Labour concerns over adequacy of CSE provision in West Sussex grows after further discussion and scrutiny refused
Labour councillors have raised their concerns that the arrangements put in place for to support children and young people at high risk or experience of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) may not be adequate to meet demands placed upon the service, following a report released by the county council. This move follows a request last month for the arrangements to be immediately referred to the appropriate scrutiny committee being dismissed by the Business Planning Group’s Conservative majority.
West Sussex Labour councillors were joined by two UKIP councillors in making the original request for a decision by the Cabinet Member for Children – Start of Life, Stephen Hillier (Con, Haywards Heath East) to be called in. The decision related to the procurement of a service to support children and young people at high risk of, or experience of CSE.
Concerns increased when it became clear the arrangements agreed by the Cabinet Member are only funding a maximum caseload of 60 across the county at any one time. It was unclear to the call-in requesters whether this is adequate, particularly given that further investigation revealed that earlier this year there were 67 open cases, and a waiting list system is put in place when necessary.
- Some Labour county councillors expressed surprise that such an important decision on such a sensitive subject appeared to have been released (with the very tight call-in timescales) just before Christmas, after the final county council of the year had met, and county councillors had begun their seasonal recess;
- The six call-in supporters emphasised: “It is therefore paramount that as an authority we do all we can to support and equip our children and young people who are exposed to it or who are at risk of exploitation.”
- Aside from the major concerns of a waiting list being used at times by the county council, objections included that there appears to have been no prior consultation with young people who receive the service currently nor has the service been co-designed. It was therefore not possible for members to know whether the service currently provided meets their needs and therefore whether procuring a very similar arrangement is appropriate.
- In addition the original report also revealed that 7% of the children receiving support currently are children looked after by the council. The councillors believed that the possibility of additional support to all children looked after relating to this topic should be explored as part of the additional scrutiny.
- While the council argued that the service being commissioned was part of a wider support offer to young people and there are other services in West Sussex including a newly developed preventative offer funded by the Big Lottery. However, it was not clear to members what extent alternative cover is available to all young people across the entire county, and how they might access it.
- The councillors requested for the decision process to be briefly paused to enable Members to scrutinise the proposals in more detail, to ensure the service being procured fully meets the needs of all the vulnerable young people in the County who are at high risk or have experienced sexual exploitation.
- The request was turned down by just three Conservative councillors, the majority of the Business Planning Group of the Children and Young People Services Select Committee: Michael Cloake (Worthing Pier), Paul High (Worthing West) and Margaret Evans (Chichester South).
- The group, who have final say whether decisions are called in for closer scrutiny and debate by councillors, claimed they had received advice on the risks arising from any delay in awarding the contract. This additional “advice” has never been made public.
- This reason was given despite the call in process only delaying a decision under the council’s rules for a maximum of eighteen working days, yet according to the its own original report accompanying the decision, the council still had until the end of March to get the contract in place. The original call in request was made in early January.
- The Business Planning Group then indicated it would not schedule a review of the renewed contract until “an appropriate interval following the election” in May 2017. That review, which would likely to be a minimum of five months after the original concerns arose, would include a focus on the quality of the service provided and the availability of the service to those in need and will seek feedback from stakeholders to inform the review.
- Consequently the Labour Group intends to propose an additional £100,000 to be put into the council’s budget for the service. This extra money would include allowing for a contingency reserve to be established in the event that the new service happened to have more young people coming forward than was originally anticipated.
- This boost to the service’s budget would ensure the council would have the ability and flexibility to be able to accommodate additional numbers of children and to help minimise the possibility there will be waiting lists in future, for an area the county council itself has predicted may be a growth area for need.
Expressing the Group’s determination to put additional money into CSE provision at the forthcoming Budget meeting, Labour County Councillor Michael Jones (Southgate and Crawley Central) who led the original request for a call-in, said: "We simply can’t be taking any sort of risks with such a sensitive issue. This does seem rather in contrast with the original council debate where all members stood up and expressed their sincere and passionate views that there should be no compromise with CSE and we would do all we could to fight this.
“Yet not only do we learn that the service is effectively rationed to sixty places at any one time, but the majority group refused all councillors the opportunity to question why, using the accepted processes for scrutinising a decision of a Cabinet Member.
“We can never be too cautious when it comes to keeping children safe. Given that, it is my hope that all councillors will support the Labour Group’s intended budget amendment to increase the capacity, so not only will the current waiting list be covered, it will ensure it is unlikely to be exceeded at any time in the future. It is a relatively small sum but if it reduces the risk of additional harm being inflicted on those who have been exposed or are at risk of exploitation, which may otherwise have been prevented, then it will have been worth every penny.”
Labour Group Leader Cllr Sue Mullins agreed with Cllr Jones, adding: "It was a very weak reason to refuse the immediate call in of the decision, this small delay to make sure we had got things right was no threat to the contract being awarded.
“The Labour Group simply doesn’t believe that is enough, and if there is a limit being exceeded, it needs to be addressed, by increasing the number of young people that can be provided for, so that there is much less chance of a waiting list.
“That this has happened and action has been delayed even further by the refusal to discuss it openly says a lot about the failure of the scrutiny process to pick up important issues at the county council.
“I cannot forget that one of the most damning criticisms of the Middlesbrough report into CSE was that the council added no value whatsoever to the effectiveness of what was going on. In that case the council sat by uselessly and I could never forgive such an important lesson being forgotten.”