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Social care crisis: Damning Ofsted report says 20 local authorities cannot keep children safe

Watchdog says protection services are too often 'manifestly and palpably weak'

One in seven councils in England is failing vulnerable children with “inadequate” child protection services, according to a damning report.

There are 20 local authorities where Ofsted says standards are “unacceptably poor” and the most basic safeguards against abuse or neglect are not in place.

In its first annual report into social care, the watchdog said that child protection services are too often “manifestly and palpably weak”. Just four in 10 local authorities were rated as “good” or “outstanding” and more than half were deemed to be “less than good”. The study was based on more than 4,500 inspections of children’s care services in England’s 152 local authorities.

The picture was better for adoption and fostering services, which the regulator found had “generally improved over recent years”. More than three quarters of local authorities are now rated as “good” or “outstanding” for their adoption and fostering services.

A climate of increasing workloads and sharply decreasing budgets is making it harder than ever for councils to improve the situation, the regulator said. In the wake of high-profile cases such as Baby P, which heighten awareness of child vulnerability, the number of children referred to social services has soared, going from 538,000 in 2008 to 605,100 in 2012.

The growth in the number of looked after children alone represents an estimated additional £173 million pounds a year in added costs to the system. Yet local authority budgets have been slashed by more than a quarter in the five years from 2010.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said poor leadership and too many changes at the top were contributing to the problem: “Incompetent and ineffective leadership must be addressed quickly. But where those in leadership positions have capacity and potential, this must be recognised and nurtured.

“Too much leadership volatility in social care is counter-productive – that goes without saying. One in three local authorities has had a change in their Director of Children’s Services last year alone. The combination of unstable communities and political and managerial instability in our social care services is a dangerous mix.”

In the initial full cycle of inspections, 17 councils were found to be inadequate. After the weakest were inspected again, with a focus on child protection, this number increased to 20. Sir Michael said the high numbers of underperforming councils showed that safeguarding boards - made up of relevant agencies such as the police, probation and social workers - were failing to do their job.

He said: “Too often, inspectors arrive unannounced in councils only to see child protection that is manifestly and palpably weak. Typically, these are the councils where case files of individual children demonstrate inadequate intervention; where referral thresholds are loosely defined, and where safeguarding boards aren’t worth the name.”

The report suggested that the watchdog would be pushing the Government to introduce tougher standards for councils. It said: “We are not satisfied that the standards [set by Government] are ambitious enough for children.”

Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the language in Ofsted’s report was “unhelpful” and that its inspection methods were not good enough to measure the performance of councils properly. He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “We have one of the safest countries in the world to grow up in, relatively low levels of child death. We have a very responsive system.”

Inadequate the 20 councils

* Barnsley

* Bexley

* Birmingham

* Blackpool

* Calderdale

* Cambridgeshire

* Cheshire East

* Cumbria

* Devon

* Doncaster

* Herefordshire

* Isle of Wight

* Kingston/Thames

* Medway

* Norfolk

* Northamptonshire

* Rochdale

* Sandwell

* Slough

* Somerset