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Social services in Walsall are not serving people well and prospects for improvement are poor, according to a repor...
Social services in Walsall are not serving people well and prospects for improvement are poor, according to a report published today by the Audit Commission and Social Services Inspectorate.

Frequent changes of direction, incremental decision-making and a preoccupation with immediate political concerns, have all hindered service improvement.

The authority's social services have developed within the constraints of the council, rather than being designed to meet users' needs. This has often led to an inadequate response to people's needs, with a reliance on a traditional and often expensive range of services.

Walsall has a good partnership with health at a strategic level. But the implementation of plans are hampered by the council overly focusing on internal issues.

Financial management at the council is poor and cutting support services has been viewed as an appropriate way to make savings. The lack of investment in staff and their skills has also had a negative impact on the way services are delivered.

The report is part of a rolling programme of reviews to assess the performance of individual social services departments in England and Wales.

Specifically the report says:

- Services for local people are often disrupted by staff changes, temporary appointments and the existence of staff vacancies.

- The difference in levels of workloads and ways of working between teams (especially in children's services) is unacceptable.

- Walsall has failed to develop a sufficient range of modern services to help users, for example older people, to live at home.

- More services need to be made available to prevent family breakdowns and to prevent children from going into care.

- Too many people are admitted to residential and nursing homes. However, numbers are falling.

- The standards of home care services are often poor and inadequately monitored.

- Occupational therapy is viewed by users as unresponsive to their needs, with unpredictable waiting times and an unwillingness to take people's preferences into account.

The report sets out four initial action points to help Walsall draw up and drive forward service improvements:

- Focus on the front line, through promoting a customer focus and making sure people receive a positive response to their initial enquiries.

- Modernise services, for example in the area of learning disabilities.

- Live within your means. This will be achieved through devising a clear financial strategy, ensuring available resources are matched to needs, and also ensuring services are offering value for money.

- Create a 'can do' culture through developing clear project plans, with measurable targets and milestones.

Director of joint reviews, John Bolton said:

'Local people are getting a raw deal from Walsall social services. A wide range of factors have led to this situation - mainly poor money management, short-term decision-making and a persistent inward-facing culture. The time has now comefor the council to leave behind its tendency to dwell on the reasons for its problems, and focus more on how it intends to tackle them.

'A turn-around in Walsall's social services can only be led from the top. We would like to see all councillors agree a way forward and inspire staff to deliver sorely needed improvements. As well as changes on the front line, there is a great need for a more strategic and inclusive approach.'

A press release from the local authority follows.

Walsall Council today accepted the final version of an inspection report on social services and said that much work had already begun to improve the service.

It said that it still did not agree with all of the report's conclusions, which have been the subject of lengthy discussions between Walsall social services and the joint review team, but was prepared to accept the final report.

And it pledged that service users and carers would begin to see tangible improvements within the first year based on the report's recommendations.

Already every child on the child protection register has an allocated social worker, Walsall social services is working towards every looked after child having an allocated social worker, and more social workers are being recruited.

Eddie Hughes, portfolio holder for social services and health, said: 'The review was conducted between August and October last year. While there is much in the report with which we agree much has also changed since the inspection was carried out and improvements are now well under way.'

Don Phillips, director for Walsall social services, said: 'Anything that will lead to better services for the people of Walsall must be welcomed. The report clearly challenges us to modernise services in the borough and shift the balance of power towards service users and carers.'

Hardial Bhogal, Walsall MBC chief executive, added: 'Actions to improve services are already in place on issues that we were aware of at the time of the inspection and work is well advanced on an improvement plan to address the remaining issues.'

A draft Improvement Plan 2002-05 will now go out for consultation to service users, carers, staff, statutory and voluntary partners over the next six weeks. The final version of the plan has to be agreed by the joint review team by July.

The plan highlights five key areas for improvement:

- To develop more flexible, modern services which are fit for purpose

- To promote a person-centred approach, where we will start with users needs, and we will listen to what they say

- To work with partners to commission a co-ordinated and improved choice of support services to enable people to remain with their families and within their own homes and communities. Where this is not possible we will ensure users and carers understand how to access supported living away from home

- To review and restructure the council services that support Social Services in the above objectives. For example, we will ensure we have robust financial management and a skilled and experienced workforce.

- To ensure that a performance management and quality culture is promoted within social services and throughout the council.

Work already under way prior to the joint review and since headline feeback in November last year includes:

- All child protection cases area allocated

- A 'pooled budget' with the NHS for services for people with learning disabilities has been established

- Social services committee has approved the recruitment of more qualified social workers in services for older people, and a package of recruitment incentives

- Further support for families to prevent children coming into care has been agreed

- Agreement has been reached with the NHS for the establishment of a pooled budget for mental health services

Mr Phillips said: 'The Improvement Plan, which is now going out to consultation, builds on the positive steps already taken, and by 2005 will have delivered a major change in the way we provide services to users by developing joint-working, innovative practice and a real partnership with users and carers.

'But I must stress that while a lot has already been achieved the rest is not going to happen overnight and to be successful in this transformation we need to collaborate effectively with users, carers, staff groups, trades unions, and key partners.'

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