Doncaster MBC has urged the government to let it keep its legal responsibility for children’s services, warning that the Department for Education’s current proposals to strip it of the role would “put significant risks in the system” and raise legal questions.
The council was told last month that, in an unprecedented move, it would lose its legal responsibility for children’s social care, with an independent trust instead taking on the role. It followed an Ofsted report that said the council’s children’s services were “inadequate”.
However, the authority has called for a different approach and has questioned the legal implications of removing its role.
A detailed report from the council, published today and submitted to the DfE, said the council did not accept legal advice cited by the department, which claimed the legal responsibilities could be carried out by a new body on behalf of the secretary of state.
The report said it was “telling” that “despite several attempts to seek clarification on the legal powers, officials from the Department for Education have been unable to provide this to the council”.
The report also set out an alternative proposal, in which a new “Doncaster Children’s Trust” would be created – but it would be accountable to the council. Under the government’s current plans, the trust would be accountable directly to education secretary Michael Gove.
Doncaster’s alternative proposals would also see other local agencies, such as the police and the health service, represented on the trust’s board.
‘High risk and conflicting powers and responsibilities’
Doncaster’s report also raised a series of concerns about the government’s plans, which are based on recommendations from the academic Julian Le Grand.
It said the Le Grand plan would create “unclear, high risk and conflicting legal powers, responsibilities and accountabilities between the secretary of state and the council”.
It also accused the Le Grand report of taking “an extremely simplistic and problematic approach to financial arrangements”.
The Doncaster response also warned that both the lack of public consultation on the government’s plans and the “apparent absence of any regard to equality duties” could “hold up matters considerably” if they were challenged through the courts.
In a letter to Mr Gove that accompanied the report, Doncaster’s elected mayor Ros Jones (Lab) said she did not accept Le Grand’s conclusion that “there is a culture of failure and disillusion that pervades the service and that serves to obstruct every attempt at reform”. She said the service was “striving towards a culture of improvement, success and ambition”.
Mark Rogers, chief executive of Solihull MBC and Solace’s lead on children’s service, said he backed Doncaster’s alternative plan.
“These new proposals offer robust, independent oversight while enabling locally accountable managers to continue to focus on delivering better services to families,” he said.
“Repeated central interventions serve only to damage local accountability, destabilise improvement plans and undermine the very progress they intends to galvanise. This model brings independent oversight but does not tear up the improvement plans which are already seeing successes locally.”
Cllr David Simmonds (Con), chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “There are important questions to be answered about how an independent trust imposed by government would be resourced and how new management would be held legally, politically and financially accountable.
“Doncaster is right to raise these valid concerns, particularly as several years of Whitehall intervention has so far failed to bring about the change that we all recognise is needed.
“The LGA will continue to support those councils who need help to fulfil their ambition of doing the very best for children and providing the kind of good quality services they deserve.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We will be considering the council’s views on the draft direction carefully. We will respond in due course.”