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Pickles sends team of commissioners in to Rotherham after damning report

The Communities Secretary is set to send a team of five commissioners in to run Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, following a damning inspection report.

In an oral statement to MPs this afternoon, Eric Pickles said Louise Casey’s report:

  • Presented “a disturbing picture of a council failing in its duty to protect vulnerable children and young people from harm”;
  • Revealed the council’s failures – “both past and present” – to accept, understand and combat the crimes of child sexual exploitation (CSE);
  • Concluded this culture of denial was intrinsic and had resulted in a lack of support for victims and insufficient action against known perpetrators; and
  • Confirmed a "complete failure of political and officer leadership" in Rotherham.

The Secretary of State said he was satisfied that the council was failing to comply with its best value duty.

The intervention package would include an order under the Local Government Act 2000 to move Rotherham to holding all-out elections 2016 and every four years thereafter.

In the immediate term the commissioners would take over the roles of the “current wholly dysfunctional cabinet” at Rotherham. They would initially exercise all the functions currently exercised by the cabinet, including responsibility for children’s and adult services.

Pickles also proposed that the commissioners would take over other functions where there could be no confidence in the council’s ability to act responsibly. In particular, he was minded for them to take over all Rotherham’s licensing functions, saying “there can be no confidence in the council’s licensing committee”.

The commissioners will also have the functions of appointing the chief executive, the chief finance officer and the monitoring officer, and of nominating members to other bodies. Members will be able to provide input in these decisions.

The Communities Secretary said: “It is because the council is so seriously failing the people of Rotherham, and particularly some of the most vulnerable in that borough, that I am proposing to take this wholly exceptional step of putting all these responsibilities for a time in the hands of commissioners appointed and accountable to me.....My aim will be to return these responsibilities to local democratic control as rapidly as possible.”

He said the rollback of functions could begin soon, with the council resuming full responsibility for its range of services within four years.

Pickles told MPs it was “with a real heavy heart” that he was intervening in this way but said the case of Rotherham was “truly rare” and “exceptional”.

The borough council has 14 days to make representations on the Casey report and on the proposed intervention package.

Its Leader, Paul Lakin, has resigned with immediate effect and will step down as a councillor for the Valley Ward.

Rotherham’s Cabinet also unveiled its intention to resign “as soon as transitional arrangements can be put in place”.

Responding to the report, the authority said: "The council needs time to understand and respond to the detailed report, and also to understand the implications of the intervention package proposed by the Secretary of State, the resignation of the Leader and the intention of the Cabinet to resign.

"We recognise the need for a fresh start that is so clearly identified in the report, but also appreciate that we need to continue to deliver services to the people of Rotherham, and ensure business continuity.”

The council added: "We should not forget that the publication of this report will re-open old wounds for the victims and survivors of CSE. We will continue to put in place the help and support they need at this difficult time, including our dedicated helpline."

Louise Casey was commissioned to write the report by the Secretary of State on 10 September 2014, using his powers under s. 10 of the Local Government Act 1999.

This followed Professor Alexis Jay’s report on CSE, which found that more than 1,400 had been exploited in the borough between 1997 and 2013. The vast majority of perpetrators were said to be ‘Asian’ men.

Prof. Jay identified serious failings and concluded that the council and its partners could and should have done more to protect children at risk.

Casey was specifically tasked with looking at Rotherham’s exercise of its functions in relation to governance, children and young people, and taxi and private hire licensing.

In her report, which can be viewed here, Casey said Rotherham was “not fit for purpose” and failing in its legal obligations to secure continuous improvement in the way in which it exercised its functions. “In particular, it is failing in its duties to protect vulnerable children and young people from harm.”

Casey described the council’s culture as unhealthy, with bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced ‘political correctness’ cementing its failures. “The council is currently incapable of tackling its weaknesses, without a sustained intervention.”

The report said her investigation revealed:

  • a council in denial about serious and on-going safeguarding failures;
  • an archaic culture of sexism, bullying and discomfort around race;
  • failure to address past weaknesses, in particular in Children’s Social Care;
  • weak and ineffective arrangements for taxi licensing which left the public at risk;
  • ineffective leadership and management, including political leadership;
  • no shared vision, a partial management team and ineffective liaisons with partners;
  • a culture of covering up uncomfortable truths, silencing whistle-blowers and paying off staff rather than dealing with difficult issues

Despite Prof. Jay’s findings, which Casey said she fully endorsed, and substantial quantities of information available in the council, Rotherham had demonstrated "a resolute denial" of what had happened.

“This took several forms – notable in their recurrence – including dismissal of Professor Jay’s findings, denial of knowledge of the ‘scale and scope’ of CSE, blaming others, and denial that CSE remains a serious problem in present day Rotherham,” she said.

Casey said the issue of race had been contentious, with staff and members lacking the confidence to tackle difficult issues for fear of being seen as racist or upsetting community cohesion.

Her inspection concluded that the council did not have strong enough political and managerial leadership to guide the borough out of its present difficulties.

Casey also found:

  • The council’s Children’s Services were failing, “with a lack of clarity over priorities, repeatedly missed deadlines for the assessment of children in need of care and protection, poor decision-making, drift and delay”.
  • The dedicated CSE team was poorly directed, suffered from excessive case loads, and an inability to share information between agencies.
  • The council demonstrated an excessive deference to assurances from South Yorkshire Police and a failure to recognise its own role in pursuing perpetrators. “This prevented the use of council powers to tackle perpetrators and a lack of scrutiny over the police’s actions – actions which inspectors would also call into question.”
  • Partnership working was ineffective. “The structures are overly-complicated and do not drive action. Partners are critical that the council is not providing a lead in these troubled times for the town.”
  • The council did not use inspection to learn and improve. Members were overly reliant on officers and did not challenge tenaciously enough to ensure improvements.
  • Meeting and action plans were numerous but unproductive, with a tendency towards inertia.
  • Some members had not set and modelled the high standards expected of those in public life. Historic concerns around conduct had not been effectively tackled.
  • Rotherham had a culture of suppressing bad news and ignoring difficult issues. “This culture is deep-rooted; RMBC goes to some length to cover up information and to silence whistle-blowers.”

Rotherham needed a fresh start, Casey said.

Writing in her foreword, she also said: “I want to be clear that the responsibility for the abuse that took place in Rotherham lies firmly with the vile perpetrators, many of whom have not yet faced justice for what they have done. I hope that this will shortly be rectified.

“But in its actions, the conclusion that I have reluctantly reached is that both today and in the past, Rotherham has at times taken more care of its reputation than it has its of its most needy.”

She acknowledged that child abuse and exploitation happened all over the country, but said Rotherham was different in that it had been repeatedly told by its own youth service what was happening and it chose, “not only not to act, but to close that service down”.

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