will see eight directorates cut to five and far fewer bosses, which many will argue is no bad thing.

KCC cuts directorates to five>>>

It's not yet clear how many management posts are to be deleted and we're unlikely to know the fine detail until December. Some of the names of the new directorates may confuse residents. If you've got a problem with the state of your road or pavement, you'll be dealt with by the Enterprise Directorate, for example. (I half wondered whether this had something to do with group managing director Katherine Kerswell being a fan of Star Trek).

There'll also be a Customer and Communities Directorate, which is described as the "directorate of the front line" and appears to be focusing on extending the Gateway programme, which has seen the development of various centres delivering different services.

One of the most fascinating elements of a late report tabled to the meeting was a section detailing the responses of an informal consultation on the shake up - or "the first bold step".  Responses were clearly mixed and although there were many that were positive, a number were revealing about the perception of KCC's management culture.

The various summaries included references to corporate management team in-fighting; the fact that some felt KCC was "controlling" and another comment expressed discomfort over the Orwellian dimension to the authority's determination to "communicate as one voice."

While most staff accepted KCC was "hungry for improvement" clearly not all agreed it was always happening. "We are sometimes dazzled by our own brilliance" said one respondent, while another said "we don't deliver but strategise well." Ouch.

KCC perhaps wouldn't have chosen precisely this time to embark on a major re-organisation but its hand is being forced by circumstances.

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What goes around comes around. At least it does in local government.

A few years ago, councils were told that they should integrate childrens' social services departments into their education departments, leading to the creation of childrens' services department. The move followed various government inquiries into child abuse scandals, notably Lord Laming's review into the Victoria Climbie scandal. Now KCC - and it is not the first - is moving the job of protecting young children to a new directorate that once again will look after all social services.   

 

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

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