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Intervention lessons must be shared so councils ‘avoid hitting rock bottom’

The DCLG should work much more closely with local authorities to learn lessons from the interventions at Rotherham MBC and Tower Hamlets LBC to avoid similar failings happening elsewhere.

According to the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee, which today published its report into the interventions at the local authorities, the interventions should press upon local authorities the need to ensure that proper checks and balances and scrutiny arrangements are in place to drive a culture of transparency and continuous improvement.

In South Yorkshire, where widespread child sexual exploitation was found, and Tower Hamlets, where there were democratic failings, the committee noted that commissioners found that both local authorities failed to take whistleblowers seriously.

The committee urged local authorities to encourage and support those who come forward and to investigate their concerns, and urgently calls on the government to take legislative action to ensure whistleblowers who approach commissioners have legal protection.

Recently the Institute for Government said public sector institutions will not recover from being judged to be failing unless they are prepared to accept the problems and introduce culture-wide changes.

Cllr Read, leader of Rotherham MBC, said: “I have always been very clear that we must be honest about failings of the past in Rotherham. We fully accepted the need for intervention and we have worked collaboratively with Commissioners over the past 18 months; to redefine what our priorities are, our promise to Rotherham residents and our ambitions for the borough.”

The child exploitation failings in Rotherham were brought to national attention following a report by Professor Alexis Jay, who is now the national child abuse inquiry chair. The committee noted the progress made by the local authority, but said it was surprised to hear that neither the government nor any local authorities have contacted the council leader to ask how the borough was responding to the Jay report recommendations.

Clive Betts MP, chair of the CLG Committee, said: “It is widely agreed that the interventions in Tower Hamlets and Rotherham were justified because both local authorities had significantly failed to meet their responsibilities with regards to high standards of service, governance and democratic accountability.

“It is also vital that the failings in Rotherham and Tower Hamlets and the work done to address them are identified and shared so that similar issues can be addressed in other local authorities at an early stage to avoid them hitting rock bottom and having Commissioners imposed upon them.

“The DCLG and LGA clearly have important role to play in this, but local authorities must also take responsibility themselves for seeking out and sharing this best practice.”

In the case of Rotherham, the committee flagged a significant legal loophole, which allows taxis licensed by other local authorities to operate within Rotherham, even if the drivers have had their application for a Rotherham licence rejected.

This means drivers are operating in the borough without meeting the council’s recently-imposed requirement for taxis to be fitted with CCTV, for example. The cross-party group of MPs have called on the DCLG, Home Office and DfT to introduce statutory guidance without delay to ensure consistently high standards in taxi licensing across the country.

Local authority reactions

Responding to the report, Cllr Read said: “I welcome the recommendations of the committee, in relation to taxi licensing in particular. Rotherham's new taxi policy sets a standard that is amongst the highest in the country and the Council is already talking to neighbouring authorities in South Yorkshire to try to get a consistent standard across the region.

“Currently by law the council cannot stop drivers registered elsewhere working in Rotherham, but by asking for a Rotherham Council licensed drive when passengers book a taxi, passengers can be assured both the driver and the vehicle meets the high standard set out in our new regulations.”

The CLG added that if the interventions in Tower Hamlets and Rotherham are to be successful in the long term, careful thought must be given to how functions are returned and how performance is monitored on an ongoing basis.

“We recognise that there are costs associated with monitoring, but nevertheless, we believe that the DCLG should consider arrangements for ongoing additional oversight measures for councils which are exiting from interventions,” said the committee. Such measures might include, for example, phased withdrawal of commissioners, seeking assurance from the council’s external auditors, or peer review or monitoring by other local authorities.

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs said: “I am pleased that the committee recognise the significant headway we have made in the past year, particularly with regards to increasing transparency and opening up the grant making process. Changing the culture of the council is a long process and there is still work to do but I am proud that we have already come a long way in completing the government directions and rebuilding our borough’s reputation.

“Obviously I look forward to the day the commissioners leave because it will illustrate the scale of progress we have achieved, but I am clear that it is better to get this process right rather than to do it fast.

“Government interventions of this kind are rightly rare so it is important that lessons are drawn when it does occur. I welcome the committee’s report and the recommendations they have made, including the need for a clearer process for the withdrawal of commissioners and greater emphasis on public transparency in their decision making.” 

Responding to the report, a government spokesman said lessons have been learned from the interventions in Rotherham and Tower Hamlets, including making sure whistleblowers are taken seriously and supported and that interventions are quick and effective.

“We will continue to work with the LGA and commissioners to monitor and mitigate against any possible failings, so they cannot be repeated elsewhere,” he added.

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