Monday 26 May 2014

State of the County - Children's Services

If someone really wanted to make mischief, they could point to children’s Services as a reason why the County Council needs committees – because it has an unsatisfactory OFSTED report hanging over it; they would be wrong and absolutely mischievous to do so though. Children’s Services is in a good place in Cambridgeshire with huge leaps and bounds having been made in the last few years.

The OFSTED report (two years ago now) came about for two reasons – one because of a high number of agency social workers in one team, which the Council had already addressed prior to OFSTED visiting and because of IT issues. The truth is the widely held view outside of the County was that the judgement by OFSTED was harsh but, in typical fashion, the County Council chose to take it on the chin and use it positively instead of fighting against it (and we could have challenged it). Certainly on my visits to Social Workers before I handed over leadership of the Council, the IT problem had become less and less of an issue. There are still huge leaps and bounds to be made around IT and social work, but they revolve around sharing of data with the wider public sector in order to better raise awareness of the vulnerable children’s circumstances – and that is a National issue, not a Cambridgeshire one.

We have not been afraid to be bold in Cambridgeshire, a few years ago we began a move to a different model of managing social work (known as the Unit Model) and it has been a huge success, not least because the structure allows for sharing of knowledge around casework. I sat in on a weekly meeting of social workers where this was happening and it was incredibly powerful.

The big danger with Social Care in the County is around political responsibility for safeguarding. The law requires that Councils who have responsibility for Children’s Social Care must have a politician designated as Lead member for Children. In the past this has been the Cabinet Member – and in that role he has taken political responsibility for the safety of our children, liaising with outside bodies, with the Chair of the Local Safeguarding Children’s board etc. that person is also the politician whose neck is on the line if safeguarding procedures fail. Under a committee system you could argue that this is the role of the Chairman of the Children’s committee – but is it? How can someone take personal responsibility for safeguarding when they have no executive authority? If there are issues, it would be difficult to hold them personally to account when they are only allowed to act on the will of the committee. The public would absolutely want clear accountability if the system failed, what they will get is a cloudy and unclear response - it will come across as politicians dodging accountability rather than taking responsibility. More importantly, that personal accountability really sharpens the mind and thinking of the Lead Member for Children – the lack of it has the potential to have the opposite effect.

Luckily, Cambridgeshire has the professional leadership that will ensure this does not become an issue – but that is now, what about in two, three years time as personalities change? I have still not seen anything that assures me this has been thought of in the transition to committees. Understanding and dealing with this so that the drive and innovation continues is something I believe the new Children’s committee will have to look at urgently.

Let me be clear, it is a sad fact that any Local Authority that is dealing with vulnerable children will face circumstances where awful things happen. That in itself should not be a reason for a witch-hunt, it is the underlying reasons for those awful events that matter. When I was Lead Member for children, Cambridgeshire had a number of child deaths, they are horrible to deal with – but there were two aspects that were important to me – the first is to find out why something happened, the second is to make sure that if there are lessons to be learned, they should be. One benefit we had in Cambridgeshire, to be fair, was political opposition that took a responsible attitude – that must continue.

Child deaths and serious incidents involving children are horrible to deal with. I can remember, even as Leader of the Council, receiving a telephone call about such an incident and being in tears when I put the phone down. That is one of the reasons that Children’s Social Workers are probably the profession I admire the most. They are a great, hugely conscientious group who take on massive responsibilities. I wish the public and the media would admire social workers more


Saturday 24 May 2014

UKIP Chair of Adults Committee claims people with mental illness should not be Councillors

A few days ago Wisbech Town Councillor Steve Tierney, whilst participating in a Council meeting, tried to film UKIP Councillor Alan Lay who had turned up in his capacity as a County Councillor to address the meeting. The mayor of Wisbech (wrongly in my view) asked Steve to stop filming, Steve, of course, complied with the request and stopped.

