Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Skills and Gwenda Thomas, Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services
Following the critical report, published last August, of the joint investigation by the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) and Estyn into the handling and management of allegations of professional abuse in Pembrokeshire, we took prompt and decisive action. We issued a direction requiring the Council to address the immediate areas of concern, to submit an action plan to address the failures identified in the report, and to work with the Advisory Board which we appointed to provide support and challenge to the local authority in developing its action plan.
It was clear, on receipt of the action plan, that some progress had been made, but we were not convinced that Pembrokeshire could achieve the necessary step change without continued external support and challenge. In October we issued a written statement, announcing the appointment of the Pembrokeshire Ministerial Board (PMB) to provide that support and challenge and we write now to update you on its work and the way forward.
The PMB has conducted a rigorous examination of the facts, both through desk research and through visiting Pembrokeshire to interview senior officers, key front line staff and elected members.
Since the PMB began working with the authority, there has been greater transparency, with key meetings being properly documented and papers disseminated to the full Council; provision of information where none was previously available; greater engagement of the Chief Executive with elected members; and professional support for scrutiny. The membership of the Chief Officers’ Safeguarding Panel has been revised and CSSIW has reported improvements in the authority’s responses to the Inspectorate’s requests for evidence.
The previous Ministerial Advisory Board had identified the need to improve democracy and scrutiny through a revision of the Council’s Constitution, and following challenge by the PMB this work has been accelerated. Elected members have now generally accepted the need to move from a dominant officer culture where scrutiny and open debate are largely absent.
But it is not all good news. The PMB disagrees with the authority’s assertion that officers are no longer resistant to change. While the PMB was greatly impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of front line staff, the culture at the most senior level continues to give cause for concern. We note that the Auditor General also concluded in his report that the Council tended to be too complacent and informal, with inadequate senior and political oversight of key services.
Recent stories in the media have served to highlight some of the difficulties that remain. There is a tendency to ask for advice about pressing issues which the authority should itself be resolving quickly and decisively; an inability to distinguish between information that should be shared and that which it is inappropriate, or even damaging, to share; and the continued failure to effectively address the serious concerns raised by a report into the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU).
The PMB has identified areas within its work plan for development. These include continuing to challenge and support the reform of the Council’s Constitution and scrutiny process; addressing concerns about the operation of the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB); challenging the authority and its partner agencies to demonstrate real commitment to an advocacy service that promotes the voice of the child; and tackling the lack of connection between education and social services, and between the corporate governance of the authority and operational practice.
The PMB has noted that steps have been taken by the authority to tackle these weaknesses and will work with the authority to ensure that improvements continue and are embedded into the culture of the organisation at all levels.
The PMB has clearly been a positive force for change. It is evident, however, that there is still a long way to go and it is vital that we keep our foot on the pedal. We are particularly concerned to keep up momentum during the election period when elected Members’ capacity for holding officers to account may be compromised. We have therefore asked the PMB to ensure its members spend time each week in Pembrokeshire, providing continued support and challenge to officers during this period.
We have asked the PMB to provide us with a report by the end of April, which will inform the approach to working with the new Council. We have also requested that the PMB should meet the new full Council at the earliest opportunity during May. We intend, with the PMB, to meet the new Leader and Cabinet as early as possible and will continue to monitor progress closely.
In previous statements we have noted ongoing work in Pembrokeshire by a range of inspectorates and other agencies. These include the investigation by CSSIW, Estyn, HMI Constabulary and HMI Probation into multi-agency working; the Police and Social Services’ review of the PRU; and the Wales Audit Office’s (WAO) Special Inspection. The WAO and CSSIW will be conducting an inspection of HR processes and procedures in May, with a focus on education, and will join with Estyn for a full reinspection in October. These inspections will be critical in determining the way forward.
Whether further intervention is necessary will depend on the rate and extent of change in Pembrokeshire, and on the conclusions which the PMB and inspectorates reach about that. The Council has had, and continues to have, extensive support in solving its problems. If that fails to secure sufficient progress, we will not hesitate to take further immediate and decisive action.