Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Children's Service's in Northamptonshire inadequate OFSTED grading

The Council’s inadequate grading of it’s children’s services by OFSTED is deeply disappointing primarily for those that use the service but also for those that work so very hard in extremely challenging working conditions in the service. Northamptonshire County Council runs one of the most expensive children’s services departments in the country and is currently heading to a £6.3 million overspend in that single department. With some sections running at extremely high levels of agency workers, (particularly the section that it responsible for initial responses to those citizens needing childrens services called the First Response Teams). These teams are running between 60 -88% agency staff, some with no permanent social workers. This together with a failure to achieve savings by recruiting social workers from overseas or to get agency workers to convert to full time social workers results in not only inadequate but very costly services. The Council is being told that the route for a stable and well skilled workforce is by acquiring something nebulously termed a “Career Pathway”. This is entirely uncosted and doesn’t seem to address the fact that the council does not pay as much or offer similar or better terms and conditions. It seems strange that the Career pathway is not juxtaposed as a strategy to returning to national pay, terms and conditions for staff as an alternative approach. This would not be something that difficult to cost, so why not?

After last months cabinet, Councillor heard from discussions with council staff and council commissioners that there were four new senior management posts being created in Childrens Services. This was not in the budget passed in the spring and it is unclear whether this is in the £6.3 million overspend. The OFSTED report is being presented to cabinet with one of the briefest papers I have ever seen also including a hazy statement under consultation and scrutiny:

“ This report will be reviewed through this structure as appropriately determined. “

There is no clarity as to the plan to improvement and no statement of the four new senior management positions on £100,000 a year and their role to taking the council to a better Children’s Service department.

Although in a previous Overview and Scrutiny meeting, the existing Director of Children’s Services has stated unequivocally that she accepts the findings of the OFSTED report, there is still a sense that this statement is not owned by the department as a whole. Three days before the OFSTED report was published at a time when senior officers would have had some idea of the impending OFSTED decision, I attended a Corporate Parenting Board meeting. At the meeting there were a number of slick presentations and some very gritty input from care leavers living in new supported accommodation in Northampton assisting them to move on to independence. However, one of the most shocking things in the report is the practise of the department in placing some of those in local authority care in “unregulated placements that are unsafe and unsuitable”. Some of my constituents have asked whether this practice has increased in the move to “Next Generation Council” ways of working. I have asked questions on this but have been unable to get an answer to date. It is also still unclear why this particular fact has not in the past few months been brought to the Corporate Parenting Board, particularly in the light of a dedicated Children’s Scrutiny Committee being abolished last year. Portfolio holder, Fiona Baker admitted that the Corporate Parenting Board should have coonsidered  this but were not provided with the opportunity to do so.

This time two years ago, the highly critical LGA peer review of Northamptoshire County Council was published. Although it was distributed to Councillors there was no content in the covering paper expressing an analysis of the report or a strategy of dealing with the findings. This was highlighted in  the spring 2018 Government Inspectors report by Max Caller report. After the report was published there was much baring of the administration’s soul about lessons being learnt. Yet here we ware again with a independent highly critical report, not given the consideration it deserves and not giving Councillors the detail to effectively contribute to the governance literally is a matter or life and death to some of our most vulnerable children.

It seems that Councillors (or maybe it is just opposition councillors) are being kept at arms length. Sad when there is so much more we could contribute.

If you want a change in the way things are done and a better Northamptonshire, for the many not the few, take a look at this and consider donating.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Northamptonshire County Council cabinet - July 2019

Over the last few months there have been considerable changes in the Northamptonshire County Council. As with the rest of life this is a mixture of positives and negatives.

Shortly after the implementation of the first section 114 (effective declaration of bankruptcy), Council meeting ceased to be webcast. This has now be re-instated and makes decision making considerable more transparent. The Council's scrutiny committees, which were aligned with the Councils directorates, were scrapped to have one single overview and scrutiny committee in the autumn. On the positive side, for the first time in fourteen years, (since the administration took control) the chair and one of the vice chair positions were given to opposition councillors. At the beginning of the year, the administration decided that the only councillors that could speak at cabinet would be portfolio holders, the leader and one speaker from each political group. This has the impact of making it quite difficult for back bench councillors to get their voice heard. As a mitigation to this, councillors are now allowed to put questions to portfolio holders on the content of the cabinet papers. These are generally responded to on the day of cabinetvery shortly before the cabinet meetings,  and neither the questions nor the answers are published.

For the cabinet due to take place on Tuesday 9th July, I have submitted the following questions:

I am concerned about the Council’s compliance with the equality act in respect of paying due regard to equality when making decisions.
For this cabinet not one cabinet paper has been equality impact assessed despite two key decisions being made. The administration has repeatedly stressed that it is committed to ensuring that the practice of the Council is of a high standard and delivering good results for all Northamptonshire’s communities. However, I am concerned that there is not transparency in decision making and the way that this impacts the diversity in local communities.