As Steve has reported on his blog, that incident has resulted in three complaints to Fenland District Council's Monitoring Officer. That in itself is astonishing. But even more so is the wording of the complaint from UKIP County Councillor Paul Clapp, which includes the following line:

"if this is how Cllr Tierney gets his kicks then in my oppinion he is mentally ill and should not be a part of Wisbech Town Council."

Councillor Clapp has recently been appointed as Chairman of the County Council's Adults Committee, which will have responsibility for dealing the Council's services to vulnerable adults, many of whom will have mental health issues. I do not consider his comments to be appropriate in any sense (even if they are expressed as an opinion). It demeans mental health as an issue and also bizzarely includes a suggestion that someone with mental illness is not fit to be a Town Councillor - should someone with such a view be chairing the Adults committee?

Let me be plain here. If, when I was leader of the County Council, my Cabinet Member for Adults had used this quote, I would have sacked him. Unfortunately, the new system at Cambridgeshire does not allow the leader to do this.

I accept that Cambridgeshire is under a new system of governance now. But everyone involved in that system has to also accept that the move to committees is controversial and therefore, in the early stages, everything possible should be done to ensure public confidence in it; I cannot see how the public can have confidence in an Adults committee with Councillor Clapp as Chairman, he should resign. If he doesn't he should be told to resign by his group leader.

I have submitted a complaint about Councillor Clapp's comments to the County Council's monitoring officer. Inevitably submitting that complaint leaves me open to "tit for tat" accusations. But this is not about that, I have complained because I have serious concerns about a misunderstanding of the seriousness of mental health in our country. Left unchallenged, this sort of inappropriate language from people who should know better heightens that misunderstanding.


Thursday 22 May 2014

UPDATE: Sainsbury Gets Final Approval?

UPDATE:  I have now had it confirmed from the team that led for Sainsbury on the planning side of the development that this is correct and that the judge has rejected the possible judicial review.

The words "totally without merit" were used.  He also ordered Harrier to pay Fenland District Council's legal costs.

Technically, Harrier/Tesco have the right to take this latest decision to the Court of Appeal.  However, given the strength of the judge's words (and the awarding of costs) I would put money on this not happening.


If what I am hearing this morning is right, it seems that the judge has dismissed the potential judicial review against the Sainsbury application on the grounds that it is without merit (or something similar).

I will update when I have this formally confirmed, but, if true, this is the final step - it means that there is nothing to stop Sainsbury and their team getting on and building our supermarket and our country park.

From a personal perspective - I am absolutely delighted with this. It has always been clear to me that Sainsbury had the best planning offer, provided the best scheme for Whittlesey and had local popular support.  Common sense has won the day.  More importantly, the majority view of local residents has won through.

My insides are doing a little jig this morning.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

State of the County – Adult Social Care

Adult Social Care is, arguably, the County’s biggest problem. Let’s get it straight, everything we see suggests we are doing the right things, but It accounts for over 40% of our total spend, an amount that is set to increase because we have a growing county where people are living longer (which is a good thing).

I do believe that Adult Social care and Children’s Service are probably the lest contentious areas of the council going forwards, they are the areas where we have the most consensus around decision-making. But that could change.

There is some huge change needed in Adult Social Care, primarily doing more to allow people to live longer in their own homes rather than relying on hospitals and care homes. To make this happen there is going to need to be a real change in thinking, and a significant blurring of the lines between the NHS and Adult Social Care, with GPs potentially taking a much more pivotal role. The committee system makes this complex – who takes responsibility for making it happen? The Health Committee? The Adults Committee? Or maybe we should just leave it to the Health and Wellbeing Board? With a Cabinet system, there was one body that pulled all this together(arguably this didn’t include the H&WB board, but there was always aCabinet Member with Executive authority sat on it). You could argue that where situations were this complex, it should be the role of the overarching General Purposes Committee – but it has been decided that the GPC will not have a decision-making role in Cambridgeshire.

One of the things I am most proud of in Cambridgeshire is the Community Navigator programme.

