This is our truth, tell us yours
I didn’t set out to write three posts on Rotherham, but here comes the third.
Key to understanding what happened in Rotherham is understanding how the local council could be so dysfunctional as to allow its senior officers to ignore what was happening in their town, to plan and deliver services as if there wasn’t an epidemic of child abuse. And to understand that, you have to understand the way in which local government fundamentally changed in the 1990s and the noughties.
Local government, in England, is a contradiction in terms. All too often it is neither local, nor governing, since local government is shackled and restricted by law and the centralized control of its finances. Even the recent introduction of a general power of competence has not enabled local government to break out of a financial straightjacket controlled from the centre, where Whitehall and the Secretary of State decide on the 80% of council funding that comes from the centre.
Local government is, as a result of its powerlessness, a minority pursuit. Voter turnout is low, and citizen participation in local government is poor. The pool of potential councillors is the subject of constant agonizing amongst local government professionals, who often view councillors, with good reason in many cases, as not being up to the job.
What’s this got to do with Rotherham?
Shaun Wright was the Executive Councillor with responsibility for Children’s Services in Rotherham for five years. The very idea of executive governance in local authorities was an attempt to make local government more effective; the move away from decision by committee towards executive decision a panacea conceived of by policy experts and academics who had never actually been councillors themselves. It mimicked, at the local government level, the kind of cabinet governance that exists nationally, and introduced a structure of scrutiny committees and accountability that was meant to ensure, as select committees are supposed to at a national level, that decisions were well taken, founded on evidence and properly implemented. Even typing those words, given what we now know about governance and decision making in Downing Street at the time of the Iraq war, is embarrassing. It reads like a naive fantasy of how governance can be in a perfect world.
The reality, in a place like Rotherham, would have been an executive councillor, possibly the best of a bad lot in the ruling group, trying to manage and direct the work of a Director of Childrens Services through whom all actions and reports would flow. If you want to imagine how that worked, ask yourself how they were valued. In my local council an executive member gets paid £30,000 per annum; the Director of Children’s Services gets five times that. Under the uniquely restrictive contracts enjoyed by senior council officers it can be near to impossible to sack them without having to pay them off with huge sums of money. So the Executive Member may carry the can for the performance of the department, but the Director is the person who is valued and rewarded.
The next thing to remember is that councillors are elected, not appointed. They hold Executive roles not necessarily because of their talents, but because of the political dynamics of their political group. I have no idea if Shaun Wright was qualified to be Executive member for children’s services in Rotherham, but the reality is he did not need to be, and the system assumed he was not. Every report laid before him would have a recommendation from officers, and all too often the role of the executive member for Childrens Services was not to direct the work of the professionals, but to be the advocate for them in budget discussions, winning more resources for a department where all too often he would be excluded from debates by the assertion of the professionals that their opinions and advice should prevail. In the jargon of the Civil Service, ministers are sometimes described as having been captured by their departments (Home Secretaries are especially prone to this); in the case of councillors responsible for childrens’ services that imprisonment is institutionalized.
Why make this point? Simply, because you can’t understand the weaknesses of childrens services in Rotherham without understanding that the weaknesses are structural, and universal in England. Shaun Wright should have been scrutinized by a scrutiny committee of backbench councillors, eager to examine his decisions, his department’s performance and the outcomes for Rotherham’s children. All too often though those committees are captured by the departments, the officers who advise them forced to bow to the will of the senior officers who decide what should and shouldn’t be scrutinized. In case you’re wondering the average scrutiny officer, advising those committees,would earn the same as an executive member. If they wish to have a long and fruitful career not disagreeing with senior council directors is a good idea. For much of the time that child abuse was endemic in Rotherham a wise officer would bury their nose in the handbook of definitions of key performance indicators from the Audit Commission and search for strategies to improve their council’s rating, not for the truth of what was happening to Rotherham’s children.
Now that I’ve explained all that, imagine how such a structure would react if someone, a parent or a front line worker, told them a story that disagreed with the corporate narrative. Imagine if a mother came forward and said her 12 year old wasn’t an out of control child flirting with street sex work, but a victim of grooming and abuse. Would she be heard? Or would councillors look at their voluminous reports and hear, sotto voce, the voice that says ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you?’
A typical scrutiny committee might sit for just two hours a month, and consider a number of reports each month. Often they will wade through lengthy accounts of key performance indicators, hand picked by officers to demonstrate performance. A distraught mother, telling her story, would be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, not capable of undermining the weight of statistical evidence. Outside inspectors, critical of the department’s performance, will be dismissed as unreliable, as incapable of understanding the local context, and their reports contested in any way possible.
None of this, by the way, is an excuse for Shaun Wright. However, it needs to be understood that such a system is more likely to deliver a Shaun Wright than it is an effective and accountable leader who can resolutely challenge the department he is responsible for to be the best it can be.
Part of the problem in Britain is that we try to do local government on the cheap, with a highly centralized system of governance and a limited pool of elected councilors who are expected to be universally competent. Nothing in the Jay report suggests that any thought has been given to whether we would be better off with social services and health care being managed and scrutinized by a directly elected health board, or that police and crime commissioners should be accountable to a directly elected police board. Instead we’ll blunder on, expecting people elected because of campaigns they ran about dog shit and lampposts where they live, or because of a party badge they’ve bought, to suddenly transform themselves into expert generalists, able to direct any service and answer any policy question. All the evidence is that that method has failed, and that Shaun Wright is not an outlier, but the most likely outcome of a bad system faced with difficult challenges.