Sandwell children’s services is to be transferred to an independent children’s trust and taken out of local authority control, the government has announced.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson told Sandwell’s leaders the government had intervened because the council had “failed its most vulnerable children and young people for approaching seven years”.
He said the trust should be established by the end of 2017 and acknowledged that the move would trigger some anxiety “among key groups in Sandwell, notably your social workers”.
“However, given your commitment to work constructively with me and my officials, I am optimistic that some reassurance can be provided quite quickly on a number of points related to trusts, including – for instance – the terms and conditions on which social workers transfer to a trust,” he added.
The decision followed a review of the council’s children’s services by Eleanor Brazil, who the government appointed as a commissioner in Sandwell following concerns over performance. Brazil concluded “the council on its own cannot deliver what is needed” and recommended removing the services from local authority control.
“I believe that a period of time is needed when the service is not in the direct control of the council to create the impetus needed to deliver robust and sustainable leadership.
“However, this should be achieved working closely with the council,” Brazil said.
The report found “the strengths of good social work practice are poorly understood and until very recently have not received sufficient attention”.
“Whilst there has been some progress over the past two years, it has not been fast enough nor has it had the impact on the quality of practice needed. Too many children are still in receipt of an inadequate service,” Brazil said.
In February social workers at the council’s Unison branch voted unanimously for a motion calling for a ballot for industrial action if children’s services were moved to a trust.
In a statement issued today the local Unison branch said it would seek “urgent guarantees” on a pay and pensions before balloting for a strike.
Tony Barnsley, the branch secretary, said: “Creating uncertainty over the future pay and pensions of our members does nothing to improve the service to children. In fact creating this uncertainty can only make it worse since some will vote with their feet and leave Sandwell.”
He said if assurances are not made about the future of pay and pensions for social workers, the union will ballot for industrial action.
“If our members to choose to take strike action they will receive our fullest support.”
Brazil’s report acknowledged the concerns raised by staff, but said it was “not clear what resulted from those discussions, or what if any, active steps were taken by the unions to positively impact on the quality of the service”.
Timpson, also acknowledging social work concerns, said he hoped the transfer of services offered an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits to social workers of making a fresh start.
“I am sure that a new vision for children’s social care, the opportunity to work with excellent leaders and the very real prospect that – in time – your children’s social care services could be Good or we hope even better can be attractive to many people in Sandwell, including the council’s partners and social workers,” he said.
Plans for the trust need to be brought forward by the council from December 1.
The government has appointed Malcolm Newsam, to work with the council to establish the trust and continue with improvements during the interim period.
Simon Hackett, cabinet member for children’s services in Sandwell, said the council did not feel setting up a trust was the best way to improve services.
“While disappointed with the decision, our commitment and focus remains the same; making sure children are at the heart of everything we do and our priority is to ensure the trust is a success.”
He said Ofsted had found improvements in its most recent inspection and that the council was moving in the right direction.
“Our employees will play a crucial role in the process of creating an environment of high quality social care.”