It is something I had a huge role in making happen in the County after hearing about the success of other schemes in the country. But, I am convinced this would, at best, have taken an age to get through the committee system. The point about schemes like this is that they are hard to find research evidence that shows their likely success, the evidence comes from getting out and seeing what is going on elsewhere in the country, and looking at case studies. As a cabinet member, I could drive forward this issue having seen it first hand – 17 committee members will not have been able to do that – and the lack of research evidence would have been an issue for some could have, at best, seriously slowed down the introduction of our community Navigators scheme.

Finally, I want to say this. Adult Social Care is an extremely complex area of business – it has intricate links with outside bodies, complex internal structures, because it is multifaceted, and it has a challenging financial position. Whoever takes on the Chairman’s role must have the ability to get underneath this complexity and must be capable of real depth of thought. There is a danger that the Chairman will be appointed simply as part of a numbers game. That would be a mistake – especially when you consider the serious safeguarding implications of getting it wrong.

Friday 9 May 2014

State of the County - Part 1

As I stand down as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and move to the backbenches, I thought I would end my term of office with a series of articles which highlight where I think Cambridgeshire is on a service by service basis and explain the concerns about why the change of direction forced on the Council is not good for you, the Cambridgeshire resident.

But I am going to start with an oversight of where we are from a whole Council perspective, but focussing on the dangers going forwards.

I can’t comment on the corporate view of the County Council without including comment on the move to a committee system of governance. My view has always been that the decision to implement committees as the response to moving to no overall control was wrong and that a review of structures with a more open view based on “what is right for Cambridgeshire” was the right one. The decision to move to committees was made at the first full council meeting after May’s election with 39 out of 69 councillors newly elected – more than half of the council had no experience of working in a County Council under cabinets or committees. In those circumstances nobody could convince a reasonable person that it was a well thought out decision, but it was one that, practically, ties us to a committee system for five years. So, if it doesn’t work, a decision made in haste without any depth of thought leaves you the council tax payer stuck with a failing system for the next five years.

I am now clearer than I have ever been that a move to committees is no longer supported by the majority of the council. I have had many opposition councillors tell me over the last year that they now realise the early decision was wrong ( incidentally this includes councillors from every single political group in Cambridgeshire County Council). But a less informed, less well advised decision has won the day.

Now if Cambridgeshire was in a mess, then there would be some merit in a move to a different system, but it isn’t. Nobody is perfect but the only area we are really struggling with is the cuts agenda, and that is because of circumstances forced on us and not because of internal failings. Whilst I do have an issue with the disproportionate way local Government has been treated, we are clearly more efficient as result of the austerity agenda. There are very few, if any measures that say Cambridgeshire is in a bad place. Here is some information, that demonstrates we are in a good place:

1. Cambridgeshire’s local Government is the lowest spending per head of population and per household in the East of England

2. Local Government Association evidence shows that, compared to other councils, we are struggling financially with the cuts agenda, but that the difficult decisions we have made in the last few years mean things are looking better moving forwards.

3. Cambridgeshire’s Peer Challenge, held in the last year, described Cambridgeshire as “premier league” but also as a very, very lean authority in terms of its management structure; a good, efficient organisation that if anything, has gone too far in taking out senior staff to reduce costs.

Interestingly, one of the the main concerns in the Peer Review was the very low level of our reserves. Despite that evidence and the fact that we have one of the lowest levels of reserves compared to other local authorities (331st out of 336) there is still huge resistance from some of our opposition when it co es to addressing it. That reluctance to bite the bullet could cost us dear. If we have, say, an adult social care crisis that forces an overspend that exceeds our reserves we could be in a position where we are technically bankrupt. As we take increasingly difficult financial decisions, that sort of scenario becomes more and more likely.

In other posts I will go through other areas where we stand out service by service. But, part of the reason we have been successful is that Cabinet Governance combines three powerful things:

1. The ability to give executive authority to Councillors. Something that is not allowed in a committee system and effectively means that the most senior Councillors cannot make decisions and therefore there is an inevitable transfer of power to officers – there is less political control in a committee system, not more.

