With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about Rotherham council.
Last August, Professor Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham described how vulnerable children have been repeatedly failed by a council paralysed by complacency, institutionalised political correctness and blatant failures of political and officer leadership.
With such serious documented failures, I told the House last September that it was clearly in the public interest to order a statutory inspection of Rotherham council. I appointed Louise Casey to undertake a formal best-value inspection of the council. Today, her inspection report has been laid before the House and published. I would like to thank Louise Casey and her inspection team for their hard work in producing this thorough report.
This report presents a disturbing picture of a council failing in its duty to protect vulnerable children and young people from harm. It reveals the council’s failure, both past and present, to accept, understand or combat the crimes of child sexual exploitation. It concludes that this culture of denial is intrinsic and has resulted in a lack of support for victims and insufficient action taken against known perpetrators.
The report also confirms a complete failure of political and officer leadership in Rotherham. Let me outline some of the report’s conclusions. Poor governance is deeply seated throughout the council. There is a pervading culture of bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced political correctness that has cemented the council’s failures. Both members and officers lack the confidence to tackle difficult issues for fear of being seen as racist or of upsetting community cohesion. The council is currently incapable of tackling its weakness without substantial intervention.
The council lacks political leadership. It is also directionless, and it is not clear what kind of organisation it wants to be or how it will get there. It is clear that the political leadership of the council is unable to hold officers to account, and there is an inability of all members properly to represent the interests of local people. Some councillors have not lived up to the high standards expected of those in public life or to their positions of responsibility. For example, the council goes to lengths to cover up and silence whistleblowers. It has created an unhealthy climate where people fear to speak out because they have seen the consequences of doing so.
Management is ineffective; there is no coherent senior leadership team and no permanent chief executive. There is a poorly directed tier of middle managers, some of whom do not demonstrate that they have the skills, drive and ability necessary to turn the organisation around. There is a history of poor performance and a tolerance of failure in children’s services. Strategies and action plans sit on the shelf and do not get translated into change.
In short, the report concludes that Rotherham council has failed its citizens, is failing to comply with the statutory best-value duty and it needs a fresh start. As a consequence of this conclusion, and in terms of statute, I am satisfied that the council is failing to comply with its best-value duty. It is failing in its duty to deliver quality local services for all and value for money to local taxpayers. I therefore need to consider exercising my powers of intervention to secure compliance with the duty. To that end and in line with procedures laid down in the Local Government Act 1999, I am today writing to the council to ask if it wishes to make representations both on Louise Casey’s report and on the intervention package I am proposing.
My proposals are designed to give the council the new start it needs, and to put an immediate end to the council’s ongoing service and governance failings. To provide that new start, I am seeking to make an order under the Local Government Act 2000 to move Rotherham council to holding all-out elections in 2016 and every fourth year thereafter. The 2016 elections will be an opportunity for the people of Rotherham to renew the membership of their council, and to elect those in whom they can have confidence.
In the immediate term, I am minded to appoint commissioners who will provide new leadership, taking over the roles of the current wholly dysfunctional cabinet. I propose that these commissioners will initially exercise all the functions currently exercised by the cabinet—namely all the council’s executive functions. Their responsibilities will thus include children and young people’s services and adult social care. I propose that the commissioners will exercise other functions of the council where there can be no confidence in the present council’s ability to act responsibly.
Louise Casey’s report uncovered serious weaknesses in the council’s taxi licensing. Sufficient steps to ensure that only fit and proper persons are permitted to hold a taxi licence were not, and are not being, undertaken. There can be no confidence in the council’s licensing committee. I am minded that the commissioners should take control of all the council’s licensing functions. I also propose that the commissioners should have the functions of appointing the chief executive, chief finance officer and monitoring officer, and of nominating members to other bodies. I expect them, in exercising all their responsibilities, to have appropriate regard to any views that the council’s members may have on these matters.
