Government spotlight to stay on council’s child protection issues

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PERSISTENT child protection concerns at a Yorkshire council mean it is likely to be overseen by the Government for longer than expected, senior officers admitted yesterday.

The Department for Commununities and Local Government intervened in the running of Doncaster Council in June 2010 after concerns were raised over all aspects of the council’s running.

Before that the Department for Education had also intervened after a string of child deaths and other serious incidents involving youngsters known to social services.

At the time, it was expected the intervention would last until June this year, but it has now emerged a recovery board set up to report to ministers believes the target cannot be achieved.

In a report to Eric Pickles, the Communities Minister, the recovery board’s lead commissioner Rob Sykes, says the authority deserves “praise for clear improvements in some key areas”.

But he says ongoing uncertainty caused by budget cuts and a mayoral election in May which could change the council’s leadership mean remaining weaknesses could undermine success.

He adds: “Some form of intervention will be required for at least another year, and possibly longer if this is considered necessary to address the specific issue of children’s services.

“This will provide time to digest the spring election results and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the new regime, whatever it might be.”

Last November, the council was forced to admit it had not made enough progress addressing serious failings in children’s services after a highly-critical report by watchdog Ofsted.

At the same time, it was rocked by a new inquiry into the notorious Edlington attacks of April 2009 which saw two boys attacked by two young brothers who had been in the care of social services.

The probe, which was ordered by Education Secretary Michael Gove and carried out by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile found “weaknesses” in practices.

Those weaknesses, along with concerns over other areas of the council’s performance, including high levels of staff sickness are, according to the conclusions of the recovery board, the reason the Government must remain involved.

In his report to Mr Pickles, Mr Sykes adds: “The main question for us as commissioners is not whether the council is capable of improvement or has stregnths, these traits have been exhibited in the past.

“The question is whether the green shoots of recovery are sustainable and can be embedded into everyday operations.

“We have considered the evidence carefully and our strong conclusion is that at this stage we are not yet confident that progress can be maintained post 2013 elections without intervention.

“This is in the main part due to the fragility of the political situation but is also related to the the speed of recovery and waeknesses highlighted elsewhere and in recent children’s related reports.”

In a “progress report” written for submission to the Government, the council’s chief executive Jo Miller agrees that children’s services is one of the main reasons the council still required help.

She says: “There is no doubt that the extent to which children’s services was systemically broken was underestimated at the time of the children’s services intervention, which pre-dates the governance intervention.”

Yesterday, Ms Miller said a longer period of Government scrutiny should not necessarily be viewed as a negative development for the authority.

She added: “The recovery board has recommended that some form of intervention will be required for at least another year and possibly longer.

“This is to address the issues in children’s services and see us through the Mayoral election in May and the potential upheaval that can bring.

“A slightly longer period of intervention should be viewed as an opportunity for us to continue to stabilise and drive forward improvements for local people.

“The final decision is one for the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles.”