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Children’s Social Care Services: Stoke-on-Trent

Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered children’s social care services in Stoke-on-Trent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is not a pleasure to be having this debate. Children’s services, and the role that councils play in protecting the most vulnerable children in our societies and communities, should be taken away from the party political arena. The Ofsted report that was received by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, showing the failures across the local authority area to help the most vulnerable people, is worthy of discussion with the Minister in order to work out how we can put that system back together. The report is one of the saddest things that I have had the displeasure of reading in my short time as a Member of Parliament.

We know that when it comes to engaging and working with young people, Stoke-on-Trent is now a city of two tales. The Minister will be acutely aware of the excellent work being done by Professor Liz Barnes and Carol Shanahan under the opportunity area, and I am sure he will agree that they are exemplars of good practice across the country, and of how people can achieve very impressive things when they get their act together. The flipside of that—the other side of the coin—is a children’s services department that has now been rated “inadequate” in all four areas of the Ofsted report, which has highlighted some shocking outcomes that prompt the question whether the local authority is fit to continue running that service, and whether the individuals who are responsible for running it at cabinet level are fit to continue in public office.

I do not wish to draw too much on the politics of it, but I want to read out a few of the findings from the Ofsted report, which will set the context for what we are discussing this morning. It starts by saying:

“Children are not being protected…Vulnerable children are not safeguarded in Stoke-on-Trent…There are insufficient fostering placements to meet local need and many children are placed in unregulated placements. The local authority knows that some of these placements are unsafe.”

It states:

“Too many children come into care in a crisis or wait too long to be reunited with their families.”

It also says:

“As a result of poor leadership, management oversight and an absence of clearly evaluated performance information, services for children have seriously declined since the last full Ofsted inspection in 2015.”

That is a damning indictment of a children’s services department, regardless of who is running the council. As a result of those shortcomings, young people are suffering in my constituency and across Stoke-on-Trent.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. The reality is that very few Ofsted reports—thankfully—are as bad as the one that has been written about Stoke-on-Trent City Council. However, I want to praise the individual social workers. It has been made clear that they are working extraordinarily hard and achieving good things, but are not being well managed and are not being supported to deliver. Their casework involves over 25 cases. Does my hon. Friend agree that this shows that there has not been the appropriate management or political leadership focus on this area, and that they have abandoned the professionals, who are trying to do their best?

I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that, as a local authority, Stoke-on-Trent has a level of casework that is higher than the national average. Each individual within that team is managing more cases than the British Association of Social Workers would deem acceptable for any authority, let alone one such as Stoke-on-Trent, where demand is higher than the national average.

The part of the report that I found most shocking stated:

“Support for vulnerable children, including those at risk from child sexual exploitation, going missing…private fostering and extremist ideologies”

was failing. The report basically says that young children in our city are at risk of being groomed for child sexploitation and criminal exploitation. I do a lot of work in this place on modern slavery, and I am appalled to know that not only is it happening in my city, but it is happening in my city because the one authority that is ultimately responsible for dealing with that has failed. I hope the Minister will pick up on that later, not because I want to kick about the council—we will do that in the forthcoming local elections—but because, fundamentally, something must change in Stoke-on-Trent so that we are no longer rated “inadequate” across the four areas when the Ofsted inspectors next come in, and so that I can look into the eyes of my constituents and say, “Yes, your children—if they ever end up in the care system—will be safe and looked after.” That is something that I cannot do currently.

Although my hon. Friend may not want to bash our councillors, it is important to make it clear that we did not have that rating when we were last inspected in 2015. In fact, we were rated “good”. As Ofsted has made clear, these services have seriously declined since the last full Ofsted inspection in 2015. The majority of recommendations made at that inspection, and at a focused visit in 2018, have not been actioned. It seems that the council has actively disengaged from the process and not followed the Government guidance in this area.

Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I agree wholeheartedly. The report makes it quite clear that there has been a marked decline in the provision of children’s protective services in Stoke-on-Trent since 2015. That coincided with the last round of local elections, in which the City Independent group took control of the local authority. If we are being honest, its record of attendance at the corporate parenting panel demonstrates its disinterest in this area. Of the 16 meetings that one councillor could attend, she attended zero, and she is responsible for the funding of children’s services across the council—eight apologies, and eight non-attendances.