Do cabinet members agree or disagree with this? If they disagree can they advise how they are paying due regard to equality in their decision making?

There has been a drastic change to the senior management structure of the organisation and a massive reduction in specialists in the authority over the course of the administration’s tenure. These posts would have critically provided support to this kind of analysis to assist cabinet members in taking decisions. I put it that the administration is not paying due regard to equality and this is in breach of legislative requirements.

Do cabinet members agree or disagree with this? Can cabinet member advise how they are getting advice on the equality impact on key decisions and advise how that is documented?

On the establishment of minor works budget for maintained schools, Over the last few years staff have raising in the CCNF concern about the information available relating to asbestos in schools. From the information given by officers event within local authority supported schools there is no clear picture as to the need for action on Asbestos in schools. This is of sufficient priority that not one but all the unions have voiced concern about this. Given this maybe the nature of the activity undertaken it would be salient to ensure that there was an analysis to ensure that decisions about what to under take and where were informed by an Equality Impact Assessment.

Given that this is a key decisions I believe to demonstrate due regard to equality and EqIA is necessary.

 Do cabinet members agree or disagree with this? Can cabinet member advise how they are getting advice on the equality impact on key decisions and advise how that is documented?

4. Corporate Performance Report 2018-19 quarter 4

I express concern about the increase in permanent exclusions

I express concern about the increase in electively home educated children

I express concern about Delayed Transfers of Care (DTOC)
Can the cabinet member provide an analysis of the age/gender/race/disability breakdown of this?

I express concern about the reduction in referrals to Children’s Social Care and reductions in rate of child protection plans
What action is the cabinet member undertaking to address the causes of this?

No response was received before the meeting although one cabinet member (Cllr Fiona Baker - Childrens services portfolio holder) did assure me that she would email a lengthy response. 

You can view the Cabinet meeting here.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Are you voting in the Co-operatives of the year awards?

Co-operatives UK Have announced their shortlist for the Co-operatives of the year awards.
The categories include:
Leading Co-operative of the year
Inspiring Co-operative of the year
Co-operative Council of the year
Co-operator of the year.

Voting is open until Friday 21st June and is open to anyone.
You can find more about voting here

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Are you in or have children in Abbeyfield, Northampton Academy, Northampton International Academy, Northampton School for Girls, Duston School and Thomas Becket Catholic School

At the Northamptonshire County Council Cabinet meeting on 9th April 2019 a decision is being taken to spend nearly £2 million on additional school places.
An additional 30 places will be in each of Abbeyfield, Lings Academy, Duston School and Thomas of Becket. There will be an additional 20 places in Northampton School for Girls and an additional 60 places will be hosted in Northampton International Academy.
The Council accepts that creating more school places in this way is not good value for money and will not create the best environment for all the places. Northampton International School will go from being a ten form entry (ten classes 28-30 of new students coming into the school every year) to an eyewatering 12 form entry school.
Of course, the need for additional places in Northampton has been predicted for over five years. It is generally accepted that the town requires an additional two secondary schools. However, because the decisions were not taken at the right time in the last few years, the Council is having to take this expensive and poor solution. This is all the more critical since the council has only just got it’s finances under control after effectively declaring itself bankrupt twice last year.
So who’s fault is it? What Education portfolio holder failed to ensure the very basic issue of enough school places in Northampton was addressed an action which is a statutory requirement for the Council?
Would it be a surprise to find out the Councillor who failed to act to ensure that there were enough places for every child to be educated in the town is the Councillor who is now leading the Council.
As Councillors are no longer allowed to speak in Cabinet meeting unless appointed by their group, I submitted a question about the failure to consult over the Equality Impact Assessment that is meant to inform the decision. You can find the question and response (which doesn’t seem to address the question) here.
It seems incredible that such a serious decision affecting so many schools all of which are independent of the council can be taken without any consultation on the impact of equality. Over the last few years there has been the promotion of the myth that the paucity of school places is as a result of immigration. This is a clear illustration that the paucity of school places is as a result of poor management of public services and poor policy making.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Care at Night Night, Pay us Right

Austerity means difficult decisions and tough choices. With local authorities having faced massive cuts from government, many of these tough choices are being passed on to community and voluntary sector organisations who have had contracts with local councils. In general, these contracts provide essential services to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

Care support workers employed by the Alternative Futures Group (AFG) in the north west of England face the same experience in different conditions. UNISON members have voted overwhelmingly to take strike action in a ballot over the employer’s decision to cut back on sleep-in top-up payments. However, whilst enforcing these wage cuts AFG has has made wage cut despite no cuts in the resourcing that they get from those that purchase their service.

With many workers set of lose thousands in their pay over their employers decisions to not pay the national minimum wage for sleep-ins, UNISON members have shown their strength of feeling by voting 87% in favour of striking, in a turnout that met the threshold for lawful industrial action to take place. 

