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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of Lambeth Council Investigation Report


F.6: Tensions between councillors and staff

32. In the “fraught” atmosphere of Lambeth Council in the early 1980s, Stephen Sedley QC reported that he sensed a marked tension between staff in children’s social care and councillors with a “new preparedness” to intervene to redress racial disadvantage in the borough.[1] The Tyra Henry public inquiry report considered the extent to which this tension manifested itself in the conduct of the Cases Subcommittee and the Social Services Committee. According to the Tyra Henry public inquiry report, the subcommittee became more vocal and involved in decision-making during the period that Councillor Boateng was chair of the Social Services Committee and the Cases Subcommittee, and Councillor Bubb was the vice chair of both.[2]

33. As set out in the Tyra Henry public inquiry report, between 1982 and 1986, the Cases Subcommittee disagreed with the recommendations of officers in only 9 of 326 cases, despite reports of its activism.[3] The report concluded that allegations of councillors being too interventionist were overstated. In her evidence to the Tyra Henry investigation, Councillor Boateng had stated that:

there are certain decisions that have to be taken by officers irrespective of whether or not I have an open door policy … it would be quite foolish of me as a member, for instance, to decide the placing of a child and who it be placed with over a recommendation which an officer has to place that child.”[4]

34. On the evidence we have received, councillors exercised influence over the decision-making of professional officers. A CHILE report noted:

The mid-eighties also saw the development of a conflict between social workers and local elected councillors. The former made claims that councillors were refusing to accept their judgement in an increasingly politicised environment. An inquiry was set up by the Environment Secretary, Mr Patrick Jenkin, with one of the terms of reference to look at the increasing politicisation of local councils. Working relationships appeared to have deteriorated over the last three years until they had been described as ‘nothing short of poisonous’. Sub Committee Meetings to discuss the action to be taken in particular cases had become platforms for abusing social workers and some councillors had scorned staff recommendations on the grounds that they, as elected representatives, knew more about the needs of the community (Guardian Newspaper 27/07/85). Committee meetings had turned into arguments about who knows best.[5]

35. In his evidence to this Inquiry, Sir Stephen Bubb did not recognise this characterisation of the relationship between councillors and staff. He regarded staff as being committed to the same agenda as councillors when it came, in particular, to the interests of black children.[6] When asked whether he recollected staff “walking out” of children’s homes in the 1980s, Sir Stephen Bubb pointed to there being considerable industrial unrest at this point. He had been a trade union official, so he knew the tactics involved, and that would have been one of them.[7]

36. Ms Pauline Lawrence was a senior personnel officer in children’s social care from October 1984 to December 1986. She found the culture to be “extraordinary” and “damaging to service delivery”. She recalled that the director and assistant directors of social services “seemed relatively powerless”, while the chair of the Social Services Committee, the race relations adviser and the NALGO senior steward all seemed to hold sway on the direction of decisions. Ms Lawrence told us that the lack of management grip on performance and the standards applied in employment matters did not wholly fit with her personal or professional values.[8]

37. Ms Phyllis Dunipace, another Labour councillor who first took office in 1986, was chair of the Social Services Committee between 1986 and 1988. She had been an active member of the Labour Party and, when almost all councillors were disqualified, explained that those involved in the Labour Party were successful in their bids to become councillors. She referred to the newly elected councillors as being on a steep learning curve. Her prior experience was as a teacher and she said she was committed to children’s welfare.[9] In Ms Dunipace’s opinion, in 1986, councillors were too involved in operational decision-making and were unable to provide sufficient challenge and hold officers appropriately accountable.[10]

38. On the wider evidence received in this investigation, it is likely that officers orientated their decisions in the direction councillors would wish to see and in the direction they knew councillors would approve. Councillors did not need to intervene directly.

39. One clear example of elected members becoming involved in operational decision-making was the McCootie case. This concerned a child in Lambeth Council’s care who was convicted of the rape of a 53-year-old woman in 1991. On sentencing the child for offences of rape and robbery, the judge asked that Lambeth Council investigate why he had not been in secure accommodation at the time the offences were committed.[11] The subsequent report set out that Lambeth Council had no legal power to delegate functions to an individual member, nor could urgent action between committees be taken by the leader or chairs of committees acting alone.

Despite this, it had become ‘custom and practice’ that before an urgent request for secure accommodation could be made, the oral ‘agreement’ of the Chair or Vice Chair had to be sought. This is precisely what happened in N’s case. To discover exactly how the decision was made has meant relying on the memories of the people involved, largely because ‘custom and practice’ has been not to minute formally decisions other than those which result in obtaining a secure accommodation order, despite the procedure … In N’s case, it would appear that social worker advice that N should, for a period, be placed in secure accommodation was not agreed by the Chair and the outcome was that secure accommodation was not sought.[12]

40. The chair referred to was Mr Whaley. He told us that, even at the time of the investigation into the McCootie case, he had not recalled the conversation. He accepted:

that becomes my word against his word, which is a very untenable position, and is also a very clear indication as to why that type of procedure is an entirely inappropriate one for making a decision as important as taking somebody into secure accommodation.”[13]

This case suggests poor administration of a decision not to place the child in secure accommodation but, more significantly, a systemic lack of an appropriate boundary between a professional, specialist decision by staff and the strategic oversight role of councillors on the other.

More generally councillors should not have overstepped the boundary between their own strategic and policy role, and the professional decision-making which was the responsibility of staff. Ensuring that decisions made by staff fitted with policy did not entitle councillors to intervene in decisions for vulnerable children or individual care plans and reviews.

41. There was no sense of councillors and officers working together to provide better public services until some time after the appointment of Dame Heather Rabbatts in 1995.

41.1. Evidence of divisiveness and a lack of trust between councillors and officials was demonstrated within correspondence between Councillor Clare Whelan and the chief executive, Mr Ouseley. In 1992, Councillor Whelan gave the police a list of people who may have had information about allegations of abuse within children’s homes. Mr Ouseley considered that Councillor Whelan should also have taken her concerns to the director of social services, David Pope. In one letter, Mr Ouseley referred to her as continuing to hurl innuendo about mismanagement in the Social Services Directorate without any precision”, adding “I would stress that we cannot go on with such a ridiculous relationship between you and [the director of social services]”.[14] In reply, Councillor Whelan said that she was “shocked” that as the opposition spokesperson on social services she had not been briefed on any internal or external investigations.[15]

41.2. Similar tension was evident in correspondence related to Councillor Whelan’s attempts to visit children’s homes and to examine records held at homes (a legal duty which was generally not met in Lambeth).[16] In her view, there was “written and lip service encouragement of visits to children’s homes” but she felt they were in fact discouraged or being prevented by officers.[17]

41.3. There is also evidence of councillors’ concerns being downplayed. In one instance a memo from Mr Pope to Mr Ouseley about a proposal from councillors that they agree a blanket ban on not employing convicted sexual offenders was described as arising out of the “furore” about Carroll. Mr Pope regarded such a blanket ban or policy debate as “fraught with complex matters, not least the civil liberties issues and the problem of how many offences (including rape/assault/robbery etc etc) may need to be considered.[18]

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