`

Sunderland Lib Dems criticised over vacant seat on children’s services committee

editorial image

Sunderland’s Liberal Democrats have been accused of “dereliction of duty” after blocking a bid to fill a vacant seat on a committee aiming to improving children’s services.

A damning Ofsted inspection in 2015 saw responsibility for the service transferred from the council to agency Together for Children, which was itself rated ‘inadequate’ in July this year.

Since the inspection, Labour and Conservative councillors condemned Liberal Democrats for leaving a vacant seat on the children, education and skills scrutiny committee.

This came after its representative on the committee, Coun Stephen O’Brien, resigned in protest at the chairmanship of Labour’s Coun Pat Smith – despite failing to attend any meetings.

On Wednesday, September 19, a Labour-backed bid for Conservative group leader, Robert Oliver, to take up the post was blocked during a full council vote.

Coun Oliver, speaking at Sunderland Civic Centre, accused the Lib Dems of putting “childish games first and the children of Sunderland second”.

The move also drew heated responses from council leader, Graeme Miller, who accused the group of “picking and choosing” when they can be councillors and “using the system to abuse it”.

The current makeup of the committee includes 10 Labour councillors, one Conservative councillor and one vacant seat, previously occupied by the Lib Dems.

But a requirement to maintain political balance needs full council to agree to override the regulations to appoint a non-liberal – providing no councillor votes against the proposals.

After blocking the Tory bid for the seat, Lib Dems announced they would not put forward another member as a replacement.

Group leader, Coun Niall Hodson, said the decision was based on the lack of changes to the “status quo” on the committee and long term dissatisfaction with the leadership and direction.

He added this was backed up by ‘serious external criticism’ by Ofsted over scrutiny and leadership and the lack of action by the Labour group to make changes to the committee.

“To try and suggest that he (Stephen O’Brien) is bringing the committee into disrepute is pathetic. The committee has brought itself into disrepute,” he said.

Lib Dem councillor, Martin Haswell, also argued the party could still scrutinise the service and would leave the seat vacant until there was some “meaningful change” in scrutiny.

He added that a “unified approach” was needed to scrutinise children’s services alongside a need for wider partners to attend meetings – such as the city’s clinical commissioning group and council public health staff.

Lib Dems and Conservatives had previously raised objections to current committee chairman, Coun Pat Smith, the cabinet member children’s services in 2015 when the service recieved it’s first damning Ofsted inspection.

Coun Smith, speaking at the meeting, said the Lib Dems were “playing by their own rules” and were “totally inexperienced”.

Coun Miller also said: “To find that councillors believe they don’t need to attend scrutiny – and then even worse, they won’t from within their group find someone else to do it – is an appalling dereliction of duty.”

Addressing Coun O’Brien and Coun Hodson, he added: “I’m sure the electorate will deal with you in May.

“I can’t wait to see what happens, have a nice day.”

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service