Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
A child protection expert has said she has “serious concerns” at how Leeds City Council investigates the district’s most extreme child abuse cases.
The comments came during a meeting where members heard of two cases of serious abuse against children that the council opted not to refer for review, despite police and health professionals urging them to do otherwise.
One senior councillor said it was “unacceptable”, while another said it had “shaken his faith” in the authority’s child services and suspected the council was too concerned about “reputational damage”.
According to laws brought in during 2019, local authorities have to notify a national child safeguarding panel where it knows or suspects a child has been abused or neglected, leading to their death or serious harm.
This decision is made by the council’s children’s services following a meeting with police and health professionals, known as the Independent Leeds Safeguarding Board.
“Serious harm” includes serious or long term impairment of mental health or intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.
Once the notification is made, a “rapid review” would then take place, looking into how a council’s child protection services could be improved.
A meeting of Leeds City Council’s Children and Families Scrutiny Board heard that, since September 2019, there had been six notifications made by Leeds City Council.
But the chair of the Independent Leeds Safeguarding Board Jasvinder Sanghera CBE said she had raised concerns in August 2021 as to how this system was working, and that police and health professionals would sometimes disagree with the council on whether to refer a case for review.
She told the scrutiny board she had been asked to look into why Leeds had fewer reviews than other councils, adding:
“That made me look at the systems more closely and, without going into case specifics right here, one case did concern me seriously.”
This led to a review into the notification system being set up in December 2021, and is expected to be completed by the end of March.
But the chair of the scrutiny board, Coun Alan Lamb (Con), said he had not even been notified that this was taking place. He added:
“Serious concerns have been raised by the independent chair, and neither myself or this board knew that any of this was going on, which I find unacceptable.”
A discussion then took place for around half an hour about the particular child protection case. It was conducted in private due to the sensitive nature of the case, and to avoid the risk of identifying the victim to the public.
Once the public part of the meeting recommenced, Coun Lamb said: “What has been described to the board is a circumstance where the health, police and council partners of the board disagreed about notifying a case.”
Ms Sanghera confirmed another case had more recently come before the review board, regarding “very young children”.
She added: “Police and health felt very strongly that it should have been considered. I decided to take this case to my executive board – I wouldn’t normally do that, but I have to sleep with myself at night – I am here to make a difference and safeguard children.
“All I will tell you is it is still not going to notification. At the moment that case will have to be considered in terms of the learning from that case in a different way.”
She later added: “I am here as a last resort, in all honesty. The system I raised concerns about last year, but in the here and now, I am in the position where another case has been highlighted, and two partners feel very strongly that it is notifiable in the interests of learning and of children.”
Coun Sandy Lay (Lib Dem) then asked if Ms Sanghera had ever considered resigning due to frustrations with the system.
She responded: “Yes, I have considered my position. Accountability for child protection has always been collective and in my role there is only so much I can do. I feel the frustration of partners too.
“I’m not angry – this is my job. You employ me to be objective and this is my role. This is a collective responsibility.
“We have to lead collectively in the interests of children. This particular piece of legislation in my opinion doesn’t appear to facilitate partnership working in the way I would expect it to.
“It’s about doing the right thing.”
Leeds City Council’s executive member for adult and child social care Coun Fiona Venner (Lab) said:
“All of us who have a leadership role in this council for children have an absolute fierce dedication to children, and to their safety and wellbeing.
“I would like to stress that notifications and rapid reviews are one way that learning happens after there is a serious incident. It is not the only way.
“If we don’t notify a case, it absolutely does not mean that is not considered and not viewed and learning takes place.
“It is absolutely the case that there has been disagreement between partners on notifications but, as Rebecca has outlined, the legislation states it is the local authority that notifies.
“Social workers are the profession that is most imbued in child protection. The local authority making the notification is managing all the cases where children need child protection plans and is immersed in child protection issues all the time.
“When we make a decision on whether to notify or not, we are of course absolutely taking into account of the views of our partners.
“Because of the disagreement, we are doing a review of the notification process. This is a national issue. It is a new system nationally that came in in 2019.”
Leeds City Council’s director of children and families Saleem Tariq OBE added: “It’s not just here in Leeds where there are cases about agreements and disagreements. It is the most serious cases that should come in for consideration.
“We have had lots of conversations on how else we might do that learning. We have done learning events where practitioners involved in a child’s life, when that results in a serious incident, we should bring those practitioners together – that is where the richest learning can happen, in understanding why people made those particular decisions they did in those circumstances.
“I have apologised to you for not bringing this matter previously.”
He went on to assure members the decision was not part of a “planned omission”, adding: “We have been operating in a pandemic under a lot of pressure. We were on with trying to review the processes so we have a stronger position in how we make notifications.”
Coun Lay said: “Up until this point I had absolute faith in our services. This has shaken my faith in our services. We have an independent chair of safeguarding who has considered resignation, we have two partners who have disagreed.
“I worry you have spent nine months telling us we have an excellent service and we haven’t done this because we are worried about reputational damage. I can’t get away from that feeling.
“This system has been in place for two years. I can’t sit here and listen to people say ‘we need time to get it right’, we have to get it right quickly because children are at risk.”
Coun Ryan Stephenson (Con): “There are other ways to review cases, but the importance of a national review is that it is not Leeds marking its own homework. It is a national review to see what lessons could be learned not just in Leeds but across the whole country.”