Sunderland Lib Dem steps down from committee over children’s services ‘farce’

Coun Stephen O'Brien.
Coun Stephen O'Brien.

An opposition councillor has stepped down from a committee scrutinising children’s services after branding Sunderland City Council’s Labour leadership as a “disgusting and dangerous farce”.

Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen O’Brien has failed to attend the Children, Education and Skills Scrutiny Committee since being appointed in March this year.

This week, he announced he would refuse to attend until chairman and ex-cabinet member for children’s services at the council, Coun Pat Smith, is replaced.

The row follows Ofsted inspectors rating SCC’s children’s services as ‘inadequate’ last month with a government report noting a lack of “effective challenge and scrutiny to improve children’s experiences’.

But Labour leaders have hit back, defending Coun Smith’s role and slamming the opposition councillor’s attendance record.

Coun O’Brien, explaining his decision, said: “It pains me to do this, but I just don’t see that there is any accountability whatsoever in the council leadership at the moment, and to put it frankly, I refuse to play any further part in what seems to me to be a disgusting and dangerous farce.

“No normal, functioning, council would have the scrutiny panel headed up by the same cabinet member who presided over the service during the damning Ofsted report in 2015.

“But this Labour council is not a normal, functioning, council. It is a basket case which cannot see its own failings.”

As previously reported, Coun Smith lost her post as cabinet member for children’s services shortly after government Ofsted inspector labelled the service ‘inadequate’ in 2015.

There was no suggestion she was replaced due to the Ofsted report however, and since 2016 she has served as chairman of the scrutiny committee overseeing children’s services.

Deputy leader of SCC’s Liberal Democrats group, Coun O’Brien, is the sole Liberal Democrat member on the committee and has said no replacement will be offered from the party.

“I want to see the council actually take responsibility for what is going on, starting with overhauling the children’s services scrutiny committee, because the children of our city deserve better than this,” he added.

Deputy Leader of SCC, Coun Michael Mordey, described the move as an “empty gesture to grab a cheap political headline” and the “attacks” on Coun Smith as “unwarranted and uncalled for.”

“Since his appointment to the committee in March 2018, he has not attended a single meeting – he literally has 0 per cent attendance record,” he said.

“I fail to see how you can resign from a committee that you have never once attended nor contributed towards.”

He added: “Coun Smith is an excellent chair of the scrutiny panel and for Coun O’Brien to suggest otherwise when he hasn’t even bothered to turn up to a single committee meeting is utter nonsense.

“Even Ofsted in their most recent inspection said of the committee under Councillor Smith’s chairmanship that ‘…you are doing an excellent job and I wouldn’t want to appear in front of you’.

“So I will not take any of this trumped up nonsense from a councillor who frankly doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

Coun Smith, also added: “Coun O’Brien was put on the committee and didn’t attend the meetings and that was prior to the Ofsted report coming out.

“The children’s services scrutiny committee chair is down to the leadership of the council.

“At the end of the day, who better than someone who has worked for 14 years as a lead member in it.”

The Children, Education and Skills Scrutiny Committee is responsible for reviewing and scrutinising any matter relating to the service performance and commissioning for children, young people and their families.

This includes safeguarding and child protection, family support and children’s social care, corporate parenting, education attainment and skills, relationships with schools and youth services.

Ten Labour councillors and one Conservative councillor sit on the committee, alongside a single Liberal Democrat member.

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service