In April, Ofsted published a damning report on Tower Hamlets children's services, finding that there are "widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children who need help and protection in Tower Hamlets. As a result, too many children remain in situations of actual or potential harm for too long."  Ofsted gave the local authority an 'inadequate' ranking.  The report should be compulsory reading for all lawyers acting for children in or from Tower Hamlets.

Serious and Widespread Failings, at All Levels

The failures identified are extremely wide-ranging: all aspects of children's services were found wanting, including the response to initial referrals; the most basic of checks ("basic safeguarding checks were not conducted in most cases," found Ofsted); assessments (which were described as "superficial" and in many cases failed to identify risks); work with partner agencies; private fostering arrangements (which were not understood, and Inspectors raised concerns that social workers had failed to assess whether children had been trafficked or abandoned by their parents); and the services provided to children in care, children awaiting adoption, care leavers, and children and care leavers in custody.  The report describes how "serious and widespread failings across all core social work teams, including the early help hub, the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), assessment and intervention, and family support and protection teams, leave children at risk of harm."  Poor practice is identified at all levels: the local authority "has not ensured that basic social work practice is of a good enough standard"; there is "weak managerial oversight at all levels"; and "managers, including child protection chairs, do not provide sufficient overview or challenge of social work practice."  

Ofsted's Last Inspection in Tower Hamlets - 2012

Ofsted's last inspection of children's services in Tower Hamlets was five years ago, in 2012. Then, it received a clean bill of health: Ofsted ranked it 'good' overall, with a number of 'outstanding' elements.  The 2012 report states of its safeguarding services (at [16] and [17]): 

"There are many ambitious targets for improvement and agreed priorities across the partnership that are supported well by challenging and secure inter-agency relationships. Senior managers provide strong and innovative leadership to secure a range of sustained improvements to practice. These include the further development of revised and comprehensive early intervention and prevention services resulting in children being helped earlier and the sustained reduction of children and young people entering the care system. The council and its partners meet all statutory requirements for the management and delivery of safeguarding services.... Work within specialist teams, such as those dedicated to children with disabilities and private fostering, demonstrate exemplary practice."'

Capacity for improvement' was one of the areas identified as Grade 1, Outstanding ([23] - [25]):

"The ambition for, and prioritisation of, safeguarding services to children and young people in Tower Hamlets is outstanding.  The strategic leadership within the council and across partners give safeguarding the highest priority. Cross party commitment to safeguarding by elected council members demonstrates a consensus that services for children and young people are a priority and must be appropriately resourced. This has resulted in councillors committing resources to maintain the very good capacity of front line services. The ability of partner agencies to work very closely together at a strategic level through the children and families partnership is established and mature and provides demonstrably strong leadership at a high level to deliver the priorities in the Children and Young People’s Plan (CYPP). All partner agencies appropriately ensure that safeguarding is prioritised within their services and necessary resources are assigned. The engagement of the third sector at a strategic, operational and commissioning level is outstanding. This high level of collaborative working is supporting the establishment of highly regarded service delivery, particularly early intervention and support to children and families." 

Earlier reports are similarly glowing: for example, in 2011 Ofsted confidently stated, "children’s services in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets perform well. The majority of services, settings and institutions inspected by Ofsted are good or outstanding..."

The picture painted in 2011 and 2012 could not be more different to that in the 2017 report, five years on.  

Two Questions

There are two obvious questions which flow from the latest, damning critique of Tower Hamlets' children's services. What went wrong? And why wasn't it spotted sooner?

Question 1: What Went Wrong?

The Ofsted report touches on this issue, briefly, but does not grapple with it. The Executive Summary at p. 2 says:

"Some services have significantly deteriorated since the last inspection of children’s services published in 2012... The DCS took up an interim position in July 2015 before her permanent appointment in March 2016. Despite uncovering a deeply worrying picture regarding the services provided to children, there has been insufficient rigour by senior leaders in challenging weak management oversight..."

And:

"A significant challenge facing the local authority is instability in the children’s workforce. Staff turnover overall has reduced slightly, but in the assessment and intervention team it has significantly increased, from 10% in 2015 to 30% in 2016."

None of this explains the drastically different picture between 2012 and 2017.

The report also states (emphasis added):

"An improvement and inspection board established in September 2016 has had limited impact. The board lacks an overarching strategic plan to systematically drive the extensive change required. This is a serious omission by senior leaders. Performance management and quality assurance systems are not underpinned by reliable management information. This is largely due to social workers and managers not updating records on the electronic recording system. Many assessments and plans are of poor quality. Senior leaders have not been effective in challenging the entrenched culture of non-compliance with basic social work standards. The local authority as a whole has failed to ensure professional accountability and, as a result, too many children have remained in neglectful and abusive situations for too long."

