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Friday, March 06, 2009

On Swansea Children's Services

The decision of Deputy Minister for Social Services to set up an intervention board to oversee improvements in Swansea's Children Services was most probably the right decision given the way that this department has been kicked around like a political football on that authority in the last year.

The administration there is unhappy but has accepted the decision and is buckling down to work with the new board. In contrast the opposition is in denial over their own part in bringing this judgement down upon the Council. As their website, Inside Out Swansea illustrates, they have learnt nothing and continue to snipe from the sidelines rather than engage constructively in the improvement process.

Before I comment further on the issue I would like to respond to a few of their allegations about me. Far from being absent from the chamber for the Deputy Minister's statement I was there throughout and can be seen to be so on the video record available on the Assembly's website. I did not participate in the questioning of the Minister because, as a member of the Council, I had a clear conflict of interest however I did take part in a private meeting with the Deputy Minister earlier that day in which I questioned her and her officials in some detail on the decision.

When the Minister publishes the report is of course a matter for her, but I feel it is unreasonable for the local paper to partly blame the Council for this when the decision is out of their hands. Certainly, an earlier publication date might help to settle everybody down and focus minds on the improvement of the service but it is right that the final report has to include the response of the Council to its conclusions.

What needs to happen now is for all political parties on Swansea Council to put aside their differences and work together in the best interests of children. The report is a very serious judgement on children's services in Swansea but it is not all negative. For a start inspectors have concluded that all the key performance indicators have improved since their last inspection. None of them are any longer considered to be poor, though four of the seven are classed as inconsistent. The concern that the Minister and the CSSIW have is not that the Council is failing to improve but that improvement is not moving fast enough.

The report also recognises the positive influence of the Cabinet Member for Social Services on the improvement process. However, the main concern of all those I have spoken to is corporate and political leadership and the fact that not all Councillors are committed to that aim.

There is huge concern that instead of pulling together to support officers in putting right evident weaknesses in children services, some councillors have taken the opportunity to score political points instead. This was most evident in the refusal of the opposition leaders to take part in an all-party improvement board six months ago, a decision that seems to have directly influenced inspectors and prompted the minister to act.

Some politicians continue to misrepresent this report and are using it to score points when they should be coming together to work for the best interests of children. I am particularly appalled at claims that the initial inspection that led to the intervention process was sparked off by the death of Aaron Gilbert. In fact that inspection was a programmed one and took place before the joint review into the circumstances of Aaron Gilbert's death had reported. That review found that although a Swansea social worker had failed to follow proper practice, Aaron Gilbert had never been a social services client and that there were severe failings on the part of the Police, the Probation Service and the health services as well.

If opposition politicians do not now put aside their differences and work together for the best interests of children, if they do not take their corporate parenting role seriously and if they do not abandon the endless sniping and name-calling on this issue then Swansea Children's Services will fail to satisfy the tests that will face it over the next twelve months. I want to see the Council's performance indicators in this area rated as good or excellent but to do that officers must have the support of the full council.
The problem which will arise is that once a Social services department ends up being a politial football, with various "blame games" being employed then it becomes difficult to recruit into that area.

Unlike the teaching profession, there are plenty of opportunities in other local authority departments in Wales for Social Workers.
Peter, do you think the different local authority's offering a plethora of golden hellos creates a culture where there is no motivation for people to stay in an authority and develop their role?

Welsh councils are in competition for the best staff as they are in every function but I cannot help but think some joined up government is required here to stop councils poaching one another's staff and creating a social workers merrygoround that in the long term benefits no one.

In a function such as social work the need to know the case load is crucial and people aren't there long enough to do this as many are off to get their next payment.

I have no problem with people developing their careers but the current system appears to be fuelling pay inflation to the detriment of the clients.
Congratulations on this post. it would have been much easier for you to ignore the issue. You are entirely right when you argue that on an issue such as this in a hung council outside bodies will always look for a consensus approach which unites all politicians no matter what their political persuasions. Failure to adopt such an approach will inevitably lead to comments regarding the failure of political leadership.
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