It is because the council is so seriously failing the people of Rotherham—particularly some of the most vulnerable in the borough—that I propose to take the wholly exceptional step of putting all those responsibilities, for a time, in the hands of commissioners who will be appointed by and accountable to me. My aim will be to return the responsibilities to local democratic control as rapidly as possible. From day one, the commissioners will have the role of considering and reporting to me what functions can be rolled back to the council, but only when they are confident that the functions will be exercised properly. I propose that, at the end of every quarter, they should review and report to me on what functions can be rolled back to ensure that there is a phased roll-back of functions throughout the intervention. My hope and expectation is that the roll-back can begin soon, and that after the 2016 elections major services can be returned, with the council resuming full responsibility for its range of services within four years.
As well as having the role of exercising the council’s functions, the commissioners will oversee and drive forward the service and governance improvements that the council will be required to undertake in order to comply with the statutory best-value duty. I propose to appoint a team of five commissioners who will exercise those functions jointly and severally. The team will consist of a lead commissioner to give overall leadership and direction to the intervention; a commissioner with a “managing director” role to lead the oversight of overall service and governance improvement, driving performance; a children’s commissioner, appointed by my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary, who will be responsible for driving improvements in children’s services; and two further commissioners to support the work of the commission. I also propose to end taxpayer-funded reward for failure by requiring the council to stop special responsibility allowances for cabinet members without functions while commissioners are in post.
The council now has 14 days in which to make representations to me on the report and on my proposed intervention package. I will then carefully consider any representations that are made, and decide how to proceed. If I decide to intervene along these lines, I will make the necessary statutory directions under the Local Government Act 1999, and will appoint commissioners. I will also make the order under the 2000 Act. Any directions that I make will be without prejudice to my making further directions if required. I will update the House on my conclusions in due course.
It is with a heavy heart that I am having to resort to such central intervention. The coalition Government are committed to strengthening local democracy and local accountability, but the voice of the victims must be clearly heard. The crimes committed against children are so appalling, and the council’s remedy is so utterly inadequate, that the Government cannot, in good conscience, turn a blind eye. The exceptional circumstances justify the intervention of Whitehall so that we can make the council address its failings and prevent what has happened from ever happening again. I believe that the public, in Rotherham and throughout the country, would expect nothing less.
The intervention package that I am proposing is broad and wide-ranging, and can be justified only in the most exceptional case. Rotherham is, I believe, such a case—a truly rare case, in which the children of Rotherham have been so badly let down by those who were elected to serve them. Councils throughout England have, on the whole, a good record of service, and are looking after their local communities. They are the heart of localism. That is something to protect and to cherish. The purpose of the action that I have proposed today is to restore good local governance to Rotherham, so that people can have confidence in their council again, and can take great pride in their borough.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and for the way in which he has handled this difficult matter. I also add my thanks to Louise Casey and her inspection team for the work that they have done.
Last September, the Jay report exposed the sheer scale of the sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham. Today, once again, our thoughts are with the victims and the horror to which they were subjected. The report provided evidence that the council, together with other public bodies, had failed in its duty to protect Rotherham’s children. It was therefore right for the Secretary of State to establish the inquiry that has reported today.
Louise Casey’s report is, frankly, damning. It reveals very serious institutional failings, continuing denial of the problem, a damaging culture of sexism, bullying and discomfort about race, a failure to address past weaknesses, a greater interest in protecting the council’s reputation than, apparently, in protecting children, a lack of scrutiny and failure to challenge other agencies, and ineffective leadership. If we are to move forward, everyone involved must accept the truth. It is clear that the council has not yet done so, and, as a result, does not currently have the capacity to heal itself. I agree with the Secretary of State that a fresh start is needed, and I therefore welcome the statement that has been issued by Rotherham council’s cabinet in the last few minutes. It reads as follows:
“As a cabinet…we must take responsibility. We therefore announce our intention to resign our positions as soon as transitional arrangements can be put in place.”