You can read more about the dispute here

You can donate to the campaign here.

You can send a message of support by tweeting @AfgPay

UNISON Members need a leadership 

• That will put our members’ interest at the top of the UNISON agenda
• That will use the full force of UNISON resources to stand up for our members and
     services against cuts, privatisation and attacks on our NHS
• That will leave no branch to fight alone

If you are a UNISON member, find out more about voting for a union leadership that support you click here.


Saturday, 23 February 2019

Members of the Public Expressing Opinions - Protest or abuse

“... the Tory county council has been fanatical about cuts, privatisation & outsourcing for some years”

This is Tony Banks. As a member of the public he registered to speak at the Budget setting Council meeting on Thursday 21st February. He had to do this two days in advance and attend the Council meeting until he was called. You can see the meeting here.  Tony can been seen making his statement here

At 10.50 of the first film, the Council chairman specifically states that that he wants "people to be able to make their points freely without any disruption from anyone else". But in spite of the Chairman’s request, Tony was interrupted by the Tory Leader of the Council, Cllr Matt Golby, who objected to him using the words "Zealot" and "Fantasist".  

After the meeting, Tony said “I used the word zealots for the reason that the Tory county council has been fanatical about cuts, privatisation & outsourcing for some years. Zealots are fanatical & the Tories were fanatical .They would not listen, to opponents or unions. When Osborne/Cameron announced Austerity, not only did they jump but they asked -how high can we jump? They tore up national union agreements despite warnings that a staff retention crisis would occur as a result.”

Since I started a Twitter poll on the merits or otherwise of Cllr Golby's actions, a number of Conservative Councillors have cited Tony's actions as "disruptive" and "abuse".

Here are some of the responses from other members of the public:

"Like it or not.. whatever words he uses.. he’s right on the nail.. and that’s why they’re angry.."

"lt beats me why the sudden sensitivity. The word zealot as verbal abuse when local Tories support policies, cuts and Universal Credit while people are literally starving, homeless and being driven to suicide? If that isn't the fanaticism of zealots I don't know what is. "

As I understand the comments were not aimed at individuals. If he had said "this government" instead of "Tory" it would have meant exactly the same, but you absolutely could not be accusing him of abuse.  Check yourselves on the words you use against those that disagree with you.

If I were to respond to your unpleasant and unfounded accusations, de facto attack lines for austerity apologists, I would no doubt be accused of abusive and bullying behaviour - a fall-back argument also used ad nauseam

Other members of public have reminded me of the recent standards spat between now ex-councillor Heather Smith, Councillors Robin Brown and Jason Smithers. Cllr Smithers used such choice phrases as 

“This sucks Cllr Robin Brown you have been asleep at the controls. Your (sic) about as much use as a condom with a hole in it. #failedleadership” 


“@LeaderNCC cllr Smith why don’t you just throw in the towel just go before you cause anymore damage to the reputation of the council. You and some members of your cabinet have failed. I hope that the SFO is brought in to investigate your conduct. #failedleadership”. 

The report that the Council considered on this can be viewed here.

Cllr Jason Smithers repeatedly "denied that the comments made were offensive" as can be seen in the standards report here.

As a result of the spat, all County Councillors have been required to attend refresher training on the "Code of Conduct" for councillors. At the training it was emphasised that the conduct of councillors "are expected to maintain higher level of conduct and responsibility than private citizens". 

However, it seems that the bar for members of the public is set at a much higher level than that some Tory Councillors set for themselves. 

You maybe asking yourself why do I think this is important? Well, there have been several measures that have been taken that have had the effect of discouraging the public from commenting on business. These have included the cessation (now reinstated) of the live streaming of Council meeting and the placing of members of the public outside of the Council chamber to view the live stream. 

The participation of the public in Council meetings adds a fresh perspective to decision making and statements like Tony's are the embodiment of practicing Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, 

"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."

I have written before on the poor record of Northamptonshire County Council in promoting involvement in the budget consultation, only setting one meeting open to the public on the budget as an afterthought when Labour Councillors drew this to the administration's attention.

If you are on twitter and would like to vote in my Twitter poll you can find it here

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Kingsley Park and Links View Residents Association - A chance for lasting change

A really great part of being a local Councillor is working with other Councillors in the area to get real lasting change a benefit for the people we are meant to serve. Very soon after my election, Cllr Cathrine Russell pulled together an initial meeting of the Kingsley Park and Links View Residents Association. The groups has now been set up with a brand spanking new constitution. The group hopes to provide a forum for local residents and businesses to work together for the benefit of the area. As a local Councillor it’s a real help to have a group of local people who are passionate about where they live and have opinions about how changes that local councils can make, can improve life for local people.

The group are keen to get more local people involved and in particular want to involve people in the Links View Area. They are having their next meeting on 17th January in the Pioneer Pub, Fulford Dr, Northampton NN2 7NU at 7.30pm. If you cannot make the meeting please visit their website, and like them on facebook.