Rotherham MBC’s chief executive has told LGC her council no longer suffers from “systemic failure” and promised “absolute focus on the quality” of frontline social work in the next stage of its recovery.
LGC interviewed Sharon Kemp shortly before the communities secretary recommended returning five powers to Rotherham which had been overseen by commissioners under the intervention model installed in February 2015. Ministers sent in commissioners after it was revealed council failings had contributed to 1,400 children being abused in the town.
Should Sajid Javid confirm his decision after receiving representations from the council itself, this would leave just children’s services under full intervention, with commissioners also holding the right to veto cabinet decisions in relation to domestic abuse and adult social care.
Ms Kemp, who declined to give a target date for the intervention to end, said the council was now compliant with basic performance standards but “we’re not resting on our laurels”.
“We’ve got the compliance and we really want to see consistency in our quality of practice – that’s our absolute focus now, for our children and young people coming into connection with our children’s social care,” she said.
“What I can’t say is that there will never be any issues in children’s social care, as no one in the country can, but what I can say is that there isn’t systemic failure here now.”
Ms Kemp, a former assistant chief executive at Manchester City Council who took on the top job in Rotherham in January 2016, said the council was at a “tipping point where we’re ‘fair’ and actually moving towards… [its] explicit stated ambition to become a ‘good’-rated council around children’s services”.
Rotherham has adopted the Signs of Safety social work model and is now using “the right interventions”, such as family group conferencing in children’s social care, while its 16% vacancy rate for social workers is two points lower than that of the average council. Ms Kemp said social workers were now “wanting to come to the borough” because it offered “high challenge, high support”, with child protection cases being “stringently audited”. Strong pay and training were also helping, she said.
However, Ms Kemp admitted the need to make “significant savings” over the next two years posed a challenge, especially in adult social care and children’s services. These are forecast to have overspends of £5.4m and £1.6m respectively in 2017-18.
“We’ve made appropriate investments in children’s services and that’s the right thing to do,” said Ms Kemp. “Having challenging finances makes us like any other council in the country – it’s nice to have a common problem and not a unique problem.
“What we can’t do is make decisions that will impede the pace of our improvement or make it unsustainable. That does mean that there are difficult challenges for the council in terms of its budget.”
Rotherham has had a dramatic turnover in both members and senior officers. The longest serving member of its senior leadership team had been there for 18 months, Ms Kemp said, while 98% of assistant directors were new. Meanwhile, last year’s all-out election resulted in half of councillors being new; the chamber now showed “real passion, commitment and energy”, Ms Kemp said.
The chief executive insisted she was not concerned about her council’s reputation because “if you worried about reputation then you are worrying about the wrong thing”. She did however criticise the “number of people that have views on Rotherham that have never been here or that haven’t spoken to people who’ve actually lived here”.
Ms Kemp said that she planned to stay in her role for a long period and that her success depended on having a “line of sight to the frontline”, with regular conversations with residents and service users, such as through Rotherham’s looked-after children’s council.
Asked about the merits and drawbacks of the commissioner model, she praised the fact commissioners had changed over time, bringing “different skill sets at different points of the journey”. And she also complimented the local government sector for being “extremely supportive in helping us”.
One area of controversy has been the number of far right marches taking place in Rotherham. This follows the council having previously failed to address the fact that it had a problem with predominantly Asian men grooming troubled white girls.
Rotherham has lobbied the Home Office to take greater account of the “community impact” of decisions to allow marches to proceed. Ms Kemp said that while the council supported people “exercising their democratic rights” the proliferation of marches “impinge on community, community cohesion; it impinges on access to the town centre”.
Ms Kemp said the council now challenged “behaviours wherever they exist”, regardless of race, while “significant progress in the operations around historic sexual abuse” meant the local community now perceived perpetrators were being held to account.