Concerns raised about Northamptonshire children's trust contract

Chair of scrutiny Cllr Mick Scrimshaw says he would be disappointed if the contract was not put up for examination for comment by councillors

By Sarah Ward
Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 2:35 pm
Cllr Scrimshaw wants to see the financial details of the contract.
Cllr Scrimshaw wants to see the financial details of the contract.

Northamptonshire County Council’s chairman of scrutiny says he would be disappointed if the contract for Northamptonshire’s new children’s trust is signed behind closed doors without examination by councillors.

Next week the next steps following the Government order to move children’s social services out of the hands of Northamptonshire County Council and into a trust will go before the Conservative cabinet.

The recommendation is that the cabinet delegates the contract arrangements over to a small group including the authority’s chief executive Theresa Grant, and council leader Matt Golby for sign off.

However the paper does not give proposed financial costings of the new multi-million pound arrangement and scrutiny chairman Cllr Mick Scrimshaw says he hopes once the contract is finalised it will come back before councillors for discussion and comment.

Cllr Scrimshaw, whose scrutiny group has already been told by Government commissioners that the day-to-day operational trust arrangements is not within their scrutiny remit, said: “I would be very disappointed if what is going to cabinet would then all be signed and sealed behind closed doors without scrutiny and other councillors having the opportunity to at least comment. It needs to be transparent and we would like to know the details and the agreed price.”

It is unclear whether the contract will come back to councillors once the report is approved by cabinet next week.

What it said is that the contract sum to be spent on children’s services by the trust will be reviewed annually and in ‘exceptional circumstances’ the trust can request additional funding from the council. As part of governance arrangements it is proposed the trust will meet monthly with council officers and there will be an annual report.

The trust can claim losses from the council if the authority does not carry out certain activities the trust is dependent upon to carry out its services adequately. As part of the arrangement a number of NCC staff will be transferred over to the trust.

The current plan is to have the new trust up and running from November 1.

NCC will commission and pay for services from it up until April 1 and then it will be commissioned by the two new unitary authorities.

The report asks the cabinet to delegate authority to the small group of officers, councillors and commissioners so they can ‘take all necessary actions to finalise the contractual arrangements and agree the contract sum’ as well as sign the final contract.

Children’s services in Northamptonshire ran £7.4 million over it’s £116 million budget last year and has been poorly performing for many years. It is Ofsted rated as inadequate and will have been under a Children’s Commissioner for two years this November.

At the end of this month (September) the scrutiny committee will look at the current budget of the department as there are already rumblings from the council that there could be extra financial demand on it when children return to school and referrals increase.

The independent trust is well behind schedule, in part due to the Covid crisis.

A recent review arranged by the Local Government Association into how the project to shut down Northamptonshire’s eight councils and replace with unitaries outlined the risks involved with outsourcing the service.

It said: “Delivering the Children’s Trust on 1 November whilst undertaking the other upgrades and changes holds particularly significant risks. From a technical viewpoint the creation of the infrastructure and environment is a known process. However, this has been extremely challenging due to the added complexity of creating a new organisation and service for the two unitary authorities. Getting access to the right resources and information (such as structure, pay scales etc) has been difficult but is vital for success moving forwards– now more senior management have got involved this has improved. The trust will need to be clear on their objectives and ways of working for this to be a success.

“The context for the children’s social care services programme is unusually complex. There is a good plan in place and good progress is being made for the delivery of services through the Children’s Trust though the timeline is very tight. The plan to deliver the education services sets out clear and ambitious goals. However, it is not entirely clear that these can be delivered to the level required.”