Six months to rescue Cardiff and launch a new era in social services

Social services in Wales are reeling yet again in the wake of
another damning joint review, this time for the capital city,

This latest report on the failure of social services in the largest
local authority in Wales presents a bleak picture of vulnerable
children and adults failed by the system set up to protect

The report adds to a growing list of critical reports and reviews
in Wales, including the Waterhouse report, Lost in Care,
on the widespread abuse of children in care in north Wales.

The Audit Commission report Learning the Lessons – a
summary of the key issues from the first six joint reviews in Wales
– also made uncomfortable reading for the local authorities that
had been inspected, with its conclusion that none of them was
serving most people well.

It emphasised the importance of implementing robust safeguards to
protect the most vulnerable in society. It noted too that the
Waterhouse report served as a powerful reminder of the importance
of listening to children and young people.

A key issue raised by the latest review is concern that young
people are exposed to “unacceptable risks and the authority failing
in its statutory obligations to children at risk or looked

Cardiff is now placed in the bottom three of all departments in the
UK, along with its neighbouring authority, the Vale of Glamorgan,
and Walsall in the West Midlands. The Vale of Glamorgan’s joint
review, published in September 2000, also found that social
services was failing to meet the needs of vulnerable children and
adults and said there were poor prospects for improvement.

So serious is the problem in Cardiff that Jane Hutt, the Welsh
assembly minister with responsibility for social services, has now
given the council leader Russell Goodway six months to make

After meeting Goodway the minister said the council would have to
bring in specialist external advice to help manage the

If the inspection team that is due to be sent in next spring finds
no improvement, the Welsh assembly may step in and take over the
running of the troubled department. So what has gone wrong and how
can the situation be improved?

Wales, unlike England, has no star rating system because of the
differences in scale between the two countries. An assembly
spokeswoman said that in Wales a more co-operative approach and
close working partnerships were seen as more effective.

She said: “We are developing our own system of performance
management and evaluation in Wales. This includes an evaluation
framework that we have just developed and are about to implement
and a set of performance indicators linked to the policy agreement
with local government.

“This is also linked to the Wales Programme for Improvement which
is based on the authorities’ own analysis of strengths and
weaknesses validated externally through audit and inspection. We
are also seeking to align this with the approach in health which is
similarly based and is not using star ratings.”

But with Hutt locked in crisis talks with Goodway over the future
of social services in Cardiff and the joint review’s message that a
complete overhaul of the service in the city is required, observers
may be forgiven for questioning the Welsh authorities’ ability to
effectively analyse their own weaknesses.

In Cardiff’s case, senior social workers say they were warning well
in advance of the joint review of the serious flaws in the system
and the consequences for service users. Their warnings, they say,
went unheeded.

Both Charles Faber and Neil White were experienced social work
managers. Last year Faber appeared on a local television programme
highlighting his concerns that a child might die if pressure on
front-line services was not eased. He voiced his fears too that
children in care in the city were being neglected because of lack
of resources and that pressure on colleagues was at crisis point.
Only hours after his appearance he was suspended, although the
council says his suspension and subsequent dismissal was due to
poor financial management.

The joint review from the Audit Commission and the Social Services
Inspectorate for Wales said Cardiff was defaulting on its statutory
obligation to children at risk. It found that more than 160
children were exposed to serious risk and harm because the
department was seriously overstretched.

White lost his appeal against dismissal last week. He claims he was
sacked because he refused to discipline a worker at a residential
home for older people in Cardiff who blew the whistle on alleged
abuse of residents.

The council disputes White’s claim. A spokesman said: “Mr White was
dismissed for two specific breaches of the council’s disciplinary
policy, which constituted gross misconduct. The council refutes the
allegation that Mr White was dismissed either because he was a
whistleblower or because he refused to take disciplinary action
against a whistleblower.”

But the way that the council handled the investigation into the
residential home, Hazelcroft, in Cardiff, was described by the
joint review team as an example of “all that is dysfunctional
within the authority”.

Both Faber and White say they did their best to draw attention to
the problems in the department long before the review but claim
they were ignored. Sue Lent, another social worker and a member of
the council’s ruling Labour group, says she was bullied and
intimidated when she raised her concerns about services two years

She wrote a six-page report outlining her fears that children were
being put at risk in a department that was overstretched and
under-funded. The reaction to the report was, she says, less than

“I was told to withdraw my report and I received a letter from the
chief executive’s office threatening to take me to the ethical
standards committee if I didn’t do so. Charles, Neil and myself
tried hard to raise a number of issues over a long period of time
but we were ignored,” she said.

According to the joint review there was, “a widely held view that a
macho management culture had prevailed for many years and this was
deemed to have member sanction. This perception is highly damaging
to staff morale”.

The council now has six months to put things right and has promised
what it calls “a new era” in social services in the city. The
changes will follow consultations that will give everyone connected
with social care in Cardiff the chance to say what they think
should be done.

In the meantime, Malcolm Russell, chairperson of the Association of
Directors of Social Services Cymru (ADSS), admits that the review
has some difficult messages, but welcomes the fact that the council
has committed itself to responding and producing proposals for
strengthening services.

He says it is important to remember how difficult and demanding the
task of managing social services is and that the report also
recognised many areas of good practice.

For Cardiff council, the next six months is likely to be a time of
change and upheaval as its refines and reorganises itself. For
practitioners, the hope is that the Welsh capital will get the
social services it needs and that their clients deserve. But the
nagging concern for some is that it could all have been done so
much sooner had the warning voices been heeded.

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