End to row over vacant children’s scrutiny committee seat on Sunderland City Council

Sunderland City Council chamber
Sunderland City Council chamber

A political row over a vacant seat on a committee overseeing Sunderland’s children’s services has come to an end.

A damning Ofsted inspection in 2015 saw responsibility for the service transferred from Sunderland City Council to agency Together for Children (TfC) which was rated ‘inadequate” itself in July.

Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller.

Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller.

Since the inspection, Labour and Conservative councillors have condemned the Liberal Democrat and Others group for leaving a vacant seat on the Children, Education and Skills Scrutiny Committee.

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

After leaving the seat empty for nearly three months and blocking a Conservative bid to fill the seat, the Liberal Democrat and Others group broke the political stalemate this week.

Group leader, Coun Niall Hodson, will now represent the Lib Dems on the committee following the decision at full council on November 21 to maintain political balance.

Coun Niall Hodson, Liberal Democrat leader on Sunderland City Council.

Coun Niall Hodson, Liberal Democrat leader on Sunderland City Council.

The changes followed a motion, presented by Lib Dem councillor Martin Haswell, calling for a review of governance arrangements around scrutiny in line with recommendations from Ofsted’s 2018 report.

It called for arrangements to bring other “relevant bodies” on to the committee with interest in providing services to children from birth to 18-21-year-old care leavers.

While crediting changes in leadership in TfC, Coun Haswell added “scrutiny remains the gap” – an issue flagged by Ofsted repeatedly with no proposals brought forward to tackle it, he argued.

However, the motion drew heated comments from councillors at Sunderland Civic Centre, following the Lib Dem group blocking a Conservative bid for the seat in September.

It was later defeated in a council vote of 55-6.

Conservative councillor and vice chairman of the committee, Bob Francis, credited the importance of scrutiny and the range of issues tackled by the committee, from teen pregnancy to universal credit.

Addressing Stephen O’Brien, he added: “It’s childish to be offered a rattle only to throw it out of the pram and scream your head off because you have got nothing to play with.”

Deputy council leader, Coun Michael Mordey, described the motion as “ridiculous (and) politically-charged,” adding, “I don’t know how they have got the bare-faced cheek.”

“There’s a saying, decisions are made by those who show up. So maybe if they want a say on decisions they should show up,” he said.

The Labour boss also accused the Lib Dems of being unwilling to take up the scrutiny seat, accusing Coun O’Brien and Coun Hodson of being “two part-time councillors, collecting full-time wages”.

Cabinet member for children’s services, Louise Farthing, quoted the council constitution stating council already had powers available to achieve the aims of Lib Dem motion.

“You may be inexperienced but it’s no excuse for neglecting your duties to represent your electorate,” she said.

“You have the powers you need already, to do what you suggest you wanted to do, you just need to turn up and attend the committee.”

While Coun Phil Tye added he received assurances from TfC chief executive, Jill Colbert, at her first address to the committee over working together to “strengthen scrutiny arrangements”.

He accused the Lib Dems of “pinching the idea and putting it in a notice of motion”.

Coun Niall Hodson, responding said: “Given what’s gone on over the past three years in Sunderland it’s unusual that this council has not had a debate about children’s services and particularly childrens scrutiny given whats happened with the Ofsted reports and the foundation of TfC.

“People have repeatedly acknowledged we as a council and scrutiny as a committee can do better.

“We down here in the pit want to see a similar approach taken by councillors to what’s happening at TfC, that we put our accounts in order here at the civic centre, that scrutiny remains our responsibility here, not something that can be changed at TfC.”

On taking up the seat on the committee, he added: “I’m disappointed that the council has refused to listen to a dissenting view or acknowledge that things can be changed or improved.

“What I will endeavour to say at my first appearance at this meeting, I will ask the council to consider how any of its processes will change if it continues to react so negatively and dismissively to criticism, wherever it comes from.”

Chris Binding, Local Democracy Reporting Service