Brigid Jones heads off resignation demands and backs social services trust option
Birmingham would be “mad” not to take a serious look at transferring the city council’s children’s social services department to a trust and the idea must be given full consideration, cabinet member Brigid Jones has insisted.
Speaking in an emergency debate into the state of children’s social care, which has been in Government special measures for seven years, Cllr Jones faced down calls from Conservative councillors for her resignation and received fulsome support from Labour council leader John Clancy.
The debate was triggered in part by the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme in which an undercover reporter exposed continuing management failings in Birmingham children’s social care and revealed the stress facing hard-pressed social workers.
The programme forced the Government to bounce the city council into quickening the pace of exploratory discussions about moving to a trust, and insisted on making the possibility public opening a rift with trade unions who knew nothing about the plan.
It emerged that the council is appointing consultants to prepare detailed reports about the way a trust might work, with the biggest advantage expected to be a freeing up of restrictions the authority currently faces in changing pay and conditions for social workers.
The cost of the consultants, claimed to be £250,000, could be met from a Department for Education innovation fund.
Ofsted inspectors are due in Birmingham in September to decide whether the council has succeeded in delivering a three year improvement plan which was approved by former children’s services commissioners Lord Warner.
There is a possibility the council may move up from failing to ‘needs improvement’.
But if Birmingham does not escape from the failing category Government pressure to move to a trust will be stepped up and the future of Cllr Jones and children’s strategic director Peter Hay is bound to come under fresh scrutiny.
Cllr Clancy surprised some fellow Labour councillors by accepting the findings of the dispatches programme and defending Channel 4’s right to use undercover journalists.
I was shocked by the dispatches programme. I suspect I wasn’t very popular with social workers when I said I fully accepted the Dispatches programme was a contribution.
We have to accept the media will send people under cover, it’s what they do.
He was on firmer ground with his colleagues when issuing a stout defence of the cabinet member:
Brigid Jones has one of the toughest jobs in British politics. You have to bear that in mind.
It is easy given the magnitude to call for resignations. I think it is inappropriate in these circumstances. I can’t think of anyone better in this chamber to do that job. She is doing a great job.
Cllr Jones reminded the chamber that problems with Birmingham children’s social services began as far back as 1999:
We have had four council leaders since children’s services issues started and twice as many cabinet members covering the three parties in this chamber. If there was a golden bullet to be found we would have found it by now.
We are under no illusions that there is a mountain to climb to get the service to where it needs to be. The service is not good enough, we haven’t moved quickly enough. I have been very honest about that.
Cllr Jones insisted the council had done everything the Department for Education and the commissioners had asked of it and had “ticked every box” in the improvement process.
But she admitted:
Getting the key appointments in and getting them right has taken time. Getting the wrong people moved out of the organisation has taken far longer.
The important thing is you don’t panic. You deal with events and keep moving forward on the improvement journey you have set out on.
We have taken a decision to look at this new trust option. We would be mad not to do so.
She stressed that any move to a trust would be a voluntary step.
We would retain responsibility for services with a few caveats in that we are in an inadequate category.
Any new model will be a huge decision and needs to be decided against improving the lives of children and nothing else.
Cllr Matt Bennett, the Conservative spokesman for children’s services, accused Cllr Jones and Labour of attempting to claim the service was improving when the opposite was the case.
In December we raised specific concerns about openness and transparency. We were given assurances that things were improving. We were concerned that we were not being given the full picture.
The DfE has said although BCC has made some improvements this progress has not gone far enough or fast enough. The DfE doesn’t consider the improvement plan to be on track or working.
Describing Cllr Jones’s position as untenable, he called for her resignation.
We have to have trust and confidence and we don’t have that now.
Former cabinet member James McKay raised a serious of questions about the way the trust would work:
We can’t go down this route without properly thinking it through. Design of the trust will be crucial. The legal accountability will be crucial. We have to get improved terms and conditions precisely legally right if it is not to have knock-on consequences for the rest of the council.
To work up all these new options will bring with it significant costs. None of these should come from children’s services.
Tory councillors queued up to praise Cllr Jones’ dedication to the cause, but thought she should resign anyway.
Cllr Gareth Moore thought it was strange to have yet another restructure at the end of a three year improvement plan and declared:
We should take off the rose tinted spectacles and look at the issues we have to face.
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