OFSTED inspectors have sharply criticised aspects of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s procedures and those of its partners for safeguarding vulnerable children. DAVID NORBURY reports

OUTGOING Cheshire County Council chief executive Jeremy Taylor warned the most recent local government review (LGR) would see the loss of decades of safeguarding experience.

Incoming Cheshire West and Chester leader Cllr Mike Jones (Con, Broxton) knew within weeks of the May 2008 elections there were concerns and alerted his new chief executive, Steve Robinson, almost as soon as he arrived that summer.

But parts of a recently published report by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission will still make uncomfortable reading even though the council says it has taken decisive and sweeping action.

Eight aspects of the services provided for safeguarding by the council and its partners were rated as inadequate, which in Ofsted speak means they do not meet the minimum requirements.

All other areas are said to be no more than adequate and only meet the minimum requirements.

To make matters worse for council chiefs on the fourth floor of the HQ building in Chester, Ofsted signalled in advance its findings from a earlier snap inspection which could affect the assessment of the council’s overall services for children and young people. These have been marked down from performing well to among the worst in the country, even though inspectors accept that most aspects are good or better.

During a detailed inspection in the first part of November, which also looked at the council’s services for looked after children, inspectors held discussions with children and young people, front line managers, senior officers, councillors and a range of community representatives.

They also examined files, two thirds of which were selected at random.

Their finding was that the overall effectiveness of Cheshire West’s safeguarding services and their ability to improve was not up to scratch.

“The overall effectiveness of the council and its partners in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in Cheshire West and Chester is inadequate,” say the inspectors bluntly.

“Statutory requirements are not met in important aspects of assessment and multi agency child protection planning.”

“Critical weaknesses” in the organisation of services and the quality of the practice and management within children’s social care became apparent to senior managers in the new council following LGR, it revealed.

These were reported to councillors and to bodies including the Cheshire West and Chester children’s safeguarding board.

Although a detailed plan was drawn up to make the required improvements, the snap inspection “identified a failure to manage known risks leaving some children at risk of significant harm”.

The most recent inspection “has also found serious deficiencies in the assessment of risk and in the quality of multi-agency child protection planning”.

Inspectors add: “The council’s commitment to improve front line social care services has had insufficient impact on an existing inter agency culture within which delay and a lack of a decisive action feature prominently.”

The council and the safeguarding board have identified some children and young people who received inadequate protection and have taken appropriate action to remedy this.

But effective plans are not yet in place and the inspectors say that in some cases they found immediate risks of harm had not been identified or properly assessed.

“The overall quality of multi-agency child protection planning is poor and fails to produce improved outcomes for children and young people,” the inspectors believe.

They also suggest social care staff are dealing with too many inappropriate referrals.

The inspectors accept the council inherited “an extremely challenging situation” following LGR and underwent a period of instability and uncertainty as a consequence.

“The effects of this legacy were that fundamental weaknesses in organisation and professional practice, coupled with a lack of capacity, were endemic in children’s social care services,” they reveal.

The council’s senior leadership team in social care acted quickly as the scale of the challenges was uncovered.

But although there is a recent track record of improvement, the inspectors believe the council has not fully grasped the problems with multi agency and social care practice.

Significant weaknesses remain which have been underestimated by bodies including the safeguarding board.

There are insufficient staff within front line services with the necessary skills to close the gap between inadequate and satisfactory practice and this is likely to take some time to resolve.

“Nevertheless, performance against national indicators has improved and is largely in line with, or better than, comparable authorities and examples of good assessment and multi-agency case planning has also been identified during this inspection.

“The council has responded promptly and positively to reaffirm its determination and commitment to improve provision for children most at risk.”

The inspectors have identified 11 areas for improvement for the council and other organisations, of which there are four, have to be implemented immediately and the remainder within three or six months.

They go on to repeat: “The effectiveness of services in taking reasonable steps to ensure children and young people are safe is inadequate.

“The council and its partners are failing to ensure that all children and young people at risk of significant harm are safe”.

Children’s services portfolio holder Cllr Arthur Harada, (Con, Overleigh) says the council is determined to transform what Ofsted recognised as “an extremely challenging legacy” and emphasises that “sweeping and incisive” measures had already been taken by the council and its partners to address the concerns.

A team of independent experts has already carried out a review of the procedures followed in every file at present open on every West Cheshire youngster subject to a child protection plan.

The council has also set up a high powered, independent board to monitor the work done by the agencies involved in safeguarding the borough’s children and young people.

The board involves senior representatives from the council, health, police, the University of Chester, the local safeguarding board and the voluntary sector.

Its chairman, Stephen Wilds, has been a director of social services in other authorities, has Whitehall experience and was until recently the council’s interim adult care director.

Cheshire West and Chester’s children’s services director, Dr John Stephens, added: “While much improvement work had already been done, the council and its partners have taken immediate and far reaching action to address urgent issues raised by Ofsted.”