We should make it clear—I will ask the Minister later on—whether there is anything that the Government think they can do to ensure that councillors that have responsibility for these very important areas, including both adults’ and children’s social care, are compelled to attend those meetings, to further their understanding of what is going on. From councillors who have been on the corporate parenting panel, where they have heard from caseworkers who feel under pressure and stretched, I know that information was available at that time to the local authority members who make these decisions, had those members chosen to attend. The fact that they chose to attend none of those meetings shows the interest they have in that service. As a Parliament, we should talk collectively about how we can reinforce to people in decision-making roles their responsibilities.

I want to touch briefly on another comment in the report, which said:

“The response to children and young people who may be at increased risk due to contact with extremist ideology is not robust”.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city in which we have had our problems with both the far right and organised Islamist terrorism, and we need to ensure that we protect our young people from both extremes. The report clearly states that young people are not being protected from extremism activity in a place where we know it is taking place. I do not understand how any local authority or councillor can stand up and defend the report in the way that Councillor Janine Bridges did by saying that things are much better under her watch than they have ever been.

The report sets out in black and white one of the starkest arrangements for protecting young people anywhere—not only in the west midlands, but in the country. I wonder whether the Minister could help me better understand at what point Government step in to start to resolve some of this directly. Frankly, I have no faith that the City Independent group that currently runs the council with Conservatives has either the political ability or the determination to resolve this, other than saying that everything is all right. That has been made quite clear in the leaflets that are being delivered around the city ahead of local elections, which say how wonderful children’s services are. It beggars belief that there is this lack of connection between what is written in black and white by the authorities that are responsible for this, and what is written by the people who have taken decisions that led to this chronic failure in the first place.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this very important debate to the House; it is vital that this issue gets debated. I understand that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is in quite close contact—particularly through the multi-agency safeguarding hub—with Staffordshire County Council and other excellent councils, such as Leeds. Has he seen a determined effort by the leadership to ensure that—even now—the deficiencies pointed out in the report are beginning to be addressed?

The hon. Gentleman points to the MASH system in Staffordshire County Council, which is one of the areas where Stoke-on-Trent City Council has made a rod for its own back. Across the border, in Staffordshire County Council—literally on the doorstep—is a system that is more robust and much better than the one that Stoke-on-Trent City Council operates. A lot of the agencies that are involved in it, including the police and some of the third-party organisations, work with both authorities, so it is not as if it was not possible to tap into that system to see how it works.

The officers that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) North and I have spoken to understand the severity of the report and want to fix the problem. The officer corps desperately wants to resolve it, and the social workers we know are heartbroken. They have taken it personally, because it is young people entrusted to them who have been let down. However, I have not seen any element of acceptance from some parts of the political leadership that there is a problem that needs to be resolved. They took to the airwaves on the day the report was published to dismiss it and say that it was the Government’s fault for not giving them enough money, local MPs’ fault for not shouting about it previously, and in some cases the families’ fault for having the audacity to find themselves in need of social care in the first place.

I do not have the sense that the cabinet member responsible and the leader of the council understand the gravity of the report that is in front of them. If I am being honest, I do not believe that they have any interest in resolving this problem, because this is not the sort of politics that they want to do. They are not interested in rolling up their sleeves and dealing with the difficult parts of civic life in Stoke-on-Trent. They like to do the fun, happy stuff, such as cutting ribbons in front of new car parks, filling potholes and having their pictures taken—but children’s social care is the sort of stuff that matters to people on a day-to-day basis.

The hon. Gentleman and I have joint concern for the city, which is important to the whole of Staffordshire, not just its residents. I understand that an improvement board has been set up to deal with the situation. What is his understanding of its work and its effectiveness so far?

There is an improvement board, but unfortunately, given the timing of the report and the purdah period for the local election cycle, no one will tell us what is going on with it, what actions it is taking and whether it is looking to Staffordshire County Council, which I hold up as an example—it is run by a good Conservative administration, which has taken responsibility for these issues and is dealing with them. This is not about Labour and Conservative party politics. There are perfect examples around the country of good Tory councils doing this well, and examples of Labour councils doing it well. This is an example of a council doing it badly, and the leadership refuse to accept that.

