Council launching investigation into whistleblowing allegations by children’s social workers

Staff say leaders at Southampton presided over 'poor and dangerous decision-making' and closed cases to mislead Ofsted, according to union

Image of laptop and magnifying glass (credit: Paweł Michałowski / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Paweł Michałowski / Adobe Stock)

Southampton council has appointed an independent investigator to look into whistleblowing allegations made by dozens of social workers, a trade union has told Community Care.

Hayley Garner, branch secretary for Southampton Unite, said an individual from outside the council was meeting with internal auditors this week to discuss concerns backed by around 35 employees, including managers and other senior staff.

The allegations, first reported by the Southern Daily Echo, include Southampton’s children’s services failing to keep children safe because of poor decision-making, and senior managers attempting to deliberately mislead Ofsted inspectors during a recent visit, which resulted in a ‘requires improvement’ verdict.

Garner said she had been approached by an experienced manager several weeks ago, who wanted to raise concerns, which then led to a meeting which more than a dozen staff attended.

The 35 now said to support the claims would represent a significant minority of the approximately 200 children’s social workers that  Southampton council employs according to government statistics.

‘Children at immediate risk’

The whistleblowing complaint included details of 10 “key cases where children have been put at immediate risk”, Garner said. “The overview is that the service is failing to keep children safe because of poor and dangerous decision making.”

She added that staff said cases had been closed prior to Ofsted’s visit in late 2019 in order to bring down numbers and ensure no children were left unallocated to a social worker.

According to Garner, team managers faced pressure – amounting to a “culture of fear” – to present an overly positive view of the state of services to inspectors.

In its inspection report, Ofsted awarded a near-identical score to that delivered by its last visit in 2014, judging Southampton children’s services ‘requires improvement’ on all measures and noting that the pace of progress had been too slow.

“At the point of the inspection, social workers’ caseloads had substantially reduced and were largely manageable,” Ofsted said. “Addressing this challenge has consumed considerable senior management time and diverted their attention from planned improvement work.”

Inspectors added that the DCS and other leaders had “worked hard to address the consequences of very high workloads” in some teams.

Referrals spike

More social work posts were being funded in order to handle a backlog in cases from earlier in 2019, with temporary teams still struggling to pick up the slack and some assessments and interventions being carried out late, Ofsted said.

Leaders and managers acknowledged during the inspection that inconsistent decision-making in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) had been a significant contributory factor in the spike in referrals.

Ofsted also noted that, until recently, the DCS had been managed by a chief operations officer rather than the council’s chief executive, an arrangement that does not comply with statutory guidance.

A Southampton council spokesperson said: “The safety of vulnerable children is our highest priority, and if any evidence is found to support the claims being made then prompt and appropriate action will be taken.”

“The allegations are being investigated and while that investigation takes place it would not be appropriate for us to comment further,” the spokesperson added.

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