Just five years ago, in 2009, rural Somerset County Council was rated an “excellent authority” with “good and improving Children’s Services”.
The Director of Children’s Services had built his team over many years of service to Somerset. He was a man who was passionate about care and was committed to his staff and service.
But in 2009, the Conservatives took control of the Council. The County Councillor for Wells, John Osman, was handed responsibility for Children’s Services by his colleagues.
It should have been easy enough.
He inherited one of the most important and valued portfolios, a department in good shape, well-managed and motivated staff, performing well and consistently improving its services.
He had the opportunity to continue to help supporting young people and turning their lives around.
A real gift for an aspiring politician.
Common sense would say “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. Alas, no.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Somerset’s most vulnerable children are not in a good place.
Children’s Services are now classed as “inadequate”, the lowest rating used by Ofsted – bumping along just above the point when the Government is forced to step in and take control.
By 2012, after three short years, Mr Osman had overseen a catastrophic decline in Children’s Services.
Now, you’d think that if your Department had fallen from “Outstanding” to “Inadequate” in such a short time, you’d take swift action to start putting things right?
You wouldn’t hang about waiting to see if you’re going to be called in to see the boss. You’d gather your team around the table and make a plan to turn things around.
Or, if things had really hit rock bottom and you didn’t know what to do to put it right, you’d apologise, fall on your sword and clear your desk.
But in Somerset, the County Council’s leading Tories have a different way of doing things.
When Mr Osman had finished his ‘slash and burn’ approach to Children’s Services, his colleagues offered him a promotion. No apology, no falling on his sword, no desk-clearing.
They made him Leader of the County Council. And gave him control over everything.
Now the plot thickens.
Last year Mr Osman and his colleague David Huxtable, the Conservative Councillor with overall responsibility for how our Council Tax is spent, decided to hire three temporary, part-time managers to clear up the mess in Children’s Services.
The three contractors are costing Somerset’s taxpayers £741,000 a year.
The interim Head of Children’s Services is paid £318,500 for a four day week. That salary is thought to be £103,000 more than any other member of staff in any other Council in the country. It is well over twice what the Prime Minister earns.
Osman engaged the services of the man inner-city Haringey parachuted in following the tragic death of Peter Connelly, Baby P.
The challenge faced by Somerset’s Children’s Services is identifying young people at risk of harm. You do that with staff, not with exorbitantly expensive managers.
A quick look at the job vacancies page of Somerset County Council’s website shows that’s enough to hire 27 frontline, full-time social workers.
And to crown it all, it appears that the man with his hands on the purse strings – Cllr Huxtable – appointed at least one of the County Council’s new staff through an agency owned by the interim Director of Children’s Services himself.
Which means that not only are Somerset’s taxpayers coughing up for what could be the country’s most expensive Council worker, but he is channelling his whopping £318,500 salary through a limited company owned by him and his wife, avoiding paying tax at 45% and NI at 12%. He only has to pay tax on dividends at the flat 21% corporation tax rate.
Something most of us – the ordinary, salaried taxpayers of Somerset and his County Council staff – cannot do.
This practice takes money away from funding public services. It is banned in Government and the NHS.
When challenged, Mr Osman always blames the Government for any cuts he has to make.
That argument might actually carry some weight if he was not paying three times over the odds for managers to repair the damage. And every other county seems to be able to perform well without these excessive salaries.
And the local Conservatives? Awkward silence from them.
The next Ofsted inspection is looming.
For that money, and for the children’s sake, I hope our Children’s Services in rural Somerset are “Outstanding” next time.
18th August 2014