Does my hon. Friend agree not only that the council is doing it badly and has dismissed the report, but that it has failed to acknowledge the impact on families in our city and has not said sorry? Councillor Janine Bridges and Councillor Ann James have acted as if this has nothing to do with them, despite the fact that both of them have been responsible for delivery for the past four years. During that time our children, including homeless children, have not received the support that they are due under statutory provision. Homeless 16 and 17-year-olds do not always receive a timely or thorough response to meet their needs. We have young people on the streets and a political leadership that will not even say sorry.

That sums up why there is so much frustration with this process. Our city has problems. None of the MPs who represent it, including me, my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), who would have been here if he was not restricted by his Parliamentary Private Secretary role, would hide that fact. We saw the same when the Care Quality Commission did a system-wide review and found that older people were being left in their beds covered in urine for days because of a social care failing in Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Our frustration stems from the fact that, unless the problem is so stark and is written in black and white in a report that is so damaging that it requires a political intervention at this level, or is splashed in the headlines of our newspapers, nothing gets done and nothing gets changed. There is no remorse, no apology, and no sense that anything that the council was responsible for was its fault. It is always the fault of the Government, of everybody around them, and of the agencies not doing their bit. It is about time that people such as Councillor Bridges, Councillor James and their partners in the coalition took responsibility for the decisions that they have taken over the past four years, which have led us to this place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is right. We are highlighting some of the starkest parts of our society. It is a constant badge of shame for me that, when we highlight the awful parts of our society, they always manifest themselves in Stoke-on-Trent in a way that is even worse than they had to be. If we got the basics right—if we got the bread-and-butter politics right and had given a damn about the people we are there to serve—some of this would not have happened.

I am sure the Minister will say that every child service department is now stretched because there is increasing demand. He will say that it is a demand-led service, and the local authority has no immediate control over the demand. I accept that, but if we know the demand is there—if there is a constant reporting system that says, “There is a problem with this system”—and people choose not to act on it, choose not to attend corporate parenting panels, choose to divert funding to other departments, choose not to engage with the Local Government Association, choose not to participate in county-wide programmes, choose to defer the decisions that they should be making to officers, choose not to turn up to reports, and choose not to say sorry, that is a pattern of behaviour of failure. That is not a coincidence or a coalescing of misfortune; it is a pattern of behaviour that has led to systematic failure.

I sincerely hope that the work being done by officers, the social work team and the people who are coming into the local authority is effective. A commissioner has been appointed to establish whether this should stay with the local authority or whether it should become a trust. For what it is worth, even though it is an appallingly run service, I hope the Minister will take heed of what we suggest: we think it should stay with the local authority. We genuinely believe that, once the election is out of the way—whatever the outcome—there will be a renewed appetite to fix this. I have always been a believer that local authorities should clear up their own messes. I appreciate that that is his decision, not mine, and the commissioner’s report will guide him. We have some responsibility for this. We will hold whichever political party is running the council responsible for fixing this, and we know that the Government will do so, too.

I ask the Minister to address these points. Where there are clear examples of councillors not engaging in their executive-level functions, what can we and the Government do to ensure that they take those responsibilities seriously? This is not just a matter of funding; there is clearly a cultural issue. What can the Government do to help change the culture in Stoke-on-Trent? If there is a plan, I will happily work with them to deliver it. Importantly, what does the Minister believe we can do to ensure that when Ofsted comes in next time, it does not give us a catalogue of failures that shows that young people in Stoke-on-Trent have been let down?

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) on securing this debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton)—my PPS—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for engaging with it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North raised the important issue of social workers. We must not forget to thank the frontline workers. I went up to Doncaster after the turnaround there, and I met social workers on their own without directors in the room. I asked, “What happened? Seventy per cent. of you are the same people who were here when you were failing, and yet you are now ‘good’.” To a man and woman, they said to me, “It’s because we had strong leadership—political leadership and officer leadership—that believed in us. It was consistent, it was there for us and it supported us in what we were trying to do.” That is a strong message to take from that.

I commend the leadership in Staffordshire County Council—the political and officer leadership. The chief executive and the director of children’s services are both outstanding. I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more important than the work that we do to ensure that vulnerable children are able to live safe and happy lives and achieve their potential wherever they live in our country. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the 2015 Ofsted inspection. Sadly, Ofsted’s rating was “requires improvement” but services were in a much better place than they are today—the hon. Lady is absolutely right about that.

