A LABOUR councillor has refuted findings that St Helens Council failed to spot failings within children’s services prior to a damning Ofsted inspection.

Last year St Helens Council commissioned the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across England and Wales, to carry out a corporate peer challenge aimed at driving improvements.

A small team of officers and one councillor carried out the review over four days in January, speaking to more than 80 people within the council.

READ > St Helens Council's plans to modernise gets rubber stamped by cabinet

The corporate peer challenge and subsequent culture review, dealt with a range of issues, including the progress of improving children’s services.

The peer challenge team, who collectively spent more than 300 hours to determine their findings, also highlighted the council’s failings to spot the poor performance within the department.

Performance management arrangements had not previously highlighted, nor properly understood this poor performance, the report said, nor did it spur appropriate action.

“It is clear from both Ofsted’s and the children’s safeguarding peer review’s findings that the failing in children’s services have existed for a considerable time.

“However, they were not identified through St Helens’ performance management systems, despite the fact that a number of key performance indicators (very high levels of children looked-after, very low numbers of children subject to child protection and low numbers being adopted last year) should have alerted the council that there were serious problems.”

The report added that the culture of performance management in St Helens did not “encourage” such enquiry.

However, these findings have been refuted by Labour’s Andy Bowden, who said the council was well aware of the issues.

Cllr Bowden was cabinet member for children, families and young people between August 2015 and May 2017, and also served as deputy leader of the council for part of that time.

He had a second stint as deputy leader from May 2018 before stepping down in February.

Cllr Bowden claims he gave a damning verdict of children’s service during a cabinet meeting in 2016.

He said this was in response to the ‘Family M case’, which was the subject of a serious case review that has never been made public.

Cllr Bowden said: “I came into position in 2015 already with concerns, and in 2016 as lead member for children, I reported to the group and to cabinet about abject failures, unprofessionalism, incompetence, and poor culture within the department.

“This was in part in response to the Family M case, which exposed a large number of issues within the department.

“On a number of occasions, I spoke at cabinet, scrutiny and the safeguarding boards about the failures within the department.

“And as a council we set about making changed based on recommendations by senior officers.”

Cllr Bowden said that by April 2017, he was raising concerns with the same senior officers about the lack of progress in improving children’s services.

“In May 2017, I was removed from my post, but within the group I again raised the need for assurances that the department was improving, as did other members,” Cllr Bowden said.

“This was done because some members, not just myself, remained concerned about the performance of the department.

“A reluctance to consider what had happened previously did not assist in our learning as to the changes we needed to make.

“Given the above, I cannot accept the Ofsted inspection outcome could have been a surprise.”

St Helens Star:

Cllr Andy Bowden was the former cabinet member for children, families and young people

The LGA corporate peer challenge also said there is evidence to suggest that some officers and members are still in denial about the extent of poor performance within children’s services.

The report also raised concerns around the “limited understanding” of the scale and seriousness of the problem within the department among some members and senior officers.

“The leader, children’s services cabinet member, chief executive and strategic director for people are very aware of the challenges children’s services faces in St Helens,” the report said.

“However, there is limited understanding of the scale and seriousness of the problem amongst some other elected members and senior officers in other service areas.

“There is also evidence that some officers and members are still in denial about the extent of poor performance in the service, the historic circumstance as a whole council challenge and responsibility.

“There is also little appreciation from the wider organisation of how long it will take to make improvements.”

Following last summer’s Ofsted findings, the council developed an action plan and has made several key investments.

This caused the local authority to go overbudget by £2.2 million in 2018-19, the first time it has reported an overspend since austerity began in 2010.

The council has also pledged to invest £5.5 million a year to help deliver the changes required within children’s services.

However, the peer challenge team warned this may not be enough.

“The council has committed additional resources to children’s services, both recurrently and in the form of a transformational reserve,” the corporate peer challenge said.

“However, experience from other councils shows this may not be sufficient and considerably more investment may be required.”

The report said while “very significant challenges” in children’s services remain, some excellent practice is already being developed as part of the improvement work.

It said professor Sarah O’Brien, strategic director for people’s services, is providing “strong leadership” to the improvement programme.

The peer challenge added that the council has a very experienced and effective chair for the children’s services improvement board, which was set up following the Ofsted inspection.

Cllr David Baines, who was elected as leader of St Helens Council in May, said “significant steps” have been taken to address shortcomings in the department.

“The findings from the LGA reviews undertaken in January and March this year have revealed much of the good and outstanding work being done by the council,” Cllr Baines said.

“However, they also highlight some legitimate and important areas on which we need to improve.

“In recent months myself and my Labour colleagues have ensured that the recommendations in the reviews are acted upon, and I am pleased to say that a huge amount of work has already been done to address the areas for improvement, as the action plans demonstrate.

St Helens Star:

Cllr David Baines, leader of St Helens Council 

“One of the most important areas for improvement highlighted in the review is children’s services.

“Although some of the shortcomings in children’s services had been identified by councillors and social work staff, we collectively had not put in place the measures needed to radically improve the services we offer to vulnerable children.

“Since the Ofsted visit in July 2018 significant steps have been taken to address the shortcomings in that department and this is a significant priority for myself, all councillors, and the council as a whole.”

Last week, a series of recommendations relating to the council’s modernisation programme were approved by cabinet.

READ > St Helens Council 'turmoil' and Labour tensions laid bare in LGA report

Cllr Baines said the modernisation plans, dubbed ‘One Council’, have been drawn up in part due to the LGA peer and cultures reviews, which were both published last week.

“Since the corporate peer challenge was carried out in January a lot has changed, both politically – for example with myself as a new leader and a new cabinet – and in the council organisation, of which the One Council proposals supported by my cabinet are the latest evidence,” Cllr Baines said.

“We are determined to set the council on the right path.”