Children left at risk of abuse

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Ministers have summoned leaders of a local council after a report revealed nearly 200 children were being left at risk of abuse. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, examines concerns that Sefton council has failed its most vulnerable residents.

"Misdirected" resources and "inadequate" services have left both children and the elderly at risk, according to a major review into Sefton social services by the Audit Commission and the Social Services Inspectorate.

Nearly 200 children in urgent need of help and protection did not have a social worker and had not had a care plan drawn up. Children's homes in the Merseyside borough were also not being inspected as regularly that they should be, the review found.

Old people were also being put at risk - eight of the council's homes for the elderly did not meet health and safety standards. Nearly 300 assessed as first-priority cases were waiting for assessments or services.

The review estimated that it would take at least pounds 2.5m to bring the homes up to scratch. At the same time they were dogged by high costs. While privately run or voluntary homes cost on average pounds 176 per week, Sefton's were costing pounds 374 per week. The council could save around pounds 3m, it was calculated.

This is not the first time Sefton has come under fire. Earlier this week, Age Concern accused the council of acting like a bully by refusing to help with residential care until an old person has less than pounds 1,500 - the price of a funeral.

The joint commission has scarried out reports on 10 authorities. "This is the first report ... where the local authority is not serving well the needs of the local community," Sir Herbert Laming, chief inspector of the SSI, said. "Resources are being misdirected and services are inadequate. Social services have little prospect of being restored unless the council's leadership takes robust and swift action."

The health minister Paul Boateng said that he has insisted council leaders see him next week with an action plan. If they fail to come up with an effective strategy the Government has the power to impose someone on the department.

Steve Wilds, Sefton's newly appointed director of social services welcomed the report: "It gives a clear agenda for the way forward," he said. "... I am optimistic about the future. I believe the people of Sefton can look forward to the services they rightly deserve from Sefton's Social Services Department."