In the light of that, I support the course of action that the Secretary of State has just announced, and, in particular, the sending in of commissioners to take over the functions of the cabinet. As the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, it is a serious step to take, but the circumstances clearly warrant it, and I welcome the assurance he has given that his aim is to return responsibility to local democratic control when it is right to do so.
I have a number of questions to ask. When does the Secretary of State expect to be in a position to announce the names of the five commissioners, especially given the announcement that has just been made by Rotherham council about the current cabinet? What background and experience will he be looking for in appointing them? Does he intend to consult anyone when making the appointments? What progress reports will he and the House receive on the work that the commissioners undertake? What discussions has he had with the Education Secretary about Ofsted and its role in inspecting Rotherham, given the concerns expressed by the Communities and Local Government Committee?
When he commissioned the report, the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he had asked Louise Casey—in addition to her inspection of the council—to explore the links between Rotherham, the police and the justice system. Can he update the House on that part of her work, and when can we expect to see her findings, given that there will undoubtedly be lessons on which all local authorities should act? Sadly, as we know, the problems of child sexual exploitation are not confined to Rotherham.
The people of Rotherham—and all of us—remain angry, above all, with the perpetrators of the shocking abuse that took place over decades, and we are united in our determination both to see justice done and to act to prevent this from ever happening again. In doing so, we must also remain united in the face of those who will seek to use what has happened in Rotherham to divide the community.
Local authorities have great responsibilities, which they have a duty to exercise on behalf of the people they represent. When it comes to our children, there is no greater responsibility than to make sure that they are safe and protected. That this did not happen here is unforgivable, but our joint task now is to work with the commissioners, the council, other public bodies and the people of Rotherham to put things right.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone and the substance of his response. He is bang on the money. By their wilful blindness to address this issue and by their reluctance to tackle issues relating to people of Pakistani heritage, they just made it worse. The problems we are going to face over the next few weeks, with those who will seek to exploit this, were made worse. We want to make it absolutely clear that the House is determined to deal with the question of child sexual exploitation without fear or favour. I very much welcome that.
On looking for commissioners, I consulted the right hon. Gentleman when we faced another situation and I shall be consulting him on this. Of course, we need to make it clear in that consultation that I am not in any way prejudicing the decision on whether the take the necessary action. That has to be clear. The cabinet has now resigned, which I think was the sensible thing to do. I do not think we can take that as the formal response, but I look forward to hearing what Rotherham has to say.
With regard to Ofsted, Louise Casey spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, and arrangements have been made to talk further about the points raised by Hilary Benn. The right hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to look at the report and will know that there are certain references to and worries with regard to the police force. Louise Casey has also spoken to the Home Secretary and we hope to make progress, but the right hon. Gentleman will understand that there are certain matters it would not be seemly to talk about on the Floor of the House.
I am keen to get democratic control back to Rotherham. It is my intention to try to roll those services back. Initially, I looked at taking limited ones, but having looked through the whole process it was clear that it just simply was not possible. I needed to take the whole lot and then roll them back as quickly and as expeditiously as possible.
I have been involved with local government for the best part of 40 years. This is heartbreaking. This is terrible. I used to lead a large council. I can see Mr Betts on the Opposition Benches—he used to lead a very large council. I used to be the chairman of a social services committee. I just cannot understand how people with responsibility, both officers and members, could ever, ever have allowed this to happen.
I share the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State. For any of us who believe in local government, this is a tragedy. It is also, above all, a tragedy for the victims. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the boldness of his measure. Can he, in taking the matter forward, ensure that the commissioners appointed have particular expertise in their ranks in relation not only to the child care issues that are so critical, but to proper corporate governance, proper employment procedures and proper understanding of electoral administration, all of which will be critical in the period going forward?
My hon. Friend’s advice is very sensible. I actually believe that this is now one of the plum jobs in local government. This is a chance to restore good quality local government. We shall be looking right across the piece for people with enormous experience. Rotherham deserves the absolute best. I can assure the House I am determined to get people of immense quality to bring about that necessary change.
