MPs demand Ofsted crisis talks

County Councillor Alison Thomas and District Councillor Terry Blowfield beside the A140 at Long Stra

County Councillor Alison Thomas and District Councillor Terry Blowfield beside the A140 at Long Stratton where developers want to look at building a bypass. Photograph Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

Norfolk's MPs have called for a crisis meeting with the head of the county's children's services department over its safeguarding of Norfolk's most vulnerable children.

It follows a damning Ofsted report which rated the child protection service at Norfolk County Council as inadequate in all areas after finding an 'inconsistent and patchy' provision.

The Ofsted assessment took place from January 14-24, with inspectors scrutinising 119 cases of the 5,500 children currently being dealt with by Norfolk children's services either through child protection or as looked-after children.

The authority admitted the situation was 'not good enough' but insisted it had made improvements since an inspection in summer 2011 judged the service adequate with some inadequate areas.

All Norfolk's nine MPs have called for a swift response from the council to ensure the county's young people were not being put at risk.

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In a joint statement, the seven Conservative MPs – Elizabeth Truss, Keith Simpson, Henry Bellingham, Chloe Smith, Brandon Lewis, Richard Bacon and George Freeman – said they were 'disappointed' by the findings of the report, adding: 'It is encouraging that the report finds child protection in some areas to be at a higher standard. What is required now, however, is for Norfolk to achieve and maintain an outstanding level of service across the board.

'We will seek a meeting with the director of children's services to discuss this report's findings and the urgent implementation of Ofsted's recommendations. We will then work with Norfolk County Council to monitor the progress of improvements.'

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The joint-statement has been welcomed by the county council's newly-elected leader, Bill Borrett, who said the issue has been his 'number one priority' since taking the reins at County Hall.

Mr Borrett said: 'I'm glad the MPs are all interested as their help and support is always extremely valuable.

'We must do whatever it takes and as soon as possible. I'm comforted to hear the indications in the Ofsted report that there are pockets of good practice.

'The key challenge is getting that good practice spread across the whole piste, rather than pockets of it.

'There is nothing more important for us right now.'

Mr Borrett said he would soon be attending a meeting with the Department of Education and the county council's director of children's services, Lisa Christensen, and cabinet member for children's services, Alison Thomas.

Simon Wright, Lib Dem MP for Norwich South, called the report 'very troubling' and called it 'the worst possible rating Ofsted can possibly give to a service'.

He said: 'The chief executive [of the county council] is now going and a new person is coming into play. For that new person, one of the first things on their desk should be this report. I hope it is someone who will get to grips with this.

'There were some aspects of work that were quite positive and give us some glimmer of hope that things can be improved. It's not that everything the authority is doing is bad. Let's take that good practice and make it consistent and normal practice.' Earlier this year it was confirmed that council chief executive David White would leave his post after he recommended he should be made redundant.

Norman Lamb, Lib Dem North Norfolk MP, said any potential risk to children was 'unacceptable' and he wanted to see a clear action plan from the county council.

He said the politicians in charge of overseeing the service had to be held accountable for the problems and warned: 'We have elections coming up in May for the county council when the people of Norfolk can give their verdict on the Conservative administration in Norfolk and whether it is, on this, matters relating to the incinerator and the leadership issues, up to the job.'

In response, Alison Thomas, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services, said work had already begun to address the problems raised by Ofsted.

She said the inspectors had given some 'very clear messages about where improvements need to be made' and immediate action was taken.

She added: 'I'm working closely with the director of children's services and senior members of staff to put together a robust and effective improvement plan that will continue to improve the child protection arrangements in Norfolk.

'In addition, we met with the Children's Improvement Board this week to discuss the best way forward and we will be meeting with the department for education on March 11.

'We will do whatever is necessary to tackle the issues, and welcome the additional support and challenge provided by Norfolk's MPs. It is right that they should challenge us and I look forward to meeting with them soon so we can discuss the issues identified by Ofsted and explain the improvements being made to the service.'

The Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board is meeting on March 15 to begin addressing the partnership issues identified by Ofsted.

The Tory MPs urged any 'interested parties' – parents, schools or the organisations assessed by Ofsted – to contact them if they needed help.

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