Gwenda Thomas, Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.
- Today sees the publication by Estyn and CSSIW of their report on the “Joint investigation into the handling and management arrangements of allegations of professional abuse and arrangements for safeguarding and protecting children in education services in Pembrokeshire”. This report concludes “that there has been a lack of oversight by elected members and officers, at the most senior level within the authority, of the management and handling of cases of alleged professional abuse in education services”. It sees these shortcomings as being “longstanding and systemic”. I am particularly concerned that a theme that has emerged is that the voice of the child was not properly listened to. This is a failure to deliver basic duties. Child protection in Pembrokeshire is a matter for Pembrokeshire County Council and its statutory partners. The failings identified in this report are wholly unacceptable and I expect urgent, strong and decisive action by Pembrokeshire County Council to rectify them. Children and their parents in Pembrokeshire will expect no less.
- Today also sees the publication of a report by Estyn on the quality of local education services for children and young people in Pembrokeshire. This describes the county’s education services as unsatisfactory with unsatisfactory prospects for improvement. I know that the Minister for Education and Skills will consider the evidenced decline in school standards and other issues about education services separately but the most damming aspect of the Estyn report is the finding that “the local authority’s policies and systems for safeguarding children and young people are not fit for purpose”.
- Whilst the immediate focus of concerns has been in education, youth and community services, it is not limited to them. Corporate leadership of the authority, the way that the Council delivered its human resources responsibilities, and the way that corporate leadership and management has managed the protection of children have also been found wanting. The report also points to a lack of political oversight and weaknesses in the way in which elected members exercised their responsibilities. I do also want to take this opportunity to remind elected members of their personal responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
- The Welsh Government is not going stand by and allow this to continue. The Estyn report describes systemic corporate failure to respond to safeguarding issues. The Chief Inspector of Social Services advises me that that the authority is not well placed to deal quickly with all of the issues identified in the CSSIW Estyn joint report. I am convinced that the Council needs support and challenge from outside the authority to turn these matters round. The Welsh Government has a range of powers under education, local government and children’s legislation. I have therefore talked to the Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council on behalf of Welsh Ministers, to say that we are minded to exercise our powers to direct the Council to improve the way in which it safeguards and promote the welfare of children in education and in the way that the corporate responsibilities of the Council for child protection are exercised. We have asked him to respond to this by 9 September. I have asked that this response details the actions already taken in response to the joint investigation and contains a clear, challenging and deliverable plan of action which is backed by the full co operation of Council members and senior officials. I believe that the Council needs the support and challenge of an external team in achieving this. The team that I will appoint will also provide the challenge to the Council in producing its plan to resolve the matters of concern. The team will report to Welsh Ministers on the robustness of the Council’s actions and action plans. I am pleased to say that Mr David Hopkins and Mr Phil Robson, both of whom who have been Directors of Education and Social Services, have agreed to join this team. I will be announcing the appointment of additional members in the immediate future.
- Ensuring the immediate safety of children cannot wait until 9 September. Children will be returning to school for the autumn term. The council is responsible for checking that staff have been properly checked, but I have informed Councillor John Davies, the Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, that using the powers available to me I am directing the Council to comply with its duties to properly vet staff.
- Ministers expect to see the Council’s action plan in response to the wider education issues identified by Estyn in place within two months.
- The real test however will be whether change happens on the ground. We have asked Estyn and CSSIW to produce a short joint monitoring report on the progress the Council has made by 31 October and will expect a further joint inspection at a date to be specified in the light of that October report.
- There are questions raised in the report about the quality of joint working to safeguard and protect children. CSSIW and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary have begun work on this with a view to producing a report by the end of September. I have made it clear that I expect this work to formally involve Estyn and the Health Inspectorate Wales in order that a proper evaluation of the contribution of all agencies is included. It will also need to seek the views of the Wales Audit Office.
- It is essential that we are all aware of the issues raised in this report and we are writing to all local authority leaders reminding them of their statutory duties to ensure that the proper employment practices and response to allegations of professional abuse are in place.
- This is a failure in delivery. More policies, more regulations, more guidance and more inspection are not the answer. Delivering safe services means hearing the voice of the child, it means being open to scrutiny and challenge, it means all services and corporate leaders acting together to protect children.
- These matters have come to the fore because of the work of our inspectorates and I thank them for that.