For over a decade now local government scrutiny committees have been quietly going about their business of reviewing council policy. Much too quietly it would appear, as on plenty of occasions they should have been screaming blue murder.
Established by the Local Government Act 2000, scrutiny committees perform a vital service – yet it’s time we faced up to the fact that in too many cases they’re just not doing their job.
That was clearly evident in Rotherham where child protection failings went unnoticed – and yesterday’s report by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, of which I’m a member, is a reminder of the untold damage that results from poor scrutiny.
When we interviewed senior Rotherham Council officers earlier this year it was obvious that they had not been subject to the kind of scrutiny necessary to raise the alarm on chronic child protection failings that saw at least 1,400 children subject to appalling sexual exploitation over a 16-year period.
In my own constituency of Rochdale the same failure to properly scrutinize child protection services was evident when a major grooming scandal exploded in 2012. When council officers sat before MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee shortly afterwards their failure to understand the severity of the problem was painfully obvious.
In both cases it was clear that parliament did a far better job of holding council officers to account than their own scrutiny committees. So why is this? In my constituency I was told that senior officers often declined to attend and sent junior officers in their place. Councillors were reliant on officers to tell them about the policy areas they were supposed to be holding them to account on. And questioning was far from robust. It was more of a tick box exercise.
The same timid approach to child abuse and failure to properly hold child protection agencies to account has been demonstrated by Ofsted. The regulator has a poor record in this area, failing to identify serious child protection failings across the country.
Recent plans drawn up by Ofsted to add child abuse inspections to a handful of councils in areas where there have been child sexual abuse convictions is simply a case of trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.
If we’re really going to tackle this problem is it good enough that only a handful of authorities are subject to a thematic review inspection on how they deal with child abuse? The idea that inspectors should only try and find out where failings occurred after a major scandal breaks is risible. Ofsted should be conducting this kind of specialist inspection everywhere to make sure children are being protected.
But arguably the real reason why scrutiny remains poor where child protection services and child sexual abuse is concerned is because politicians have yet to wake up to the huge social cost that it creates.
Child abuse is not just a horrible headline or a distasteful tale that we can turn away from and ignore, knowing it will not impact on our lives. I’ve seen how child abuse impacts on wider society in terms of the myriad problems it creates. It’s extremely far reaching. And I’ve seen how it impacts on public services.
Whether it’s through pressure on mental health and other NHS services, the prisons service, police, social services and other agencies besides, child abuse not only destroys lives but costs the public purse too. When child abuse is committed on a large scale it leaves behind a trail of chaos. It puts huge pressure on services and strips people of their dignity and sometimes pushes them to the margins of society. It is a cancer in our society and one that we can no longer treat with light touch regulation. Protective services and regulators need to do far more to stop it spreading.
Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale and his book, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith, came out earlier this year, published by Biteback Publishing