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17 December 2010, 14:17 | Updated: 17 December 2010, 16:10
West Sussex County Council today (Friday) announced steps are already under way to address shortcomings in its procedures for safeguarding children after the publication of an Ofsted report.
Following a two-week inspection, the County Council has been rated as inadequate for safeguarding.
However, the inspectors found that services for working with Looked After Children were adequate.
Pete Bradbury, Cabinet Member for Children and Families, gave details of the inspection report to a meeting today of the full Council and announced the formation of a specialist team with an urgent brief to speed-up the rate of progress made since the last Ofsted inspection two years ago when safeguarding was also rated as inadequate.
He said: "The report is deeply disappointing and I acknowledged that in my statement to the County Council.
“The inspection process is now much more rigorous and, of the 29 local authorities inspected this year, 12 are now rated as inadequate, including West Sussex.
“But we make no complaint about the process and fully accept the findings and the criticism. We do not in any way minimise the shortcomings that have been highlighted. We know what needs to be done and we are going to get on with it.
"I want to assure our residents that the protection of children is an absolute priority as far as this Council is concerned.
"The improvements made within children's social services have not led to the speed of progress we would have liked. The Ofsted report makes it clear that we need to step up the pace.
“We are forming an improvement team which will include experts who have helped other councils in a similar situation. They will work alongside staff to address the shortcomings identified by Ofsted.”
Pete said the ‘Improvement Team’ would be fully funded from the Council's contingency fund, so there would be no impact on council taxpayers or any other services.
The team will report to an independently chaired Improvement Board – membership of which is being finalised by the County Council and the Department for Education.
Pete added: “We will also be strengthening the role of our own Corporate Parenting Panel.
“I am also going to strengthen the role of the Local Safeguarding Children Board, consisting of representatives from a wide range of public sector organisations, which has also been criticised in the report.”
The Ofsted inspectors said that the restructure of the department in April of this year had been well handled, staff morale had improved and the Council's campaign to retain existing staff and recruit more social workers had reduced the vacancy rate calling this 'a very good achievement’.
Pete said: “Social workers have one of the most difficult jobs in society, and since becoming Cabinet Member for this service in May, I have been impressed with their hard work and dedication.
“What today’s report makes clear is that they need more support and better processes and procedures have to be properly embedded.”
"The demands on the service since the Baby Peter tragedy have been intense because, rightly, everyone is being increasingly vigilant about children.
“I also told the Council today that the department is currently in the process of re-auditing case files to check that assessments at the time were thorough and that risks were appropriately assessed.”
Pete said examples of the increased workload in West Sussex included a 21.6 per cent increased in the number of referrals in the last year compared with a national average of 11 per cent.
"The number of children subject to a Child Protection Plan at the end of September was 540 - an increase of 15 per cent in the last year compared with a national average of 4.7 per cent,” he added.
Terry Bamford, Chairman of the Local Safeguarding Children Board for West Sussex, said: "There are clearly major challenges and issues as a result of this report for the LSCB. We will need to focus on areas such as performance monitoring and management oversight across the partnership.
"The report says the LSCB should develop a specific and measurable plan to respond robustly to the concerns in the report. This will be the main item on the agenda for our next full partnership meeting in January."
Judith Wright, the Director of Public Health for West Sussex, said: "This report highlights many areas where progress is being made to improve child safeguarding but overall it does not make for comfortable reading.
"There are lessons here for all of the public sector agencies with a responsibility for protecting and supporting vulnerable children, and that includes the NHS. We are grateful that the inspectors have produced a report which clearly points out where we can and must improve, and we will work with all of our colleagues to ensure those improvements are made."
Pete Bradbury also spoke today about the adequate rating for the way the County Council works with Looked After Children.
"This is a much more positive report, but there is no room for complacency and we want to see more done in future. Adequate is not enough. It is another reason for strengthening the Corporate Parenting Panel.
“It is also one of the reasons why our future budget plans include proposals for much earlier social worker involvement with families in crisis or at risk, to avoid children having to come into the care system.”