A Conservative minister gave Northamptonshire’s children’s services a clean bill of health just five months before toddler Dylan Tiffin-Brown was brutally murdered by his father amid chaos in the county council’s child protection department, it has emerged.
Labour has called for an urgent inquiry into why the Department for Education (DfE) lifted a supervision order on the council’s children’s social services in July 2017, when, as a serious case review revealed last week, its frontline safeguarding services were in turmoil.
Robert Goodwill, a minister for education at the time, wrote to the Tory-run council in July 2017 congratulating it on “good progress” in improving child protection after three years in special measures and a further 12 months of Whitehall scrutiny imposed after previous safeguarding failures.
Whitehall supervision was now over “without cause for concern”, the letter said, before thanking council leaders for “all their hard work to get us to this position”. Goodwill added a handwritten message to the bottom of the letter which said: “Well done everybody.”
Five months later, in December, two-year old Dylan, who was known to social services, was beaten to death by his drug dealer father. The review published last week found at the time the council’s child protection operations were chaotic and ineffectual, and chances to intervene on behalf of Dylan over the previous two months were missed.
The shadow communities secretary, Andrew Gwynne, said the case reviews posed serious questions as to how much the council and the DfE knew about the state of its safeguarding services. “Either the DfE wilfully turned a blind eye or they were too incompetent to know something was wrong,” he said.
“Was the council ignorant of the problems with its children’s services or in such denial it refused to tell the government? Regardless, this led to devastating consequences. There must now be an urgent investigation.”
The DfE admitted that at the time the letter was sent it did not have concerns about Northamptonshire’s children’s services and was not aware of the issues that were subsequently raised in the serious case review.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Every single incidence of harm against a child is a tragedy, and these murders in Northamptonshire are truly horrific. It is a sad fact that a death of a child can happen whatever the quality of children’s services but the two case reviews show clearly that there are lessons to be learned which can help prevent such terrible events from happening again.”
Meanwhile, the Northamptonshire council leader, Matthew Golby, is facing calls from local Tory MPs and Labour opposition councillors to resign over the child protection failures. Golby was the council’s lead councillor for – and by law held direct political accountability for – its children’s services between 2016 and 2018.
Golby refused to step down after publication of the case reviews of Dylan’s death and of that of one year-old Evelyn-Rose Muggleton, who was killed by her mother’s partner in April 2018. Golby said he had “so much to give as leader of the council, not least in my determination to put right the mistakes which were made in these awful cases”.
Kettering Tory MP Philip Hollobone told the Commons this week that Golby, as the local councillor responsible for children’s social services at the time, should resign. “He [Golby] is a good man … but … I believe, and my constituents believe, that the buck must stop with the person at the top.”
Opposition Labour councillors have laid a motion of no confidence in Golby at a full council meeting next week. It has emerged that a number of unnamed social workers have been disciplined following the deaths and have since left the council. Lesley Hagger, the director of children’s services from May 2016 to July 2018, subsequently moved to a senior post at Sandwell council.
Councillor Julie Brookfield, Labour’s children’s services spokesperson, said she had raised concerns in 2016 that ministers should not move the council out of special measures because of the failure to solve severe ongoing problems with social worker shortages and systemic safeguarding weaknesses. Her concerns were ignored.
She described the relationship between council leaders and the DfE at the time as far too comfortable. “It was a Conservative government talking to a Conservative council,” she said.
Keith Makin, the former chair of the Northamptonshire safeguarding children board, which published the two serious case reviews, said last week he believed children’s services had come out of special measures too soon. He described the supposed improvement of those services afterwards as “a mirage”. Makin resigned from the board last week.
After moving out of special measures in 2016, Northamptonshire launched ambitious plans to move its child protection services to an independent trust. In July 2017 these were boosted after it received a £4m DfE “innovation” grant, although at the time there were signs that the authority was sliding into financial crisis, in part because its spending on children’s social care was out of control.
The trust was a central plank of a so-called Next Generation plan to turn the county’s services into arm’s-length commercial-style mutual companies. The purpose of the trust, according to its outline business case, was to improve services and cut costs while encouraging “entrepreneurialism and trading for maximum social benefits”.
Planning for the trust may have led to council leaders taking their eye off day-to-day issues, said children’s social care expert Prof Ray Jones. He said: “Setting up a children’s trust even at the best of times is a managerial distraction and creates additional costs. If a council is already struggling financially and if children’s services have not had a lengthy period of stability it is likely to make services even more vulnerable.”
A scathing inspector’s report into the county council’s financial collapse last year, noted that council leaders had wasted “scarce resources in terms of people, time and money” pursuing Next Generation. “There was not then and has never been any hard-edged business plan or justification to support these proposals,” it said.
The children’s trust project was put on hold in June 2018, five months after the council went effectively bankrupt. Although the council feared the £4m would have to be repaid, the government has imposed a children’s trust model on the county as part of its rescue plan, and the council says the investment will be useful in developing the trust and other initiatives.