The inspection of local authority children’s services report states that there are demonstrable failings in protecting the most vulnerable children. The Government have always been crystal clear that it is the responsibility of the local authority to manage their service to ensure continuous improvement and proper protection of all children, but Stoke’s decline—all service areas are now deemed “inadequate”—since its last inspection in June 2015, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned, is deeply concerning and highlights the urgent need for central Government intervention. It is important that we act quickly on improvement, so we are funding Leeds—an outstanding authority and one of our “partners in practice”—to provide immediate peer support to Stoke and help ensure that children there are safe.

In the light of the seriousness of that systemic failure and as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Department will also appoint a children’s services commissioner to conduct on my behalf a three-month review of Stoke’s capacity and capability. The commissioner will look at all evidence and views, and will report to me after three months on whether the council can improve in a reasonable timeframe—I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments on that—or whether services are more likely to improve if run by another organisation, such as a children’s services trust, to which he referred, or a better-performing local authority.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw at first hand in Doncaster how trusts have been effective in securing change in local authorities that have had some of the most serious failures. Doncaster is now rated “good”, having been a failing local authority for children’s services. Birmingham and Slough are now no longer “inadequate” after years of failure. Local authority partnerships have also shown success. The Isle of Wight has improved from “inadequate” to “good” as a result of its partnership with Hampshire.

That is not to say, however, that local authorities cannot improve themselves when there is the commitment and the capability to do so—I think that is the point the hon. Gentleman sought to make in his outstanding remarks. I enjoyed visiting Bromley and Bexley earlier this year. Both have been the focus of Government intervention in recent years and are now deemed “good” and “outstanding” respectively. There was real commitment, from the political leadership to the officer class and all the way through, to deliver on that.

The Department has a good track record of working with local authorities to improve “inadequate” services. Since 2010, 44 local authorities have been lifted out of intervention and have not returned, the significance of which should not be underestimated. I am also keen to focus on preventing failure, which is why the Department has developed a new improvement programme over the past 18 months. Bringing local authorities together through regional improvement alliances, and identifying “good” and “outstanding” authorities to be our partners in practice, is helping to get ahead of failure, while supporting sector-led improvement. Since April 2017, the number of “inadequate” local authorities has been reduced by a third, from 30 to 20. We are on track to achieve our target of having less than 10% of local authorities deemed “inadequate” by 2022.

I recognise the importance of supporting performance improvement across all local authorities, so that more and more are providing “good” and “outstanding” services to children. The Department’s innovation programme focuses on ensuring that families receive the right support at the right time by adopting and adapting the best new practices, and continue to do so with the advent of the new What Works centre. That initiative seeks better outcomes for children, young people and families by helping practitioners and decision makers across the sector to inform their work with the best possible evidence.

Some promising signs are emerging from the innovation investment, such as an integrated edge-of-care service, “No Wrong Door” in North Yorkshire, which has delivered extraordinary results: 86% of young people in North Yorkshire stay out of care, with greater stability and improved educational and employment outcomes. The Department, with the Treasury, is committing £84 million over the next five years to build on learning from the examples in North Yorkshire, Leeds and Hertfordshire—the most promising innovation projects. The programme is called “strengthening families; protecting children”, and it aims to improve social work practice and decision making in up to 20 local authorities, and to support more children to stay safely at home with their families.

We will also continue to learn from What Works, and understand how we might further strengthen the quality of social work practice. The most valuable resource is our people—the workforce. The practice of staff locally, from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers, is all paramount to ensure that children get the right support at the right time. That is why we are undertaking a programme of reforms to ensure that a highly capable, highly skilled and highly confident workforce make good decisions about the best outcomes for children and their families.

I recognise that Stoke and other local authorities are delivering services in a challenging environment—there is no doubt about that; the hon. Gentleman was right to highlight it—and they have had to make difficult choices to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced an extra £410 million to address pressures on adults’ and children’s social care services.

The Department is also working closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding, as part of my pitch for the spending review. We are in dialogue with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to inform a review of relative needs and resources, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That will make sure that the money gets to where it is needed most after future Government funding settlements.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I mention for the record the fantastic work that he and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North do to champion the opportunity area programme. With people of such passion, commitment and quality, we can turn children’s services around in the local authority. I am pleased to hear that we share the ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable children in Stoke have the safety and stability that they need to achieve their potential. I hope that I have provided reassurance of this Government’s commitment to taking urgent action to support Stoke-on-Trent in its journey to improve children’s services, so that all children are well protected and cared for and their social workers are supported to practise safely.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.