Poor practice from senior management down led to “widespread and serious” failings in Tower Hamlets council’s children’s services, Ofsted has found.
Inspectors rated the council’s services as ‘inadequate’ after finding leaders, including the chief executive, directors of children’s services and elected members, were “unaware” that children were being left in harmful situations. Action was only taken after issues were flagged up by inspectors, Ofsted’s report said.
“Senior leaders have not been effective in challenging the entrenched culture of non-compliance with basic social work standards,” the report said.
“The local authority as a whole has failed to ensure professional accountability and, as a result, too many children have remained in neglectful and abusive situations for too long.”
Inspectors found that performance management systems were in place but were unreliable as social workers and managers did not update electronic records and produced assessments and plans of poor quality. Problems had been exacerbated by staff turnover, which in the assessment and intervention team had reached 30% in 2016.
Tower Hamlets’ last Ofsted inspection of safeguarding and looked after children’s services, in July 2012, judged services to be good with some outstanding features. Political and managerial change in the borough had contributed to a “significantly decline” since, inspectors found. After mayor Luftur Rahman was removed from office in 2015 following corruption charges, Tower Hamlets was placed in the hands of government-appointed commissioners, with full powers only being restored to the council in March this year.
Thresholds for intervention were found to be applied inconsistently “at all levels” and weaknesses in case recording made it “impossible” to understand how critical decisions about children’s lives had been made.
More than 25 cases were identified at inspection in which the needs of children in need of help and protection had not been recognised or properly assessed. As well as poor documentation, the Ofsted report noted that child protection conference chairs lacked oversight and did not always challenge situations when necessary.
A culture of “drift and delay” left children waiting to receive the help they needed, meaning family relationships declined and in some cases put young people at risk of being drawn into gang activity, a significant issue in the borough, inspectors found.
‘Lack of understanding’
A further area of concern picked up on by Ofsted was around private fostering arrangements, where they identified a “lack of understanding”. Inspectors highlighted failures to consider whether children had been trafficked, or abandoned by their parents. In most cases basic safeguarding checks had not been carried out.
Tower Hamlets’ local safeguarding children board (LSCB) was also rated as inadequate, on the basis that it was not fulfilling its statutory functions because of a lack of oversight of frontline practice. However, inspectors noted that, following an independent review commissioned in 2016, a new chair had been appointed and was “effectively refocusing the board’s priorities by increased scrutiny”.
Another qualified positive picked up during the inspection was around multi-agency working. While too many children living in violent families were still receiving insufficient support, inspectors found that MARAC meetings were well attended with “timely reporting on actions”. Ofsted inspectors also singled out for praise social workers’ “creative and sensitive work” to protect children from violent extremism.
Tower Hamlets’ services for looked-after children were judged ‘requires improvement’. While inspectors found room for greater consistency, they noted that most children live within 20 miles of home in stable placements that meet their cultural, ethnic and religious needs. “The fostering service is actively recruiting new carers, and it supports carers well,” the Ofsted report said. “Care proceedings are effective for most children in progressing plans for permanence.”
‘Immediate action required’
Ofsted said Tower Hamlets should take immediate action so that “work with children and families is compliant with basic practice standards, and that poor practice is challenged across all service areas.”
The watchdog stated that steps must be taken by the borough to ensure thresholds are applied consistently, children in need of statutory assistance receive it, and assessments and plans are completed to a better standard. Implementing a workforce strategy to improve stability and meet training needs was also highlighted as a priority.
Ofsted noted that leaders at Tower Hamlets council had accepted the inspection findings in full and were “determined” to improve outcomes for children.
“Senior politicians and local authority leaders gave assurances that immediate action will be taken to protect children,” inspectors said.
Will Tuckley, Tower Hamlets’ chief executive, said the authority would be “making it an absolute priority to improve the service, working alongside Ofsted”.
He said: “As time has gone on, we have found more and more problems with the service and, while we have made improvements, they have been not been fast or comprehensive enough.
“The Ofsted report has demonstrated the full scale of work that is needed. We are creating an improvement plan with Ofsted that will meet, and in many cases exceed, their recommendations. It will complement our existing work to improve the service.”