Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs thought he was free and clear of oversight when he bade farewell to the post-Rahman government inspectors.
They gave the council a clean bill of health in areas where the former disgraced mayor had meddled, mostly in the fields of financial propriety and grant-giving.
But now the troubled council needs a helping hand with its children’s services department following an inadequate rating by watchdog Ofsted earlier this year. “Intervention advisors” are to be given free rein to dig into council documents and premises and quiz any employee to find out what’s going wrong in, arguably, the most important function of the council.
Ofsted inspectors said Tower Hamlets failed to meet “basic social worker standards” and the local authority had “failed to ensure professional accountability”.
It is seen as a black mark against the name of Mr Biggs who has done most things right in his attempt to bring the council back from “basket case” status to something approaching business as usual.
While much of the woe facing the council can be traced back to the Rahman era, sufficient time has passed since the former mayor was sacked by the High Court for Mr Biggs to be accountable for the failings in the council.
Warning bells were sounded when deputy mayor and lead on children’s services Cllr Rachael Saunders quit the cabinet – and, indeed, the council in August – following Ofsted’s damning verdict earlier this year. She was reshuffled to adult services but her position became untenable – although she said she was leaving because her personal circumstances had changed.
It emerged that the she did not know if fostered youngsters were being “abandoned or trafficked”. Too many fostered children remained in “situations of actual or potential harm” because of insufficient scrutiny by the council’s chief executive, the children’s services director and politicians, Ofsted inspectors found.
However, THBC retain control of children’s services and the inspection does not cover all areas.
The Department of Education has now imposed representatives from Islington and Lincolnshire to oversee changes. The DoE direction said: “Reviews may cover but are not exclusive to practice; performance; culture; leadership, management and governance; workforce and management oversight; early help; and the Local Safeguarding Children Board.”
For central Government to step in, an issue usually requires a perfect storm of initial mismanagement heightened by a national focus. In the case of Lutfur Rahman, a Panorama programme into his corrupt fiefdom was the trigger for then communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles to take a course of action that ultimately led to the mayor’s downfall.
In this instance, it was the story of the “Christian girl fostered by a Muslim family” that pressed the alarm button. While aspects of the reporting in national papers about the circumstances of the fostering were either greatly exaggerated or without foundation, there was sufficient evidence to move Tower Hamlets’ children’s care into the in-tray of Education Secretary Justine Greening.
‘Catastrophic failure’ say rivals
Cllr Oliur Rahman, a Rahman acolyte and leader of the Independent Group – formerly Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party – said: “Government commissioners have now taken over children services in another name because of the failures of John Biggs. The Tower Hamlets Council’s children’s services is now ranked ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted; the same service was ranked ‘Good’ under the former Mayor.”
He claimed: “Biggs’s Cabinet Member did not even bother to attend a single Children Safeguarding Board meeting since 2015 and had to resign. This catastrophic failure has let down parents, carers and very vulnerable kids. Tower Hamlets is paying the price for the mayor’s failures and he needs to be made accountable.”
Isle of Dogs Conservative councillor Andrew Woods said: “This intervention is required as the Labour administration is failing the borough and some of its most vulnerable residents our [Conservative] Group is looking forward to a rapid improvement in services.”
A previous resignation by another deputy mayor – Shiria Khartun with strongly disputed allegations of sexism and bullying – now puts the Labour administration with a narrow majority under increasing pressure. And the mayor himself emerges from the honeymoon of the post-Rahman election into the frontline of torrid and unforgiving East London politics – a place with which he is robustly familiar.
Tower Hamlets responds
A Tower Hamlets council spokesperson said: “Children’s social care services remain under the full control of Tower Hamlets – which is clear from the DfE Direction issued yesterday.
“We have a highly ambitious and achievable plan to achieve a good rating for children’s services from Ofsted by April 2019. Work is already well underway and our Children’s Services Improvement Plan is our programme to fundamentally change the way that we will now deliver children’s services.
“The council is investing an extra £4.8million in children’s services for improvements required by Ofsted.”