Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Sefton's 'Drug death baby scandal'

The full page banner headline in tonights Liverpool Echo screams 'Drug Death Baby Scandal-parents has 150 drug convictions, Born a heroin addict, found dead on sofa at 3 months'

Baby A died in 2005. Last week the matter was reported to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee for the first time. A summary of the report is here under 'Agenda item, 6' There are many questions that need to be asked about the conduct of all those involved in baby A and his family. They have been picked over by a serious incident report and later by ofted and now the O&S committee is looking at the matter. My ward colleague, Cllr Hands chairs that committee.
I do not here want to examine the conduct of the professionals involved. As the report says 'urgent cultural changes' are required. At this point I would like to consider how the council dealt with the matter.
I should begin by saying that I knew nothing about this issue-but I'm only a Cabinet member so why should anyone tell me? Like many people I have followed proceedings in Haringey and watched Lynne Featherstone deal with these difficult matters. When the national Ofsted report came out at the end of last years criticising Local Authorities for the time they took to hold serious incident enquiries I decided to write to the Sefton's Children's Department to ask how we measured up. My letter was acknowledge but despite several chases I got no substantial response.
Some time later I got a note from the 'communications' department saying that the Sunday Telegraph were sniffing around a story about a child's death in the borough and that some might appear at the weekend. I hunted around on the internet for further information but no search engine came up with any further information until I managed to put in the finally correct words that came up with the Summary report. In accordance with the law this had been published on a website-but I've yet to find anyone who has found it without help. I learn that even the Sunday Telegraph journalist didn't find it!
I asked around colleagues who I thought ought to have been briefed as to whether they knew anything. All of them said that they could recall nothing. Clearly that is not the same as not having been told and I shall return to that later. I am satisfied that nothing was said to the leader of the council or our Education spokesperson at the time the report was published -which was years after the incident.
I then privately approached the new Chief Exec to bring to her my concerns. Now I do not flatter myself that I was the only person who was uneasy with these proceeding and I trust others were also acting-but if they were I knew nothing about it.
I am deputy leader of our group-the largest party on the council- and in the Leaders absence I and the Tory leader were called to a meeting with the Education cabinet member and spokespeople for the Tories and ourselves plus senior officers. This provided a full briefing.
In my role as Cabinet Member for Performance I meet other Cabinet members and senior officers twice a year to review how the council is achieving against their agreed objectives. Sefton has a system where departments draw up local service plans so this is not a matter of just looking at Government target (altho it is that) but also we explore how we are performing against objectives that the council itself believes to be important. I was keen to see how the department was learning the lessons from the serious incident report and integrating them into their departmental plans. I regret that I was not satisfied. Subsequently the Cabinet member wrote to me responding very constructively to the points that were made during the review.( I should say at this point I always keen to ensure that my Labour and Tory 'shadows' attend these meetings and have every opportunity to participate.) In relation to the Serious Incident report he reported that work was underway to establish protocols for the communication of serious incidents and that he would share them with me. My problem is that the incident happened in 2005 how come that we are only now looking at the protocols?
Finally the matter saw daylight last week at Richard's Overview and Scrutiny meeting. Clearly there is much work that still needs to be done. Firstly there is the issue of the communication raised by the Cabinet member-who knows and how are they told. It seems to me that what briefing went on was chiefly done verbally. That is not appropriate. I am told that there were briefings, that maybe so but it is hard to see how a near universal bout of amnesia was visited on Sefton's politicians, this after all is not something you are told everyday. Formal reporting procedures need to be in place. The serious incident reports are published. They are in the public domain. Politicians need to ensure that the reporting is not only timely but also public.
Secondly there is the issue of how lessons are learnt and how those learnt lessons are integrated into the departments plan.
So why have I decided to write this up now? Partly because of the Liverpool Echo's report but also because of something that happened last week. The papers for the Overview and Scrutiny report came out. I was furious when I noticed that the report on Baby A was on 'green paper' which in Sefton's way of saying it is private and confidential. I spoke to the chair of the meeting. and to his credit things were put right. It is interesting that when Richard challenged the exclusion of the press and public from this item legal officers et al readily agreed it was not appropriate for the item to be on green paper, one commenting that perhaps they were' being too cautious'. Well given all that had gone before it does seem that it is not just the Children's Department that needs its culture challenging! Like Richard I do not attribute any malice to the sequence of unanswered letters and P&C documents or the lack of adequate briefing. But I do maintain that we cannot put thing right if we are not told what went wrong. We, the elected members, are responsible and you cannot discharge that responsibility without knowledge.

Lynne Featherstone has said all along that in Haringey it was the culture of secrecy and the wish to 'sweep thing under the carpet' that needs to change.