A councillor whose enquiry about unregulated placements of children in care was wrongly turned into a Freedom of Information request, and has been waiting three months for answers, has hit out at the way Northamptonshire County Council is operating.
Northampton councillor Anjona Roy still has not had the answer to her question which she first asked in July, despite senior officers at the council and cabinet members being involved.
Northamptonshire County Council has said Cllr Roy’s question to the outgoing director of chidlren’s services Sally Hodges should not have been treated as an FOI and says she will get an answer shortly.
Cllr Roy says she has been treated wrongly and the issue is symptomatic of the way the council is operating. She said the authority, which is due to be abolished in 2021 as a consequence of its financial problems, is still continuing to function in the way that was criticised by central government inspector Max Caller in his best value report last spring.
She said: “Max Caller wrote about this in his report that councillors ask questions and do not get answers. Has anything changed? It seems not.
“It really does feel as if people are treading water until the reorganisation.”
She added: “Some of the big issues are still there. The 2017/18 accounts are still unaudited. Because of that the 2018/19 accounts cannot be audited. There are risks to have finances that are in that unaudited position.”
Cllr Roy first asked the question about the amount of money the council had been spending on unregulated care homes since 2014, after concerns were raised to her by a resident.
There have been national concerns exposed by high profile media investigations about how children in unregulated placements often go missing repeatedly and are being lured into crime and exploited.
The councillor then took up the matter on the residents behalf – contacting Sally Hodges, who asked if she could provide less information than Cllr Roy required because of the time constraints of staff in the department. Cllr Roy said she wanted the information in full and then when chasing the matter three weeks later was told by a member of NCC children’s services staff that the query had been taken down the FOI route.
FOI requests are dealt with by a dedicated department within the council and should be responded to within 21 days.
Cllr Roy brought this up at a public meeting where it was denied that councillors’ queries were turned into FOI requests. Conservative cabinet member Cllr Sandra Naden Horley said she would look into the matter and emailed the council’s monitoring officer Susan Zeiss at the end of September to ask her to deal with it.
However, no response has come forward.
Cllr Roy once again raised the matter in front of leader Matt Golby at this month’s (Oct) cabinet meeting.
Cllr Roy said: “It is really hard being a politician at the moment. There is a lot of distrust. If residents come to us for information, and if we then are leaving people waiting and nothing happens, then you can see where that distrust comes from.”
The council’s children’s services department is failing and is being overseen by a government appointed children’s commissioner. However, there have been recent high profile resignations and in the summer two serious case reviews were published into the murders of two young children known to social services. The review found mistakes had been made.
A spokesman for Northamptonshire County Council said: “The council takes all requests for information seriously and this request for information from Cllr Roy will be forwarded to her shortly.
“This request for information had mistakenly been taken down FOI route but is now being treated as a ‘business as usual’ query.”