By Local Democracy Reporter
THURROCK’S most vulnerable children could be put in even greater danger after the council’s chief executive attempted to impose a vital decision on children’s services without any democratic oversight or scrutiny from councillors.
Chief Executive Lyn Carpenter, who oversees the operation of Thurrock Council, did not inform or consult elected councillors before attempting to force a plan that would merge the children’s services department with adult social care, education and housing.
The move came after the existing director of children’s services announced in March that he planned to take early retirement. The council then began exploring how to merge his job with the director of people, housing and health.
But rather than inform councillors, officer went over their heads to produce a report on the decision that was brought to a council meeting on Wednesday night. It asked elected members to vote in favour of the change just two days before the children’s services director retires.
The report was fiercely criticised be all parties and was eventually rejected, leaving the council with no one to oversee the vital children’s department.
The council’s deputy leader, Councillor Shane Hebb, said it had been brought to the council “under duress” and questioned the last minute decision after council officers knew the children’s service director was to retire three months ago.
“The democratic oversight has been virtually nil however the reality is we have to have a director of children’s services by midnight Sunday,” he said.
“We haven’t been able to challenge, provide opinion, examine but we are still being asked to approve.”
Labour group leader Councillor Jane Pothecary said she has “grave reservations” about the plan.
“As councillors we have a duty to ask difficult questions, to hold decision to account and to speak truth to power, we have a duty to speak out, we have a duty to raise red flags when we think something is wrong.
“All of the enquiries and reports into avoidable tragedies teach us one simple message. These things happen when people don’t speak up.
“I do not believe that placing responsibility for children’s social care, health, education, adult social care and housing on to one person’s shoulders is a responsible way to protect children, vulnerable adults or the homeless in this borough.
“I urge every elected member here to think really long and really hard if this is the best thing for those vulnerable people and those children at risk that we have a duty to protect and care for.”
She told councillors: “It is not your role to minimise the embarrassment of those whose mistakes have brought us here or to accept the only option on the table because all other options have been denied. It is your role to protect the vulnerable.”
The leader of Thurrock Independents, Councillor Luke Spillman, told councillors it is “not the council’s finest hour”.
He said: “When I find out the actual administration hasn’t had full sight of this it really worries me because there is no democratic accountability for this decision. If the administration had a look at it and put it through in quick period there would be some accountability. If it went wrong they would be accountable for it. The problem is, that isn’t going to happen in this case.”
He added: “Whichever way I vote it is a shoddy outcome for Thurrock. I am really not happy about this, it shouldn’t be the case we are here doing this tonight.”
Conservative Councillor James Halden admitted there had been a “stand-off” between elected members and council officers over the issue, adding he had never known “such a massive issue that was so avoidable”.
The rejection of the plan means that a solution needs to be found by the end of the week or the council will be operating illegally. It was implied during the meeting that the chief executive could merge the services, despite it being voted down by elected members.
A spokesman for the council said: “Discussions are now taking place about how the council will fulfil the obligation.”
History of controversy
The problems surrounding the Children’s Services director are the latest in a series of controversies to hit the department in the past 12 months.
The most serious came last year when a group of whistleblowers accused the council of missing opportunities to prevent the death of a toddler, which happened in Grays in January 2018.
While a report by a safeguarding barrister, commissioned by the council, found the claims were unfounded it did prompt a serious case review which is only carried out if there are suspicions a child was seriously harmed – the result of this is yet to be published.
This issue also caused Councillor John Kent to step down from his role as chair of the children’s scrutiny committee. At the time he accused the council officers of treated elected members with “contempt”.
He added: “It is a bit like banging your head against a brick wall – you can only do it for so long.”
Another blow to the department came in May when an Ofsted inspection highlighted significant concerns and weaknesses in the way the council cares for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
This included a failure to locate nine children and poor support for parents and families.