“Ministers are to send in a task force to crisis-hit Northamptonshire county council after it emerged hundreds of vulnerable children were being placed at greater risk of harm because of rapidly deteriorating frontline child protection services..
The move follows publication of a highly critical letter by Ofsted inspectors revealing that children referred to council social services were not effectively supported or protected, with 267 young people waiting up to four months to be assessed and allocated a social worker.
The watchdog said political and financial turbulence at the Tory-controlled council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt earlier this year, had contributed to safeguarding services being in a position where they could not effectively meet the needs of at-risk children.
A joint letter to Northamptonshire by the communities secretary, James Brokenshire, and the education secretary, Damian Hinds, said the government was “minded” to appoint a commissioner in the next few days to stabilise and improve the council’s child protection services.
The ministers were responding to a request by the council’s existing commissioners for help to turn around the service. They wrote to ministers earlier this month saying they had no confidence the children’s services management team was able to deliver adequate safeguarding services.
The commissioner’s letter said: “Despite the production of action plans designed to tackle accepted shortcomings, we have witnessed the failure of the leadership within the service to address the fundamental problems facing it, including its operational stability, performance and finance.”
The council’s children services underwent government intervention between 2013 and 2016 after Ofsted declared them “inadequate”. The government sent in two commissioners to oversee the entire council in May after a separate critical inspection report declared its problems were so entrenched it must be abolished.
The Ofsted letter highlighted poor oversight and management as a key factor in the decline of safeguarding services over the past two years. “Senior leaders are aware of these serious weaknesses and have taken remedial action to respond. However, this has not been effective or with sufficient urgency or rigour,” it said.
Child protection social workers had told inspectors they were “overwhelmed” and “drowning” under the pressure of rising demand, the letter said. Some professionals were juggling caseloads of between 30 and 50 children.
The letter is the latest blow for a council reeling from half a decade of mismanagement and funding cuts that have left it on the verge of collapse. The local authority is currently setting out drastic proposals to cut services back to a bare legal minimum in an attempt to balance the books.
Victoria Perry, Northamptonshire’s cabinet member for children, families and education, said: “We know that our children’s services are not working well and we will put this right. It is clear from the findings from Ofsted that these failures in the system have taken place over the last two years, and we are now completely focused on recovering from these failures.”
Ofsted’s letter, published on Tuesday after inspectors visited child protection services in Northampton last month, said safeguarding services had “significantly declined” since the previous full inspection in 2016.
It highlighted poor leadership, poor decision-making and a failure to identify risk in individual cases referred to the council. “This lack of oversight and poor management leaves children at potential risk of harm,” the watchdog said.
Some cases where children should have received support were closed prematurely, while less serious cases were wrongly escalated to a first-response team, the letter said. “This level of inconsistency regarding the application of thresholds not only means that children do not consistently receive the right service to meet their needs, but it also leads to additional pressure on the service.”
Although the council had reduced the number of unallocated cases from 551 at the beginning of the year, the overall number remained between 200 and 300, the letter said. “Although senior managers had taken action to review these cases either shortly before or during the focused visit, in cases sampled by inspectors there was no evidence of risk being identified, managed or robustly reviewed.”
The council will not be in a strong position to invest heavily to turn around child protection services. It has drained reserves in recent years in order to prop up services and needs to make about £60m of cuts before April to stave off bankruptcy.
The letter will increase the pressure on Northamptonshire’s leader, Matt Golby, who is leading the rescue plan designed to stabilise the council. In August, he promised that no children would be put in danger as a result of the proposed cuts.
Opposition Labour councillors said the county was failing in its legal duty to protect children. “The children of Northampton and Northamptonshire are being placed into positions where the county council is failing to protect them,” said Jane Birch, the deputy leader of the council’s Labour group.
“The priority is saving money rather than protecting those who need it most; I shudder to think what may happen.”