2. A system of scrutiny (potentially combined with other structures) that holds decision makers within the council to account and ensures advice and guidance to help deliver the process. At the same time it retains clear accountability about where the decision making rests. When bad decisions are made under a committee system, that accountability becomes cloudy. Under a committee system you, the electorate, will have less understanding of why and how decisions have been made, not more.

3. Under a well managed Cabinet System when a decision is made, every single Cabinet Member will have had the ability to challenge and fine tune decisions, through listening to scrutiny and other members, but also by responding to member and public challenge, by asking questions of officers and making improvements to recommendations well before decisions are actually made. So, a Cabinet of 9 makes decisions where every one of those 9 has had an element of intricacy with the underlying issues. Under the committee system we will be using from May 13th, of the 17 members who sit on a particular committee and who will be voting you can only guarantee that 4 or 5 people will have had anything approaching that same intimacy with a decision. The first time the majority of the committee will have challenged and questioned officers will be at the meeting where they are required to vote and actually make a decision. Many times Councillors will have had a party whip applied before they have had the opportunity to properly debate an issue in public.

Ask yourself a question. What is more important to you, the quality of decisions or the number of people that stick their hands up when the decision is made? Cabinet is far more of a guarantee of the former, committees the latter – and that is not just because of who the cabinet members are but because functions like scrutiny and, potentially, policy development groups support the process . The lack of scrutiny and in depth challenge is one of the reasons why, when Cambridgeshire last had a committee system, its Adult Social Services was put into special measures by Government.

Despite all I have said here – I believe that committees could work if the mindset of councillors was geared up to a change in their approach and thinking. But, the evidence from this year says that this hasn’t happened. In fact the political group that has changed the most over the last year has been the Conservatives. As an example, one thing I am proud of having achieved is an ability to separate the important from the less important; as a result the Conservatives have far less whipped votes than previously (a part of my own personal philosophy about improving politics and democracy). But, at the same time, we have maintained our ability to focus on the long term interests of Cambridgeshire – the sort of focus that has got us into such a good position (preventative policies, A14, City Deal and Wisbech to March Rail are perfect examples of this).

This is my biggest concern. The next two biggest political groups under the Conservatives are very short term in the way they behave – albeit for slightly different reasons. The Lib Dems are primarily interested in what they can say in their next leaflet – irrespective of the long term interests of Cambridgeshire. A great example is their obsession with selling Shire Hall which would generate, at best, £8.5m as a one-off receipt, but would increase the running costs of the Council and cost us more in the medium term. The Lib Dems have been shown clear, far more beneficial alternatives – but this one looks better in their leaflets, so it’s this one they stick with.

UKIP on the other hand are primarily interested in doing everything they can to promote UKIP Nationally, irrespective of what local damage they do. A great example here is the TB outbreak in the County. TB outbreaks in Britain are not unknown and Public Health England are experienced at dealing with them. When the UKIP group leader found out about the outbreak his immediate response was a press release that was all about trying to get National recognition for UKIP in exposing the outbreak and accusing others of secrecy – this claim of secrecy ignored the fact that the UKIP councillor in the Electoral Division where the outbreak happened was fully briefed weeks before His so-called press reveal (the local councillor is, by the way, a good Councillor who I have a lot of respect for). The most disturbing part of the press release was a claim that TB could be spread from touching contaminated fruit – there is absolutely no foundation to that claim and it forced local businesses, fearing for their reputation, to put out denials. UKIP in Cambridgeshire are a party willing to mislead you the electorate and see businesses suffer in order to further its National aims. Their desire to move to committees is about UKIP’s national interests, not your interests as a resident.

If, under the committee system, this short-term thinking sits behind decision making, Cambridgeshire has a problem. Cambridgeshire is not perfect, but it is recognised as being efficient, low spending and high performing – why risk that for a system that reduces political power, increases risk and weakens decision making?