Care Inspectorate Wales say “concerns have escalated from serious to significant” over Council’s children’s services
Care Inspectorate Wales say “concerns have escalated from serious to significant” over children’s services provided by Wrexham Council.
Last week councillors had two opportunities to examine a letter from Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW) which highlighted the concerns.
The letter from August 3rd (viewable viewable here in full) covers a performance review of Wrexham Council’s social services functions between April 2019 – March 2020.
In the letter, CIW said:
During the last year, CIW’s concerns have escalated from serious to significant in relation to children’s services. Wrexham County Borough Council’s performance information over the last year has indicated that key areas of performance have declined across areas of safeguarding practice.
At the improvement conference held in May 2019, CIW was assured that progress was being made through positive performance information, staff appointments, and reduced workload. This has not been sustained.
A CIW file review of a vulnerable young person identified a number of areas of concern in relation to safety and well-being.
Through CIW’s performance evaluation activity we have stressed the urgent need for change in the culture of children’s services to ensure transparency and accountability of all staff working in the service, ensuring children are at the centre of practice and decision making.
The CMHT inspection identified delays in responding to people, from point of referral to when people’s circumstances were assessed. This means that people with acute mental health problems may deteriorate or relapse and consequently their needs may not met in a timely manner. This is a key practice area for Wrexham County Borough Council and Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board to address.
Questions from councillors revealed that the chief executive moved his desk to the department in an immediate response, and perhaps an indication to the seriousness of the issues raised, and in a wider move Wrexham Council introduced an “Accelerated Improvement Action Plan”, supported by an additional £1 million of investment.
A new chief officer has also been brought in, along with a new senior head of service. Two further heads of services, seven team managers and three social workers have also been appointed in the last six months with the aim of improving the service drastically. Five more social workers are in the process of being hired, and more recruitment is underway.
Wrexham Council say the permanent appointments are part of a plan to “gradually reduce agency spend”.
The CIW letter was first on the agenda of the Executive Board last week, where the recently appointed Lead Member for Children’s Services Councillor Andrew Atkinson said he has been “working with the department to deliver change.”
He added: I’m proud of the work the team are doing to constantly improve the department and look after our children.
“We know though that there is much more to do, but I’m confident that the plan in place allows officers to address all of the points raised and that this is now happening.”
Grosvenor councillor Marc Jones described it as an “escalation of concerns” and that he councillors have asked “privately in the past for an explanation of why things haven’t been addressed and why things have got worse.”
Cllr Jones also asked for a copy of the ‘improvement plan’ to be circulated, so the detail was known for councillors.
A ‘detailed action plan’ was referred to by a Wrexham Council officer who agreed to share and discuss with Cllr Jones, and anyone else.
Cllr Atkinson said: “I do understand exactly where you’re coming from and since I’ve become lead member, one of the things that I’ve been very keen about is opening up the service to far greater scrutiny.
“I didn’t believe there was enough scrutiny previously and I think we all benefit from that.
“I want to make sure that there’s a much greater understanding and awareness and I think through scrutiny, which is happening this week, and the task and finish group being set up, that there will be a sort of greater understanding of the service and also a greater understanding of the issues and challenges that we face because as we all know, these challenges are not going to be fixed overnight.”
Later in the week members of the Safeguarding, Communities and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee met with the letter also on it’s agenda.
Former Lead Member for Children’s Services Cllr Bill Baldwin also sits on that committee, something that created a minor issue at the start of the meeting. However Cllr Baldwin did not contribute to the debate.
The report was presented by Cllr Atkinson, along with new Chief Officer Social Care Alwyn Jones and Lead Member for People – Health and Adult Social Care Cllr Joan Lowe.
The meeting saw councillors call for answers on the frequency of monitoring meetings, if the new hires were replacing or creating new roles and whistleblowing processes to ensure any future issues surface promptly.
Cllr Atkinson said: “One of the things I’ve been keen to do since becoming lead member is to have had more scrutiny, more involvement of scrutiny, more workshops, more member engagement, and forgive me if this sounds a bit crude, but as councillors we all understand, for example, a service like environments because we see it as residents as everybody gets it.
“Children’s Services, you don’t see it and you don’t hear an awful lot about it. Unless you get as members a letter out of the blue like this from the CIW and you get it explained to you, and then the reality of the service starts to hit home.
“That’s why I’ve wanted to of open it up to everybody. So there’s a greater understand it.”
“The most natural place to start is the task and finish group, and you would look at the beginning of the process perhaps where a referral is made, and you’d understand that system as things start to come through.
“Then we’d understand case work, what happens, what is involved and why something might break down away, that might be a bit of a problem or something might not be right.”
Commenting on the Chief Executive Ian Bancroft decision to relocate his desk on the proverbial shop floor in response to the department issues, Cllr Atkinson said: “One of the things that Ian was doing to get everything in place with myself and others, was actually to try and change that culture.
“He went and based himself in that office, he would make sure that he was based there and that there was a presence and everybody knew that there was someone they could talk to.
“I think that probably feeds into your whistleblowing thing as well, if there’s a problem, you need to know who you can talk to who you can raise something with, and having the chief executive there I think was very important in that critical time.”
Cllr Atkinson said new members of senior staff were also very visible in a similar manner” “I think it’s important that they’ve chosen to base themselves in a more transparent, accessible way.
