Birmingham children’s services shake-up will be controversial, warns Len Clark

The Conservative councillor appointed to turn around Birmingham’s under-performing services for vulnerable children is preparing the ground for a series of highly controversial decisions designed to deliver a complete restructuring of the social care department.

Len Clark said he needed “space to think the unthinkable” as he continued to examine ways of improving the standard of social work for youngsters at risk of sexual and physical abuse against a background of severe spending cutbacks.

He is working on a re-alignment of city council provision which is understood to involve shifting resources from “less important” aspects of social care to concentrate on the area where Birmingham has been severely criticised – helping young people at risk of serious harm.

Coun Clark (Con Quinton) is warning colleagues that the shake-up is likely to result in scaling back or scrapping some social care functions currently performed by the council.
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He was speaking as Government exasperation with Birmingham’s failure to get to grips with children’s social care hit a new level.

Improvement targets are still not being fully met 18 months after ministers placed the crisis-torn department in special measures.

Now civil servants are drawing up another “must do better” order giving social services bosses a final chance to improve standards.

If performance does not improve, safeguarding services for children are likely to be placed under direct Government control.

The deadline is the latest embarrassment for social care in Birmingham, which attracted widespread criticism after the death of Khyra Ishaq.

The tragic seven-year-old Handsworth girl was starved by her mother and stepfather under the noses of social workers in 2008.

A Serious Case Review found widespread failings by the council, health trusts and police. Social workers and education officials were blamed for not using the legal powers they possessed to take Khyra into care.

Last year education watchdog Ofsted found “significant weaknesses” in services for safeguarding vulnerable children in Birmingham.

A new analysis of the improvement plan imposed on the council in February last year shows a stuttering performance. Social workers are still not meeting Ofsted guidelines for assessing children feared to be at risk, even though the time limit for producing a report has risen from one week to ten days.

Inefficient IT equipment unable to deal with the 20,000-plus referrals of children at risk received by the council each year is placing extra pressure on social workers who have to enter case details into as many as nine separate data bases.

Social services managers paid consultants £300,000 to advise on replacement software, before abandoning the fruitless search after being told that nothing better is on the market.

Coun Clark told a scrutiny committee that the difficulties the city faced meant there would be no new money for social care.

He added: “Improving services for children at risk is now the council’s number one priority, above all others. Our first priority is to address front line safeguarding services.

“There will be other priorities of lesser importance where we have to suspend work in order to address the issues faced by Ofsted.

“We have to consider some things that would never have been considered in the past. There will be tensions and it will be extremely controversial.”

He would not talk about possible changes, adding: “These are very sensitive issues and I do not want scare stories running in the media. We need to be given the time and space to think the unthinkable.”

Director of Children’s Services, Colin Tucker, disclosed that some social workers in Birmingham have been handling as many as 55 cases at any one time far more than many other local authorities. In Coventry, social workers deal with no more than 20 at a time.