System failure hits west Wales council

Nigel Thomas finds leading councillors and officials in Pembrokeshire defensive on child abuse allegations

Nigel Thomas, who lives in Pembrokeshire, is Professor of Childhood and Youth Research in the University of Central Lancashire and a Fellow of the IWA

Fundamental questions about the governance of Pembrokeshire County Council have been raised by a joint report by Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) and Estyn, following an investigation into the handling of allegations of professional abuse and arrangements for safeguarding children in education services in the county.

The report points to significant failures in management and practice, applying both to decision-making in individual cases and to the operation of routine systems, particularly in the education and human resources functions of the authority, and also in social services. It also points to significant and profound failings in the conduct of chief officers, and their relations with members, which allowed bad practice to go unchecked.

In 2009 David Thorley, head teacher at a Pembrokeshire primary school, was convicted of nine sexual assaults against children and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Although Thorley, also a senior inspector of schools, was widely supported by friends and colleagues who remained convinced of his innocence, his appeal was rejected in January last year. After the legal proceedings were concluded, officials from the Department for Children, Education Lifelong Learning and Skills and the CSSIW met senior officers of Pembrokeshire County Council to discuss the implications of the case. Subsequently they asked the authority to compile a full list of every allegation of professional abuse in schools and education services, and the outcome, from 2007 to 2011. When the local authority proved unable to give a clear and satisfactory account of the handling of the 25 cases, the CSSIW undertook a formal investigation jointly with Estyn.

The investigation found that managers had minimised serious safeguarding concerns and put the interests of staff before the rights of children. Governing bodies were not fully informed of concerns, and neither were parents. Staff had been re-employed without references being sought, despite known concerns. Human resource files were incomplete and poorly maintained, with disciplinary issues and allegations not recorded. Several cases featured inappropriate use of restraint, in relation to which the authority has had no up-to-date policy or guidance for more than two years.

However, what is most devastating is what the report says about the management culture that allowed all this to go on. The investigation found:

“…a lack of oversight by elected members and officers, at the most senior level within the authority, of the management and handling of cases of alleged professional abuse in education services.”

Senior officers did not provide elected members with the information necessary to ensure they were able to discharge their responsibilities for safeguarding, and The Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) meetings were not recorded and not open to oversight by elected members. The report concludes:

“The absence of effective governance in relation to safeguarding and protecting children reflects failures within the culture of the authority as a whole. The shortcomings with the authority’s arrangements to safeguard and protect children are longstanding and systemic. This is indicative of the deep-seated nature of these problems and failings within the authority.”

It continues:

“The over reliance on informal briefings rather than formal reporting arrangements, and the lack of challenge and enquiry from elected members on safeguarding and child protection matters in education services, has meant that no one has had an overview of these matters. Where there has been evidence that should have been challenged, this has not been made available to members. Senior managers who should have challenged this have not done so and on occasions frontline staff who have tried to do so have not been listened to. This is indicative of a closed, not an open or transparent culture.”

The CSSIW/Estyn report has attracted widespread media attention, including a lead report on Radio 4 News. The Western Telegraph of 17 August devoted its first five pages to the issue, also focusing on a separate report from Estyn which concludes that education services in the county are unsatisfactory. The Welsh Government has reacted quickly, with the Minister Gwenda Thomas directing the council to put its house in order and appointing an advisory panel to support this.

On the other hand, the leadership of the authority has reacted defensively. John Davies, Leader of the ruling Independent group (and of the Welsh Local Government Association) was quoted as saying “it’s not our finest hour” and undertaking to spend his final six months before stepping down as Leader in addressing the problems identified in the report. In contrast Huw George, the Cabinet member for education, appeared to minimise the report’s findings by pointing out that it only concerned a small number of cases and claiming that no children had actually been harmed.

Conspicuously absent from the public comments on the report was Bryn Parry-Jones, Pembrokeshire’s highly-paid Chief Executive. Plaid Cymru representatives have now called for him to be suspended while an independent enquiry into the governance of the authority is conducted. Plaid have long argued, as have Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, that the operation of the County Council is unaccountable and undemocratic, the combined effect of a tightly-controlled ‘independent’ ruling group and a notoriously autocratic Chief Executive. The findings of the CSSIW/Estyn report appear to confirm that view, and to suggest that unaccountable management has also produced poor services.

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