Government announced on Tuesday the failing service would be turned into an independent trust on recommendation from children’s commissioner Malcolm Newsam, who has been working with the authority since November in the wake of a damning Ofsted inspection.
The commissioner said handing over the service to the two new unitary authorities, due to be set up in 2021, would not be a good idea because ‘this would present considerable risk to already fragile services to vulnerable children and families’.
But now an unnamed local authority has put itself in the frame to take over the service and made a formal expression of interest.
In his report to both the education and local government secretaries Mr Newsam said: “In considering alternative delivery models, I had anticipated that there would be little appetite from other authorities to take on the accountability for Northamptonshire’s children’s services.
“However, I recently received a formal expression of interest from one council. As this expression has not yet received full political approval, I have been asked to not release the name of this council at this stage and given its timing, I have not had the opportunity to discuss this proposal with any of my other consultees.”
Later in his report the children’s commissioner says the option for another local authority to run Northamptonshire children’s services department is ‘not without merit’ but says he has several concerns. He says it would require time and political agreement and would want to canvas local MPs and councillors before recommending the option.
He says: “Finally, the timetable presents a major concern as we cannot afford to lose time in investigating an option later to see it withdrawn. With this in mind, should you feel it is premature to rule out this option at this stage, you may wish to ask me to undertake a short piece of work with the other local authority to test the robustness of this offer and consult further with the political leaders in Northamptonshire on their views of this suggestion.”
After adult social services, children’s services is the department with the biggest budget.
This coming year the council is budgeting to spend £131.9m on children’s services.
Lincolnshire County Council has been working with NCC for the past few months as part of the government’s partners in practice project in which leading authorities give support to weaker ones.
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group at Northamptonshire County Council Cllr Chris Stanbra is not in favour of the idea and said it would be ‘unacceptable’.
He said: “I am sure the commissioner is looking at this in good faith but there are some things that are not acceptable. The thought that the service would go outside to another local authority, that we as councillors have no governance over, is not something I would ever want to happen.”
The commissioner recommends the cost of bringing in the independent trust is covered by central government.
Northamptonshire’s children’s services has been in turmoil for a number of years and now has a major social worker recruitment issue. It is 69 social workers short – there are currently 281 on the books – and because of the council’s poor reputation it is struggling to recruit and keep new staff.
In the last report about 150 children were without an allocated social worker – the figure changes daily – and just under a third of are agency staff.
In his report Mr Newsam also spoke of the problems and ‘chaos’ he found when he first arrived at the authority.He does say that the authority has made some early progress following the October Ofsted but that weaknesses are ‘systemic and longstanding.’