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A question of trust: the future of Birmingham children’s social care

A question of trust: the future of Birmingham children’s social care

🕔25.May 2016

For several years Birmingham city council has been keen to give the impression that many of the measures imposed upon it by the Government actually flowed from the Council House.

The Kerslake Review, one of the most damning exposes of local government failure in England in the past 30 years, was all the idea of former Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore.

No, really, the very first page of the lengthy report explains that Sir Albert, along with the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, asked Bob Kerslake to conduct “an independent review of the governance and organisational capabilities of Birmingham city council with a view to making a series of recommendations for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the city council”.

The impression given is that Albert woke up one morning and thought ‘things are pretty bad around here, so why don’t Eric and I get the head of the civil service to investigate where Birmingham is going wrong and tell us how we can do better?’

Yeah, right. And a squadron of pigs has just landed in Ladywood.

Similarly, regular Government intervention in Birmingham’s affairs has been presented as something that the council wanted to happen rather than an embarrassing imposition from Whitehall.

The commissioners sent to oversee schools and children’s services have been portrayed as critical friends sitting on the sidelines, giving a helping hand when needed, rather than what they really represent which are high-level attempts by the Government to get the city council back on course.

And that brings us to the latest in a line of ‘voluntary’ initiatives that the council is undertaking – the proposed transfer of children’s social care into a trust.

Needless to say, the council’s communications in this matter have been hopeless.

A brief press statement explained that all was going very well, or as well as could be expected in the department which has been in Government special measures for eight years and continues to be haunted by the appalling deaths of ‘children known to social services’, and the trust was something that had been discussed “for some time” with the Department for Education.

Further details would be released in due course. Nothing to see here, move along.

It emerged the council had been wrong-footed by a leak to the media, thought to come from Downing Street no less. Goodness me, a Tory Government leaking a controversial proposal to the press about a Labour-run city denigrated by the Ofsted chief inspector as the worst place in the developed world to bring up children. Whoever saw that one coming? Not Birmingham, obviously.

It ought not to have taken a political genius to decipher that Birmingham’s boats were burned last December when the Prime Minister announced that failing children’s social services departments would have to be taken out of the hands of councils.

Against the loozing reality of a Dispatches programme tomorrow night on Channel 4 and another horrendous court case, No 10 was onto the front foot with the Council House playing catch up.

Had Birmingham council been alive to the possibility that the Government might find it convenient to leak the fact that Britain’s largest council is to place children’s social services in a trust (where others will surely follow the example) it could have prepared a full blow-by-blow account of why it wishes to do this and how the trust might work.

proper communications strategy would have to explain how the council has moved from a position a month ago where the cabinet member, Brigid Jones, was confidently predicting that children’s social care would move out of special measures, perhaps not at the next Ofsted inspection but most certainly at the one after that, to a position where the service is to be handed to a trust to run.

The truth is that the council is entering the final phase of a three-year social care recovery plan, which is the latest in a long line of recovery plans that have not worked. The new Birmingham children’s commissioner, Andrew Christie, has looked at progress and concluded moving to a trust is the only option likely to bring lasting improvement.

His thinking chimes with new city council leader John Clancy, who took the job from Sir Albert with an “every child matters” campaigning slogan. He has been preparing colleagues for the inevitability that children’s social services run directly by local councils are no longer viable because they will never have enough money to be able to deliver safeguarding services at the scale required.

Having said that, several questions remain unanswered starting with the most obvious – will Birmingham council lose control of children’s social care if a trust is formed? The answer must be yes because there would be little point in going down that road if an organisation that has failed to deliver in the past was in the driving seat in the future.

Peter Hay, the Strategic Director for People (social services in plain English), who would probably be replaced by an independent chief executive if a trust is formed, published a brief blog yesterday claiming that a “voluntary move” to a trust would have significant advantages.

These were:

  • A trust would be able to specialise in social care – so it can be more focussed and run its business in a way that works best for this purpose.
  • A trust may have more freedom in terms and conditions and be able to offer a highly attractive employment option in a very competitive world.
  • This will mean there are options in governance terms which mean that social work staff could be more to the fore, developing a more co-ordinated approach to the deployment of resources, hopefully leading to improved results.
  • Since 2013 there has been some experience with other councils having developed trusts. This doesn’t indicate that trusts offer some short cut to improvements but, with the confidence of staff and the ability of the organisation, they appear to have been strengthened.
  • A trust has the potential to offer social workers the long term organisational stability that has been reported here over recent years which is a precondition for high risk work with children.

Five quite specific claims put forward by the strategic director, all suggesting a trust would lead to a much better service for disadvantaged children, but not backed by a shred of evidence.

As Mr Hay states in his blog, the improvement of social work is paramount. He fails to explain though how a trust will be financed, who will finance it, and how it will be able to offer better pay than the council, although there is a hint at changes in working practices, how many more social workers might be recruited, and how a trust will lead to long term stability.

That is not to say a trust may not be able to achieve any or all of these things, but surely the council if it has been discussing a trust option with the Government for some time must be in a position to answer these questions in full.

The final word, ominously, must go to Lord Warner, the former Labour health minister who became the council’s children’s commissioner two years ago. Asked whether he thought a trust was, as the council is suggesting, the next logical step in Birmingham’s “improvement journey”, he replied “not really.”

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