Children's commissioner targets better environment for social workers and more prudent use of money

Malcolm Newsam was appointed to oversee the children's services at the county council
Malcolm Newsam was appointed to oversee the children's services at the county council

The newly appointed children’s commissioner at Northamptonshire County Council says the authority needs to be doing more to give its social workers an environment they enjoy working in.

Malcolm Newsam was appointed by the government in November to oversee children’s services after an Ofsted report was highly critical of the authority, saying that children were potentially being put at risk of harm. It criticised high caseloads for workers and the number of unallocated cases.

But speaking to councillors at a public meeting for the first time today, Mr Newsam appeared to make staff welfare one of his top priorities.

He told the council’s overview and scrutiny committee this morning (January 30): “Primarily my focus is to understand what’s been happening in Northamptonshire and understand the symptoms of an under-performing council. My role is to ask what has caused this and what can be done to make rapid improvement.

“I’m here to support the council and its officers around its priorities, and if you deal with those you will be in a massively different place in three-to-six months time. This is a long road, it isn’t a sprint, and there are no quick fixes in this.

“Every person at every level needs to know what their role is, and staff deserve to think that the council values them. On my visits so far, staff haven’t felt like that.

“Northamptonshire has to become the greenest pasture for social workers in the region, and you can help that by aspiring for the council to have an environment that they want to work in - and that has not always been there.

“In a sense, senior officers have been struggling with one hand tied behind their back, because the administrative support, the buildings and a lot of other things have all conspired against having that environment.”

Hired for his work at Rotherham Borough Council after a similarly poor Ofsted report, Mr Newsam is the third Westminster-appointed commissioner at the county council, after Brian Roberts and Tony McArdle were drafted in earlier last year.

Unlike his colleagues though, Mr Newsam has only one service to focus on.

One of his priorities is an improvement in the way the county council spends its money in children’s services, saying that he does not believe it is under-resourced.

He highlighted the cost of placing children in care outside of the county as a particular area to improve on. It was reported last year that the council had spent £15 million placing 116 children in care outside the county between April and November.

The commissioner said: “The issue is that the council invests a massive amount in its children’s services, it is the second highest amount per head for all the county councils in the country. So it’s not about money, it’s that the money is spent in the wrong places.

“Chunks are going on very high-cost placements for children outside the county, and for agency staff, you are paying a premium on top.

“There’s improvement to be made if you can commission things more effectively. How we spend our money currently is not the best way. We can get out of that with better assessment, better purchasing and better commissioning. But it will take some time before we get there.”