Ofsted’s ‘inadequate’ rating of children’s services in West Sussex has been described as ‘unacceptable and indefensible’.
Labour leader Michael Jones (Southgate & Gossops Green) called for an investigation and suggested that ‘those responsible’ for the situation should resign.
Ofsted’s report, which was published today, described ‘long-standing, widespread and serious weaknesses’ in the provision of services to some of the most vulnerable children in the county, and listed a dozen areas which needed improvement.
Mr Jones said: “This is a dark day for the council. It is both shocking and disappointing how badly West Sussex County Council has been rated by Ofsted.
“Never before have I read a more damning inspection report. This simply is unacceptable and indefensible.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it is as much to do with the cuts to services forced on this council by the Tory government’s austerity measures, but this Tory administration must also take its responsibility as they have presided over this calamitous decline in standards.”
In the past eight years the council has seen its government funding cut by £145m, which was a point also raised by James Walsh, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Dr Walsh (Littlehampton East) said: “I am afraid that it is inevitable that starving the county council of proper funding by the government has made matters worse, and my worry is that we could be seeing similar reports on other services in West Sussex, such as in the adult social care sector.”
Mr Jones stressed that the social workers themselves were not at fault for the situation, adding: “They have worked professionally and been dedicated under almost impossible pressures.
“The failures are in political leadership and corporate restructuring, both of which are the responsibility of those at the highest level.
“My first reaction is that resignations of those responsible would be appropriate, my second is that the inadequacies contained in this report need to be addressed with the greatest of urgency and the council should spend whatever is necessary.”
Dr Walsh said the report made ‘very sad reading’ and reflected the medium and long-term effects of failing to invest in the recruitment, retention and training of staff.
He added: “What is now important, having been judged inadequate, is to remedy the situation as rapidly as possible, so as to minimise the far reaching effects on a whole generation of children, and Liberal Democrats will be demanding an urgent action plan, with accompanying funding, including help from national government.”
When approached for comment, Caroline Fife, UNISON South East’s regional organiser, said: “Of course, this is a particularly damning report. UNISON recognises the immense damage that austerity is doing to all public services. The facts are that there are just not enough children’s social workers at a time of increasing demand. Staff are working to the best of their ability in very difficult if not impossible conditions.
“But we also see some unique circumstances in West Sussex which have contributed to the poor outcomes. Ofsted are unequivocal about the failures of the council’s leadership at its executive officer and political level. This verdict is not surprising, as the council has known its children’s services required improvement since Ofsted’s last inspection in 2016. The structures put in place since then clearly have not worked as they have overseen ‘serious decline’, and that is a failure of executive leadership at the highest level.
“UNISON remains concerned about high executive turnover. The current Director of Children’s Services is actually an interim director, and he replaces the last interim director, who followed the last Director who resigned in January. You have to ask what is going on when the county council cannot even hold on to its interim directors.
“Something is not right with the culture at the county council and it needs to be fixed. We believe there is a bullying culture. UNISON has represented several very senior managers with grievances about what they have perceived to be a bullying culture. This has resulted in a number of well-respected managers leaving the organisation.
“UNISON believes the executive leadership at the council now needs to really connect to and listen and understand the staff. It’s really important to us that blame is not allowed to be passed down to more junior levels. There is a cultural problem in that neither staff nor the trade union are listened to, whilst the spending on consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers increases exponentially. These matters all have to be sorted as part of the journey to take these vital services to ‘good’.”
In response a county council spokesman said: “Any form of bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated within our organisation.
“We have established our organisational values which we hold ourselves accountable to, which were developed with our staff. We encourage any member of staff to report any form of bullying and are committed to support them and investigate such serious concerns.
“We have recruited a new and experienced director of children’s services who has a track record of leading improvement in other local authorities following the end of the contract with our previous interim DCS.”