Was this "entrenched culture of non-compliance" present in 2012, but missed? Or has it become entrenched since then? If so, why?  The report provides no answers to these questions.

The local press has begun to delve into the issue, with the Docklands and East London Advertiser reporting that, "much of the blame was put by Labour on the previous administration under the now-banned ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman for his “disastrous merging” of children’s and adults’ services in 2012,"  whereas "remnants of Rahman’s former administration still on the council, known as the People’s Alliance, put the blame on the mayor’s budget cuts" and the Conservative Opposition claimed Labour was “lazily excusing itself through reference to the Rahman regime” or to government spending limits.

This period has seen swingeing cuts to local authority budgets across the country (see my earlier piece on the funding crisis for children's social care, here, and Patrick Butler's piece in the Guardian this week on children's services being at 'breaking point,' here). Is this at least a partial explanation for what has gone so terribly wrong in Tower Hamlets' children's services?

Tower Hamlets has, too, during this five year period been in 'special measures,' overseen by the Secretary of State pursuant to s. 15, Local Government Act 1999.  The Secretary of State was not satisfied that Tower Hamlets was complying with its obligations under Part I of that Act, the 'Best Value' obligations. Section 3, the general duty, requires Tower Hamlets to “make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness."  Pricewaterhousecoopers LLP were appointed to conduct a Best Value inspection of the authority in May 2014, prompted by “allegations about governance failures, poor financial management and possible fraud at Tower Hamlets” contained in certain documents passed to the Secretary of State and also featured in a BBC Panorama programme. They found there to be a lack of transparency and accountability and failures in governance. The result was that, between December 2014 and March 2017 (after this Ofsted inspection took place) Commissioners appointed by central Government were keeping check of local authority spending. This has recently ceased (save that there are continuing obligations to report to the Secretary of State): see the Secretary of State's letter of 28 March 2017

Did the special measures arrangements contribute - directly or indirectly - to the catalogue of failures identified by Ofsted? Or did the press focus since 2014 on Tower Hamlets' failures result in an exodus of key staff?  We simply do not know, as no analysis of the reasons for the apparently drastic change in the performance of children's services between 2012 and 2017 has yet been conducted.

Question 2: Why Wasn't it Spotted Sooner?   

One of the most horrifying aspects of this is the total and utter failure of all oversight mechanisms. The Ofsted report states at p. 2 that "insufficient scrutiny by the chief executive, the director of children’s services (DCS) and politicians has meant that they did not know about the extent of the failures to protect children until this inspection."  Nor did the 'Best Value' oversight by central Government spot any issue - bearing in mind that the central aim of Part I of the 1999 Act is to ensure "continuous improvement" in how Tower Hamlets was exercising its functions, whereas children's services was crumbling before the Commissioners' eyes during this period without that being noticed. 

But what about the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB)? The objectives of the LSCB, set out in s. 14, Children Act 2004, are to coordinate what partner agencies in the area are doing "for the purposes of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children" in Tower Hamlets, and "to ensure the effectiveness of what is done by each such person or body for those purposes."  Surely the Tower Hamlets LSCB should have been the safety net - it should have identified the failures and taken action, at some point over this five year period when Ofsted was away.  But, like the others, it was blissfully unaware of the extremely serious failures by Tower Hamlets' children's services until this Ofsted inspection. The report finds, at p. 30, that the LSCB itself is 'Inadequate':

"The LSCB in Tower Hamlets is judged to be inadequate, as it is not discharging all of its statutory functions. Insufficient monitoring of the quality of frontline practice has meant that the board was not aware of the failings to protect children until this review."

The report does state that a new independent LSCB chair was appointed in October 2016, to respond to findings and recommendations of a review commissioned by the DCS in September 2016 (also at p. 30).  But this is the same DCS criticised so heavily elsewhere in the same report; and the new chair, as with the rest of the LSCB, was unaware of the failures Ofsted found until Ofsted pointed them out. While there is some reassurance in the report about the new chair's effective refocusing of the LSCB's priorities, with "increased scrutiny and challenge," surely a much more radical and thorough review of what went wrong here, and why it was not spotted sooner, is required.  Without understanding the answers to these two questions, how can we be sure that the mistakes are not being repeated?  Vulnerable children in Tower Hamlets deserve, and need, more than this.