Page last updated at 15:24 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

Child social services 'declining'

Baby P memorials
Baby P suffered more than 50 injuries by the time of his death

Services for vulnerable children in England deteriorated last year and remain the weakest area of councils' work, the Audit Commission has said.

Haringey, where the Baby P scandal took place, was among four councils to go from a three-star rating to one.

Doncaster, Milton Keynes and Surrey did the same, while only nine authorities achieved the maximum four stars - three fewer than had managed it in 2007.

The decline came amid a backdrop of strong performances in other services.

The Audit Commission produces an annual rating system for all English county councils and unitary authorities.

Christine Gilbert, chief inspector of Ofsted, one of the agencies used by the Audit Commission in its studies, explained why four authorities had achieved just one star for children's services.

She said: "We felt the arrangements in place weren't secure enough to give us confidence that children - mostly vulnerable children, and those in care - could grow up and thrive in those areas.

"The sort of things that were missing were good systems for tracking progress, and sometimes there weren't safe recruitment processes in place, prudent checks weren't in place."

Those with four stars for children's services, which include child protection, were Camden, Corporation of London, Gateshead, Kensington and Chelsea, Kingston-upon-Thames, Richmond, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and York.

Numerous visits

Standards in children's services have come under the spotlight since the case of Baby P came to light last year.

The toddler suffered more than 50 injuries by the time of his death in August 2007, despite numerous visits by social workers who failed to raise the alarm.

Haringey council Leader Claire Kober responded to the one-star rating by saying: "We accept that things went badly wrong with child protection. We are committed to making things right.

[We] said to each other at the time: unfortunately, as a result of [a new structure] a child will die
Sharon Docherty, former child protection manager, Doncaster

"We need to make major changes in this area. We have started that process, and I am determined to drive through the changes needed."

Meanwhile, Doncaster - currently the focus of a government-ordered inquiry into its child protection record - was warned youngsters' lives were at risk four years ago, a former manager at the authority said.

Serious case reviews have been ordered into the deaths of seven children who died in the borough since 2004 in cases involving abuse or neglect.

But former child protection manager Sharon Docherty said on Wednesday that concerns were raised when senior officers began a radical overhaul of services between 2004 and 2005.

Ms Docherty, who left the council in 2006, told BBC2's Newsnight programme: "When the new structure came out the lines of responsibility, the lines of accountability, the lines of access to support were so fudged so as to be non-existent, certainly as far as frontline workers were concerned."

When asked if she thought this would end up costing lives, she said: "It's actually something colleagues and I said to each other at the time: unfortunately, as a result of this a child will die."

Criticism

The BBC's John Andrew said Surrey, one of the wealthiest counties, had dropped two stars because of "serious failings in its services for vulnerable children".

He said the council had accepted the criticism and was trying to make "swift improvements".

The annual data for all English single tier and county councils - also known as the Comprehensive Performance Assessments [CPA] - has been published for the last time.

It is heartening to see a record number of four-star councils
Audit Commission chairman Michael O'Higgins

From April, it will be replaced by new Comprehensive Area Assessments, which will focus on results and future needs.

The CPA, introduced in 2002 to measure the effectiveness and value for money of individual local authorities, has traced general improvements in town halls over the past seven years.

The number achieving an overall four-star rating has risen from 22 in 2002 to 62 today, including 27 who have consistently achieved top marks for four consecutive years.

As well as services for children and young people, the Audit Commission inspects adult social care, housing, environment, culture, benefits and fire and rescue.

While 73% of councils did achieve the top two ratings - three or four stars - for children's services, scores were higher in other areas.

Some 91% of councils achieved three or four stars for housing, 95% for the environment, 77% for culture, 97% for benefits and 87% for adult social care.

Audit Commission chairman Michael O'Higgins said: "As we say goodbye to the star rating system, it is heartening to see a record number of four-star councils, and 28 rising by one or more categories in this last year alone."



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