The report was very well researched. It is very robust and I accept it in full. I really welcome the intervention package that is being put in place, because Rotherham does deserve better. It has been let down. This is heartbreaking, but it is also disgusting—every page has a new horror on it. My plea is for the Secretary of State to put resources in place so we can move forward. I have been asking for five months for resources specifically to help the young people move on with their lives. We are not getting that and we need it.
I would like the House to recognise that this came about because of the tenacity of the survivors who kept coming forward and kept highlighting, over years and years and years, how they were being let down. They are the champions now, because they have caused the change that we so dearly needed for our town.
I agree with everything the hon. Lady says. It is certainly my intention to involve Members of Parliament from Rotherham to ensure that they are not just fully informed but able to participate in the strengthening. She makes a really good point about the way the report has been put together. It is very clear that this is a report in which the voice of the victim is heard. No one can say that the voice of the victim has been ignored here. We owe it to the victims of Rotherham to put something in place that we can all be very proud of.
The Secretary of State said that the council went to some lengths to cover up and silence whistleblowers. Will he consider some mechanism whereby councils are formally made aware, maybe through declarations similar to those for Members’ interests, to a council’s monitoring officer and to the Secretary of State, whenever a letter before action or any threat of legal action is issued by a councillor, so that threats against staff, ex-employees, opposition councillors and even MPs are out in the open?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point, but the real tragedy in terms of governance and dealing with victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation is that it is not as though the safeguards were not there. It is not as though the whistleblower process and the protections were not there. The council had all the policies written down, but they were not there in practice. If someone blew a whistle in Rotherham, they were persecuted and bullied. They had a very bad time. We need to apply the same high standard that exists in just about every local authority in the country to Rotherham.
As I said when the Jay report was released, our whole town was shocked and shamed by its findings. This report is also deeply and comprehensively critical of our council and our police. As my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn has said, Labour accepts Louise Casey’s findings and the actions the Secretary of State now plans to take. Locally, we will all work with the commissioners to put right in full the flaws set out in this report and to put in place in full the recommendations of the Jay report to help victims and bring perpetrators to justice. The Secretary of State has made a welcome promise to play his part. Will he start by releasing £750,000 of troubled families and transformation award funding withheld from Rotherham that the council and its agencies need to help to put right the problems set out in the Casey report?
That, clearly, is one of the first things I will look at. If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I really want to address the elephant in the room. He said that Labour would do this. I do not expect anything less. I do not regard this as political at all. I fully understand that we are in a charged political system, but this is about a failure of local government. I could point to lots of Conservative local government where this would never happen. I have to tell the House that I could point to lots of Labour local government where this would not happen. This is almost a complete parody of what local government should look like.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I think it is true that this awful situation was, to a certain extent, exposed by investigative journalism from The Times newspaper, which listened to the victims when the police did not. Today, there is another report, I understand, of two councillors and a police officer in the area who may actually have been personally involved. I know my right hon. Friend is not responsible for the police, but building on what he said to the Labour party spokesman, will he reassure the House that the police will be thoroughly held to account and will now help the victims?
I am sure the chief constable of the force will recognise that there are some difficult questions that need answering, and I am sure that, with the help of the Home Secretary and of commissioners, we can work together to ensure those past misdeeds are investigated and the necessary action is taken. From reading through this report, what is especially necessary is an attitudinal approach. We need to address that attitudinal point in the police, the council and society in general.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me the opportunity to read the report earlier today in his Department. The inspection found that past and present failures to accept, understand and combat the issue of child sexual exploitation resulted in a lack of support for victims and insufficient action against known perpetrators. That is wholly unacceptable, and may I tell the Secretary of State that I wholly support the action he is proposing?
The right hon. Gentleman is a very distinguished Member of this House and I am very grateful to have his support. I know he will use his good offices to help rebuild a team of officers and a team of politicians that will be able to take Rotherham forward.
