Monday 26 March 2012

Abuse of adults in Council care - what has the Council learned?

A couple of aspects of the BBC's Taro 9 programme last week are worth a closer look, namely the council's reaction to the programme and what councillors and the public at large have been told by the council about it.

The reaction to the programme while it was being made was sadly all too predictable. The council was angered by the BBC's decision to make the programme at all, even questioning why the story was being put back under the spotlight. It refused to cooperate with the programme, merely issuing a terse statement, and called the police to keep an eye on Delyth Jenkins, BBC presenter Garry Owen and the rest of the BBC crew.

What possible threat to the council or anyone else was posed by the presence of this team it is hard to imagine. Garry Owen is one of the most senior and most respected BBC journalists in Wales. Was he about to storm the day centre, or machine-gun the council offices? Just as in the Jacqui Thompson case, it seems that Dyfed Powys Police were responding to a dog whistle from the council's top brass for no good reason. Anyone else would have been charged with wasting police time.

But how should the council have reacted?

For anyone in Carmarthenshire with close friends or relatives who fall into the broad category of vulnerable adults (that includes the elderly, people with learning disabilities, those with mental illnesses, those with physical disabilities and many others in difficult circumstances), the programme was very worrying. The Delyth Jenkins story highlighted one particular case of the abuse of a vulnerable adult while in council care, and the Public Services Ombudsman made it clear that this was not an isolated incident.

What guarantees can the council give that people put into their care will not be bullied and abused in future?

Whereas the council could have cooperated with the BBC, apologised for what happened in Johnstown, explained what measures it has taken to ensure there is no repetition and gone out of its way to reassure the public, it acted instead like a dodgy builder, effectively shouting abuse at the camera before speeding off in a white van, door slamming shut.

The council's statement to the BBC boiled down to two things: this all happened a long time ago, and measures have been put into place to prevent it from happening again. That's it. Slam.

Let's start with the time line. Mrs Jenkins first witnessed abuse in 2005, and after getting nowhere with the council, she took the matter to the Public Services Ombudsman, who published his report in September 2009, i.e. just two and a half years ago.

The ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, said in the report that the authority was guilty of "catastrophic" failures in its handling of the case. At the time, the council had very little to say about the report. The assistant chief executive, Chris Burns, said:

This particular case has also been the subject of an exhaustive internal investigation and there is disciplinary action pending as a result. The authority cannot comment any further until these processes are exhausted as it might prejudice the outcome.

Slam. That was in September 2009, and the council told the BBC that the final staff issues arising from the ombudsman's report were settled as recently as several months ago, and that this was all now a matter of history. It also seems that most of the staff mentioned in the report are still working for the council, although not in the Johnstown centre.

So much for the council's claim that this is now all ancient history.

The ombudsman's report (here) makes for truly shocking reading. Nobody apart from Delyth Jenkins, referred to throughout as "Ms West", emerges with any credit. Not the police, not the Welsh Government, and certainly not the County Council. It is clear from the report that Delyth Jenkins had to fight every step of the way to ensure that her complaints were taken seriously. In the meantime, she faced intimidation and even physical abuse herself: The ombudsman's report states that she was hit by one of the carers involved.

Among those who feature in the report are the Director of Social Services, Bruce McLernon, who is still in post despite the catalogue of failure for which he was responsible. The ombudsman was clearly not impressed with Mr McLernon.

The Chief Executive, Mark James, responded first to Mrs Jenkins' complaints by delegating the matter to the Monitoring Officer. Subsequently, when the report was published, he met her and was, in her words, clearly very angry. Pacing up and down, he told her she should "back off a bit". Not surprisingly, Mrs Jenkins took that as a threat.

But what did the council's officers have to say to our elected representatives? Not much, it would seem, and as we shall see, by trying to bury bad news, the council has left itself open to accusations of not taking the matter seriously.

The first appearance of the report in the council's records is at a meeting of the Executive Board in November 2009. Although backbench councillors (the vast majority) can observe these meetings, they have no more involvement than members of the public.

