Troubled department is ‘on probation’ – MPs vow to keep close eye on Norfolk children’s services

Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis. Picture: James Bass.

Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis. Picture: James Bass. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011

The leadership of Norfolk's children's services is 'on probation', say MPs who have pledged to keep the troubled department under scrutiny.

Norfolk MPs Brandon Lewis, Chloe Smith and Richard Bacon yesterday met managers at the department to find out what improvements have been made since the county's children's services were branded inadequate in February.

Mr Lewis said bosses recognised the severity of problems they faced, but stopped short of giving the current leadership his backing, while Miss Smith said she was only 'somewhat' reassured that sufficient measures were in place to turn the department around.

But director Lisa Christensen said the meeting had been a chance to highlight the steps already taken, including better development of staff, allocation of social workers and reaching families in need earlier.

The MPs also said they will request a meeting with the children's minister, who will be presented with a progress report, to discuss the future of the department.

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Ofsted's report into child protection at Norfolk County Council labelled it 'inconsistent and patchy' and said that vulnerable children were potentially being left at risk by failures.

Safeguarding tsar Simon Hart has since been recruited as the independent chairman of a supervisory improvement board – a role Mr Lewis said would be key to moving forward.

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'By their own admission, there is a lot of work to do,' he said. 'The meeting was not the end-game. I didn't come out thinking all's well and it's all sorted.

'I was reassured that the county recognises there is a problem, but they are on probation.

'They have got a lot of work to do before I would say I am confident they are dealing with it.'

He said it would be 'inappropriate at this stage' to call for a change in leadership, but said managers had to show a clear plan for improvement.

'The county council has got to look very hard to make sure it has got the right team managing that going forward,' he said.

'There's a legitimate question that residents are asking: this is the management team that got us into this mess – how can they be the team to get us out of it?'

Ms Christensen said she had had 'a very well informed debate' with the MPs and insisted she was focused on making the changes needed, with the help of the improvement board.

'My job is to be continuing to push forward with the improvement of the department,' she said.

'Having an independent chair doing independent reports to the ministers on what he sees as the priorities is going to be critical.

Ms Smith, MP for Norwich North, said there was 'still a long way to go' to return children's services to the level required.

'It is crucially important for everyone that this is got right,' she said. 'There is far too much at stake for this to be allowed to slide. We will be keeping a close eye on it.'

She welcomed the introduction of the oversight board and focus on staff development, but warned that 'no one is out of the woods yet'.

She added: 'In a very short number of months we will be clear whether the improvements are beginning to work or not.'

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