Central government micro-management and a stream of Whitehall diktats are an established part of life for councils.
These have, until a few weeks ago, largely replaced the government’s appetite for direct intervention, which between 1997 and 2001 saw 38 councils subject to government turnaround teams.
Since these dark days of ‘basket case’ councils, performance across the board has markedly improved. But government interference in children’s services, rightly or wrongly, is a grim warning of just how far the government could go in quashing poor performance.
Nine councils rated ‘inadequate’ in December are now opening their doors to review teams. The secretary of state has already directed the sacking of Haringey LBC’s children’s director and a letter, highlighted on this week’s front page, indicates ministers’ concerns about the leadership in children’s services departments.
Sufficient personal focus
It says a lot that children’s minister Beverley Hughes would raise concerns about whether there is a ‘sufficient personal focus’ on children from joint directors of adult and children’s services.
There is, of course, simmering anger in local government at this interference. But it’s an issue that is unlikely to go away - so where will this intervention lead?
History tells us that in cases of systemic failure it can take from 18 months to two years to see a clear improvement. Is there then a danger that the government simply opts for a big bang restructure with new providers of children’s services?
Underlying local government anger is of course the government’s reliance on the inspection regime, which publicly remains untarnished despite Haringey’s once ‘good’ status and the demand for all chief executives to personally verify performance data.
If the government is to intervene in ‘failing’ councils then it first must ensure that the performance measures set are the right ones to prevent the deaths of vulnerable children.