The Executive Board considered a summary of the ombudsman's report, written of course by the council's officers, in which the ombudsman's recommendations are listed, a brief outline of the case is given and rather a lot of emphasis is put on statements that the ombudsman has "acknowledged the significant progress in addressing the concerns raised in his report".

The ombudsman's report itself only made it to seventh of the list of items of the agenda for that particular meeting, coming behind such weighty matters as a report on fleet management, the development of a youth centre and the management of paddling pools.

The Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee, where you might expect detailed examination and questioning, appears never to have discussed the ombudsman's report at all. 

In common with all reports of meetings from the Executive Board, the full council was asked to give its stamp of approval at a meeting held on 2 December 2009, where the summarised report appeared along with the paddling pools, etc. as Item No.9 on the agenda. This was to be the only chance councillors were to have to discuss the ombudsman's findings.

The minutes of the meeting of the full council show that lots of questions were asked about various matters, including the council's gambling policy, licensing, various financial matters, a Lidl billboard, and water quality in the Burry inlet. When it came, eventually, to the report on the Executive Board meeting of 16 November, items discussed included funding for Young Farmers Clubs; something called the Dragon Scheme for the "uniformed youth" of Wales; Magno-Flo technology for the council's fleet of vehicles; the "integrated youth centre"; the paddling pools and then, finally, the ombudsman's report.

Whereas the paddling pool issue got 5 lines in the minutes of the December meeting, the ombudsman's report got barely more than two.

The point discussed was not the report itself (obviously not), the history of the case or what lessons had been learned, but concerns about press reports which had allegedly upset "the complainants". The complainants were not Mrs Jenkins, but the parents of the abused woman.

Sally's parents were certainly owed an apology, not least because the council had not told them that their daughter had been abused for a year after Mrs Jenkins made her first complaint. Instead, the chief executive told councillors that he had apologised to Sally's parents for the incorrect press reports.

And that was that. The only discussion or criticism related to the conduct of the press. 

Suggestions that the question about Sally's parents concerns was a put-up job to create a smokescreen would no doubt be rejected by the council as outrageous cynicism. The wording of the minutes carefully avoids stating whether Sally's parents had actually complained about press coverage, however.

Calls for a public inquiry will of course be resisted very strongly by the Council, which insists that lessons have been learned and new procedures put in place.

Of course what has not changed is the senior management of the council which sets the tone and drives the corporate culture. The other thing which has not changed is the council's deeply ingrained culture of secrecy and its obsession with news management, factors which almost certainly lie at the heart of the way in which events in Johnstown were handled. The people who dismissed Mrs Jenkins' complaints, dragged their feet and ignored her are all still there. We are being asked to believe that they have been transformed from angry, secretive, resentful managers who treated a very brave whistleblower appallingly, into caring and compassionate champions of the abused and bullied.

And one of them will soon be off to Buckingham Palace to pick up his medal for services to local government.

Sometimes there are fairy-tale endings, at least for some.


Anonymous said...

If anything is going to change in this council, which is being run and orchestrated by a few, it has to be either our Welsh Government or the councillors. I think it is fair to say there is a deep reluctance for the Ministers to intervene in anything to do with CCC. no matter how serious. As for the councillors, I think it is fair to say the same. Was there such disinterest in the Ombudsman's report that not one felt the need to read it for themselves, or maybe they were not privvy to it? If it was available for them to see, then that is yet another scandalous episode for the councillors, but one we've come to expect from Carmarthen Council.

Tessa said...

Shocking, really shocking......yet in a way not really that surprising. This council excels at spin, with an obviously highly able PR department, some really good award-nominations-writers, and an ability to disguise and bury bad news. Not completely, though, in this and a few other cases. Although it makes you wonder just how much goes undetected. Certainly lesser mortals than Delyth - i.e. the bulk of the population - would have been understandably scared off way before seeing this through. Well done to Delyth, the BBC, and well done to you (and other local) bloggers. What a thoroughly excellent post - thank you.