‘I’ll step down if I’m asked’ says councillor in charge of under-fire Sunderland children’s services

Sunderland City Council cabinet member Pat Smith.
Sunderland City Council cabinet member Pat Smith.
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A senior councillor charged with overseeing Wearside’s underfire children’s services has said she will step down – if asked to do so by her leader.

Sunderland City Council cabinet member Pat Smith – who is the portfolio holder for children and learning – faces renewed calls to step down after the Government announced outside experts will be sent in start work with the department immediately, setting up a new voluntary trust to turn it around.

The decision comes in the wake of a damning Ofsted report earlier this year, which graded the council’s children’s services as inadequate.

The latest move has seen Coun Smith come in for fresh criticism from political opponents and campaigners.

But when asked if she will resign, she insisted she will remain in post, unless her peers, including council leader Coun Paul Watson, ask her to leave the role.

Coun Smith said: “I would resign if the leader of the council and the Labour group want me to do that.

“What I am here for is to do the best for the children and young people of Sunderland.

“I have done this job in one way or another for nearly 15 years now and I would like to think that I will see this through the melee and have the experience to deal with it.”

Coun Watson, who was not available for comment last night, has previously said he believes Coun Smith is the right person to oversee the improvements.

Back in July, Ofsted inspectors had singled out the leadership within the department and senior councillors for not ensuring youngsters received the services they need to keep them safe, with widespread and serious failures found during the inspection.

New managers have since been drafted in, new social workers recruited and an improvement action plan put together.

But while the move to create the new trust has been welcomed, those affected by the difficulties say Couns Smith and Watson should go.

Heather Fagan, who supports the Sunderland Social Services Discussion Group on Facebook, has been working alongside families as they fight for a better service.

She has also met with commissioner Nick Whitfield – drafted in by the Department of Education in July to improve the department – and is satisfied he has the skills and knowledge to succeed.

She said: “This is very much needed as a lot of them have felt voiceless for so long and they needed something to help them, and this is a positive step that will change lives.

“I think someone still needs to be accountable, that’s what people feel, someone has failed.

“They want to see someone sacked over this.

“It’s important to recognise the social workers on the ground, they are doing what they can and they are bringing in 90 new social workers who will be starting out, some in their first job and be put right into the pit.

“But there needs to be some acknowledgement it is the leaders who need to change, the councillor for children’s services and the leader.”

Coun Peter Wood, leader of the Conservative group on the council, also renewed his calls for Coun Smith to step down.

He said: “Looking at the Ofsted report, the political leadership is letting the city down and that leadership has not changed. I think it is therefore right children’s services is taken out of the council’s control.”