The dust had barely settled after this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council when a formal notice appeared on the council's website announcing that a public interest report from the Public Services Ombudsman would appear in due course.
Public interest reports are rare and all the more serious for that. Most concern failings by local health boards, with the most recent public interest report on a council being published in February 2012. That was about Cardiff City Council. Carmarthenshire was the subject of another report just before that in January 2012, giving our county council the distinction of being the only Welsh council to have been the subject of two public interest reports by the Ombudsman in the last three years.
Not to mention the council's unique distinction of being the subject of not one but two public interest reports by the Wales Audit Office last year.
The substance of this latest case is the way the council responded to concerns raised about the welfare of a four year old child who had moved to Carmarthenshire from England with her mother and her mother's new partner. The two adults were known to be drug addicts, and both apparently suffered from mental health problems, with suggestions of domestic violence.
The council's inadequate response echoes catastrophic failings by other local authorities which led to the death of Baby P and a string of other horrific cases. The best that can be said is that Carmarthenshire was lucky this time that the child was eventually returned to her father, and the mother and her partner moved on.
The first concerns were raised by the child's father, the social services department of Warwickshire and, eventually, Dyfed Powys Police following a drugs raid. Here is what the Ombudsman found:
The Ombudsman found that the Council failed to carry out a home visit and missed a number of opportunities to investigate Mr Y’s concerns about the family’s circumstances, which included a number of risk factors. Instead it relied on information from the school, where his daughter was a new pupil. It also failed to investigate properly a referral made from an English County Council’s Children’s Social Services Team where the concerns were similar to those raised by Mr Y and where an “urgent welfare check” was requested. It was several months before the home was visited and this was only after a referral from the police following a drugs raid. An assessment of the child’s needs was not carried out before the child left the Council’s area to return to Mr Y’s care.
The report says that the council has accepted the Ombudsman's findings, is reviewing its procedures and providing appropriate staff training. However, the document suggests that the extent to which the council has taken this criticism on board is open to question.
Here is the substance of the council's response:
In its response to me the Council said that appropriate enquiries were made in reply to Mr Y’s concerns about his daughter’s living arrangements and welfare. It said that attempts were made to obtain the completed IA from Warwickshire and the mother and school had been contacted, when no child protection concerns were identified. When responding to Mr Y the Council said that in the circumstances a home visit was not considered justified.
So while the council is not contesting the report, it does not appear to accept that there was anything wrong with its response.
The events covered by the report took place in 2012, and the Ombudsman's report was published on 8 January. This was just a fraction too late to make it on to the agenda of the council's monthly meeting which took place on 14 January.
For reasons which are not clear, the council waited until 16 January to publish a notice advising all and sundry that it was going to have to publish the Ombudsman's report. Why there was a delay in publishing the report is not known. Also unclear is why the council did not flag the fact that it had received the report until after the meeting of the full council.
This timing is particularly questionable because the meeting of the full council on 14 January considered the annual report of the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) on Carmarthenshire's care and social services for vulnerable adults, the elderly and children.
The CSSIW report was very upbeat and positive. In fact, if you read its conclusions, it is hard to imagine what more could have been said in praise of the council's services (words highlighted by editor):
The council continues to benefit from strong
leadership across both children and adult services, senior officers have
a clear vision and are implementing plans effectively to ensure people
living in Carmarthenshire who require social care services have a better
quality of life. The evidence available confirms that the council
continues to prioritise the provision of social care services and that
its plans remain ambitious despite the financial constraints that it
faces. Its budgets are well managed.
The council has implemented a number of innovative
projects and has provided evidence of a range of positive outcomes
which have been delivered through its strategic transformation of
services. It has signalled its intention to put people in control of
the services they receive and to support more people to live independent
lives. It is seeking to reduce dependency on its services by
strengthening support in communities.
The council’s annual performance report has been
structured to reflect the key components of the Social Services and
Well-being (Wales) Act. It is clear that it will be in a strong position
to deliver services within the new legislative framework. The council
has set out how it will deliver services that demonstrate improved
commissioning and integration of services, where the well being and the
voice of citizens will be at the centre of service delivery.
And there is much more in the same vein, and no mention of any investigations or reports or even an oblique reference to the need for the council to improve its response when child protection issues are raised, even though the council and the Ombudsman had been in discussion for months prior to publication. An interesting question is what, if anything, the CSSIW knew about all of this and why it failed to say anything.
In other words, the council went ahead with a review of the very positive CSSIW report even though it was sitting on a damning report from the Public Services Ombudsman which sheds a very different light on aspects of the council's services.
If the CSSIW did not know about the case, why didn't it? If it did know about the case, why did it go on to write a report praising the council? What exactly is the CSSIW for?
For all who have been following events in Carmarthenshire in recent years, the latest case has all of the familiar ingredients: refusal to accept criticism ("we responded appropriately") and what looks very much like careful manipulation of the timing of news releases.