The watchdog carried out a full two-week inspection of children’s social care services in Luton from January 13 to 24 and published its report last Monday.
The inspection team graded the department “Inadequate” and criticisms included:
> Recruitment and retention of social workers, with staff turnover “still too high”.
> The Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) failing to identify risks and needs for children who need protection.
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> Continuing shortage of foster carers, with too many children living at a distance from family and friends.
The report stated: “Poor decision-making, delay and a failure to take decisive and authoritative action ... mean that some children are left in unassessed or in harmful situations for too long.
“Too many children experience frequent changes of social worker.”
Cllr David Franks, leader of the Lib Dems on the council, said the ruling Labour Party had known of the problems as far back as April 2017, when a scrutiny task group found 26% of the council’s social workers were employed via agencies.
A further update in June 2018 said this percentage had increased to 41.6% and a report in April 2019 stated it was 32.7%.
Cllr Franks said: “The Labour councillors in charge of this vital service have no right to be surprised at the judgement Ofsted has handed down.
“Far from improving following the 2017 recommendations, they have allowed the situation to get worse. The Ofsted report says some services for children have declined since the last inspection.”
These comments were strongly opposed by children’s portfolio holder, Cllr Mahmood Hussain.
Cllr Hussain said: “This is nothing to do with party politics. There is a shortage of social workers nationally in every part of the country, even in Dover which has been rated ‘Outstanding’.
“Most local authorities have kept their agency staff down to 25–30%, and we’ve managed to recruit 12 agency workers on to our permanent staff.
“It’s a very difficult job, I would say they work harder than anyone I know. They are very dedicated and involved with the children’s lives. To make it party political seems absolutely ridiculous to me.
“Look at other authorities run by Tories, Labour and Lib Dems and you see they are all suffering from a shortage of social workers. I’m very optimistic we’ll be able to recruit more and persuade agency staff to cross over, there are more benefits for them to work as permanent staff.
“We are talking about vulnerable children, we should take our corporate responsiblity seriously and not use it to score political points.”
But Lib Dem leader Cllr Franks added: “The council has a duty to protect vulnerable children and ensure the team of social workers is skilled, competent and dedicated.
“The problem is with so many of them being agency workers is that staff turnover is much too high. There is an urgent job to be done to achieve some stability, that means shifting the balance in favour of directly employed social workers.
“For the sake of our young people this is a job which must be done, and Liberal Democrat councillors are ready to help.”
A NSPCC spokesman stated: “It is disappointing to see Ofsted’s report which highlights the council’s slow progress in dealing with the watchdog’s previous concerns and it is clear that further work is swiftly needed.
“It is vital that the safety and wellbeing of children in Luton is an absolute priority and that those young people at risk receive the right help and support to protect them from harm.
“We would urge any adult worried about a child to call the NSPCC’s Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Children can call Childline on 0800 1111.”