Taxis have been, and almost certainly still are, the trafficking method of choice of abusers and exploiters across the north. I welcome the Secretary of State’s strong words on taxi regulation, and I welcome this very robust statement. May I urge him and his Department to look at every taxi licensing authority across the north and make sure they are doing exactly the right thing?
My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point, and I am particularly irked by the way in which taxis were used. A point has been made about putting in place new measures, but the regulations are pretty clear and straightforward. What we wanted was to see these regulations used. I wonder if I might answer my hon. Friend’s question in a slightly different way: I think lots of lessons will come out of this, and I will ensure that they are all learned very quickly by authorities that license taxis.
I thank the Secretary of State for the fact that as Chair of the Select Committee I had an advance look at the report. I have also spoken to Louise Casey, who is going to come to the Committee so that we can explore some of these issues in more detail. I wholly agree with the Secretary of State that this is not a party political matter just because this is a Conservative Secretary of State and this is a Labour council; this is about putting arrangements in place to help the children of Rotherham, who have been let down in the past. May I press him on one point, however? If he decides to appoint commissioners and they find that they need extra resources, particularly to help the young people who have been exploited and abused in the past and now need counselling and other assistance, will he respond positively to any request they make for such financial assistance?
I shall look very carefully at that, and at the way in which victims and survivors are compensated—perhaps outside this particular. I suspect it is possible that the council itself may well be facing some significant law cases, which it will have to defend. But of course I shall look very carefully on this, and I will also look to the hon. Gentleman to offer some advice on the choice of commissioners as well as on the matters he asks about.
Rotherham, like all local authorities responsible for children, submits a return to the Government on what is happening to the children—the SSDA903 return. Every year, Rotherham is audited on what happens with its finances, so that the finances are not fabricated. In the SSDA903 returns, certain children leave care for “other” reasons; they may be trafficked, they may be abused—we do not know. Would it not be a good idea for the Government to have an independent audit of what happens to these children, and what is happening to the children who leave care officially for “other” reasons?
The hon. Gentleman will know from many conversations I have had with him since I have held this post and before that I have a lot of sympathy with what he says, and that is one of the reasons why I am very proud to support the foyer movement. I certainly feel that as a nation we need to do a lot more in terms of offering assistance to people who leave the care system, but I go back to the point the hon. Gentleman just made: the returns looked great, but the reality on the ground did not.
I called for this intervention publicly six months ago, so naturally I welcome it, but what about the inspectors? We have an inspection regime for children’s services and for schools, but what is being done to hold them accountable and to ensure that the inspection regime is hearing and seeing what is going on?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. I am sure he has not found it possible to read the whole report yet, but it makes it clear that the inspection takes place, the inspectors make recommendations about what should happen, the council says, “You’re absolutely right, and here is our new policy,” and then nothing happens. The issue is the process between “We know we should do it” and “We aren’t going to do it.” That is why I am taking this intervention today—or, rather, why I am thinking about taking this intervention today.
May I suggest one thing the Secretary of State might like to consider doing immediately about child abuse? When the child victims of human trafficking come into local government care, they are not recorded as victims of human trafficking. If they were, when they disappeared there would be an indication that the council was failing.
My hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters so he will know that we are trialling advocates for young people in these kinds of circumstances, and if that proves to be successful I hope we will see it rolled out rapidly. One thing that has been clear from all these cases is that the voice of the victim and voice of the survivor is just not heard, and we need to hear their voice.
What is really shocking about Louise Casey’s findings is the existing level of denial among officers and councillors about the extent of child sexual exploitation in spite of the recent Jay report, but this is not unique to Rotherham. There is widespread complacency among agencies charged with protecting children and councils in believing CSE happens elsewhere. We need a sea-change in attitudes. What more can the Secretary of State do to ensure that councillors, who are really important, receive adequate training in awareness and identification of CSE in their areas?