“They are seen, and they’re available. They are not just in an office tucked away, managers are there to be spoken to so problems can be raised with.”
Regarding questions on appointments and future hiring, Cllr Atkinson offered to circulate relevant documents after the meeting rather than try to explain potentially complex organisational charts verbally, adding “All those key roles are filled with permanent members of staff.
“What has been good to see, is some Wrexham people coming up through the ranks, who’ve worked up through the system here in Wrexham, to take some of those roles as well.”
It was also noted that the departments has worked to address morale issues amongst staff to “make it more attractive people to work here in Wrexham.”
Speaking about the hiring of staff and the culture impacts of agency staff, Alwyn Jones, the new chief officer for social care said: “It is important to know the recruiting in Children’s Services is traditionally a problem. It’s not just in Wrexham that it is a challenge it is nationally, not just in Wales, but in England as well.
“It was actually a slightly bigger challenge here in Wrexham, because maybe the terms and conditions which we were offering were not at the level which we would want them to.
“There are some very good agency workers, but it doesn’t engender within a team, a feeling of permanence and actually that causes a problem where you’ve got a level of agency at a social worker level, and on occasions a team manager or assistant team manager posts.”
He added: “I think it’s important to note over the course of last six months, we have moved that forward a lot. So in almost all the management posts now there are permanent individuals. We are working with a revised offer to social workers to reduce the level of agency.
“It’s not going to be an overnight cure in terms of reducing that number of agency workers and as I said, there are some really excellent agency workers but what we want is people who are committed long term.
“I say this with admiration, the work of a social worker working with children, just as there is with adults, is a very hard job. It’s a challenging environment.”
“What we’ve done to support an improved culture is actually we’ve improved the offer to those workers, and supporting staff in terms of the support they get, we put a higher level of training in place for them.”
Mr Jones also updated on the progress of appointments, adding that five Social Work appointments are “going through”.
Ruabon councillor Dana Davies said: “Alwyn (Jones) is new to the role, but we went through this in 2014-2015.
“There’s actually a chief executive independent report commissioned that you would have to look at with regards to the child and family assessment team, and I think a lot of what’s coming out now was already already highlighted in 2014-15.”
Cllr Davies also suggested that the new Task and Finish Group also look at that report and questioned why there is a “need for seven assistant team managers and seven team managers?”
Mr Jones said: “What you’ve got within the report in terms of the listed appointments are those that we’ve been successful in making. The reason there are that number of team manager and assistant team manager posts being recruited to it, because they were posts in the permanent structure that we needed permanent people within them.”
“The reason you need strong management within children’s services, that those people at the most senior levels need oversight, and they need to provide some supervision to workers so they need to have a good understanding of each individual caseworkers workload, what the crucial issues that needs to be dealt with within those caseloads so that they can give them good constructive feedback in each case.”
“I was only discussing with someone the other day where a team manager has oversight of a group of social workers who cover 200 cases, which is why it’s essential you have a assistant team managers there who support that process of oversight as well, because social workers need that level of support.”
Councillor Nigel Williams, Gwenfro ward, followed up asking: “One of the main problems to recruiting and retention was our pay levels, with other neighboring authorities paying more.
“We were told that that will be addressed as soon as possible to try and attract new people in. Has that been addressed?”
Mr Jones confirmed that pay levels have been addressed.
Questions were also asked on the cultural change within the department, with Bryn Cefn councillor Beverley Parry-Jones asking what “measures are put in place for those existing staff who need to be maybe brought along an embrace of culture change?”
Gwersyllt North councillor Phil Rees also asked how such a culture change can be measured.
Mr Jones said: “I think in terms of a very informal tool is reflections coming from staff managers, that they feel there is a culture of openness now, that things are improving.
“I think it’s very important that we reflect upon where social workers have through supervisions or other areas said, ‘I’ve got a problem with this, can I have assistance with it’, that they’re not seeking a different way to raise that concern. I think it was mentioned earlier on around whistleblowing.
“I think actually, whistleblowing is a reflection potentially that your culture is not quite right. I mean that in the nicest possible way.”
He added: “What we’re doing is putting the circumstances in place for people, so the right supervision, support and training, but there is an expectation for every worker both new both all of those who have been here before to reach that standard.
“I think we can bring the majority of the staff with us to get there, and there will be occasional time where someone doesn’t get there. We won’t hesitate to take the right steps in terms of supporting that individual either to improve over a period of time, or actually, this may not be the career for them.
“But on a positive note, my view is the vast majority of our workers, we can get that level of improvement with them to ensure that we offer the right support.”
Cllr Atkinson said: “We have got to get the pay right to keep our social workers or to attract social workers and then to keep them here in Wrexham, but I think there’s more to it than just the money.
“They’ve got to work in a culture that they’re happy and that they feel safe, valued, that they’ve got training and development opportunities.”
“I think there is a lot that can be measured as well. The proof of the pudding is when we get these new workers. It’s about our retention rate going forward to see who stays with us and how many. I think that’s probably something for the committee to sort of continually look at going forward.”
After a lengthy question and answer session the committee agreed to thank the Officers for that report and “look forward to the information we received in the task and finish group on the further improvements are made in Children’s Social Care”.
The committee also requested updates to be given ‘in a minimum of six months time’.
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