A total of 267 children in Northamptonshire were without an allocated social worker and have not been seen by the county council for long periods, a damning report by inspectors says.
The Ofsted report, published today, says overall the children’s department services at Northamptonshire County Council have significantly declined since its last inspection in 2016.
It singles out several worrying aspects, including huge workloads that swamp the department’s staff and social workers.
Secretary of State for Local Government James Brokenshire has announced that Education Secretary Damien Hinds is ‘minded’ to appoint a children’s services commissioner for Northamptonshire in the wake of the report.
In one of the most shocking lines, Her Majesty’s Inspector Linda Steele said at the time of the visit, on October 17 and 18, a total of 267 children in the county council system remained without an allocated social worker and ‘without having their needs unassessed’.
“The majority of these children have been waiting for an assessment for more than seven days and a minority have been waiting for up to four months,” she said.
“Many of these children have not been seen for substantial periods of time and their current circumstances and safety are unknown.”
In the overview of the report, inspectors state that, when children in Northamptonshire are referred to children’s social care, ‘they are not consistently or effectively assessed, supported or protected’.
Children who have the greatest welfare and safeguarding concerns generally receive a service from the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), Ofsted found. This ensures that those families and children requiring intervention are initially responded to.
However, subsequent action is ‘insufficiently robust and leaves some children’s circumstances unassessed for too long and potential risks unidentified’.
It adds that, against a backdrop of financial uncertainty and changes in leadership services, they visited had ‘significantly declined’ in the past two years since the single inspection in 2016.
This uncertainty had contributed to significant shortfalls in social work capacity across the service, resulting in ‘unmanageable caseloads and high volumes of unallocated and unassessed work’.
Inspectors conceded that senior leaders are aware of the serious weaknesses and have taken remedial action. But the report adds that this ‘has not been effective or with sufficient urgency or rigour’.
Ms Steele added: “Consequently, at the time of this focused visit there was insufficient capacity in the MASH and the first response teams to meet the needs of children and families.”
Cabinet member for children, families and education Victoria Perry, said she is committed to working alongside the council’s new leadership team to rise to the challenges outlined in Ofsted’s inspection.
“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,” she said.
“We are pleased the inspectors recognise the new senior leadership team in place at the council has begun to tackle the weaknesses in the service which have arisen since 2016. The issues had started to be identified prior to Ofsted’s focused inspection.
“While we will need to focus on improvements in safeguarding it is also equally critical we do far better in early help and prevention.”
In a written statement to the House of Commons, Mr Brokenshire recommends Malcolm Newsam as the new commissioner, having worked in children’s services in Rotherham and Sandwell.
“Having carefully considered the evidence and having spoken to the commissioners, my right honourable friend, the secretary of state for education, and I agree that we should act swiftly to strengthen the focus on children in the current intervention, by appointing an additional commissioner to the existing commissioner team,” the statement says.
“Keeping vulnerable children safe is one of the most important duties local authorities carry out and any deterioration in the performance of Northamptonshire children’s services cannot continue.”
Labour politicians have written to the Children’s Commissioner for England with concerns that the county council can ‘no longer keep our children safe’.
Cllrs Danielle Stone and Jane Birch wrote to Anne Longfield saying they believe the county could no longer fulfil its statutory duties for keeping children safe, healthy, achieving in school, contributing and achieving economic success.
Cllr Stone said: “I am so concerned that the crisis at the county council has led to leaving our vulnerable children in a position where they are not safe and are at risk in so many ways.”
And Cllr Birch added: “The children of Northampton and Northamptonshire are being placed into positions where the county council is failing to protect them.
“The priority is saving money rather than protecting those who need it most, I shudder to think what may happen.”
In the letter, councillors highlighted a number of issues including the 47,000 children living in poverty, instability caused by changes in leadership, poor recruitment and retention of children’s social workers, cuts to services and a lack of parenting support.