The hon. Lady’s report on the same problem in Manchester was very illuminating, but we need only look at page 19 of the Rotherham report to see that 70% of current Rotherham councillors spoken to by Louise and her team disputed Professor Jay’s findings, and that was continuous—“The methodology was wrong, things were not right, they didn’t count this.” The figure of 1,400 is probably conservative in terms of the actual numbers involved. What is clear from Jay, Casey and the hon. Lady’s excellent report is that we need to understand that councillors in such circumstances have a special duty, and that is something I am going to look at most carefully, to ensure that people realise they have a role of intervention.
Local authority councillors have a specific role as corporate parents for some of the most vulnerable children in our community. It strikes me from what I have heard of this report that that role is misunderstood by many councillors. What more does the Secretary of State feel needs to be done to instil in councillors an understanding of this important role and the duty they have?
The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, but I think we need to understand that, day in, day out in lots of local authorities, officers carry out that duty extremely carefully and diligently; Rotherham does not speak for the situation. Others may also need investigation but, sadly, Rotherham—this is not about the town but about the councillors and officials—is a peculiar leader in indifference and incompetence.
When the Home Affairs Committee investigated child sexual abuse in Rochdale and in Rotherham, we did see a difference: there was at least some action in Rochdale, but we found complete denial in Rotherham, so I support the thrust of the intervention.
Even if single-party Labour control may not have caused what happened, it did allow it. Until UKIP broke through there in the local elections last year, there was virtually no party political competition in Rotherham. Pending the 2016 all-out elections, will the May 2015 elections go ahead to allow us to continue to hold the Labour councillors responsible to account at the ballot box?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point about the way Rochdale approached this. The May 2015 elections will take place. However, let me say to him that this is about people’s lives. This is about protecting children; it is not about whether some grubby politician is elected or not. If we seek to turn this into some kind of political football, we will be as bad as the failing councillors of Rotherham, and I am determined that that should not be the case.
Points of order come afterwards; I will take one then.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his response to Louise Casey’s excellent report. He will know that I led a council whose children’s services had been rated by Ofsted in the bottom 3% nationally at the time of my election, but was rated as the best in the country by the time I left. The key to that improvement was acknowledgement of failure, clear expectations of staff and councillors, high quality training, but above all else voice for the vulnerable children, and that means giving them the power and the mechanisms to force those who do not want to listen to hear what they are saying and act on it. What mechanisms does the Secretary of State envisage councils adopting so that all vulnerable children in this circumstance can be heard?
I am not sure whether that was a job application. The hon. Gentleman is right, and the point is that we do not need to invent something to empower young people and the service; it is all there in plain sight, day in, day out in local authorities. The quality and emotional intelligence might vary, but it is there. That is why I am hopeful: I think we can turn Rotherham around relatively quickly, and I look forward to the day when the commissioners are a distant memory. I regret that the hon. Gentleman rules himself out for the post, but he may have views.
I, too, recognise the work of Louise Casey in this excellent report, and I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. When I visited Rotherham earlier this week with my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, we held a girls’ safety summit. The young women we talked to said that they felt that, in dealing with the issues Rotheram is facing, people were talking about them, not to them, and all that they heard was coming through the media. They felt hugely vulnerable, but nobody was actually speaking to them as young people. Has the Secretary of State considered as part of his plans what message of reassurance can be given to young people across Rotherham about how they will be protected in future?
The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point, and I would expect the commissioners to start that process. There are, after all, five commissioners, and although we cannot expect them to do everything we will be asking them to offer leadership, to give courage to officials and to get them running in some kind of proper order. Everything the hon. Lady referred to is available in other local authorities, although not necessarily all, but I am absolutely determined that the fundamental, systemic failure of local government we have seen in Rotherham will not be allowed to spread like a cancer elsewhere. In truth—forgive me for saying this—this is a wake-up call for all local authorities: the Government will not stand idly by and watch them fritter away good resources and let down their populations.