Keanu Williams: Can Birmingham's children ever be safe?

Keanu Williams

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The serious case review into the death of Keanu Williams is the 23rd to be published in Birmingham since the Local Safeguarding Board's inception in 2006. But given the second city's size, demographic and financial pressures, does the council have an impossible task protecting children?

Not impossible, but "very difficult" according to professor Wyn Grant, a local government expert at the University of Warwick.

"The council faces a very challenging situation at a time when resources have become more and more constrained," he said.

"I think people don't appreciate how difficult it is.

"Councils are always under pressure from two sides. On one hand they are accused of not intervening enough and, on the other, they are accused by families of intervening too much. It's a difficult balance to strike."

'No magic wand'

With a population of 1.1m to deal with, Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe. More than a third of the city's residents are of minority ethnic origin, according to Visit Birmingham.

The council has made more than 5,000 people redundant in recent years in a bid to balance its books and owes more than £1bn to workers through equal pay claims.

In 2010, Birmingham was ranked 13th in a government list of the most deprived parts of the country, behind authorities including Hackney and Tower Hamlets, both in London.

Analysis

Inner city Birmingham regularly comes top of the bad league tables and bottom of the good ones. It has the highest rate of unemployment and the worst rates for deprivation and poverty in the country.

It means that its social workers are extremely busy and regularly have to deal with incredibly tough cases. Its children's services department was first handed an improvement notice by government inspectors in 2009, and there's little chance it'll come out of special measures in the next 12 months.

The city might just be too big for a single department to cope with. It has a population of 1.1 million, of whom around a quarter are children, and is more than twice as big as the next largest local authority. Ofsted's most recent report said the department was inadequate.

Absence and sickness levels are high and it's hard to recruit the best social workers. Even if they live in the city they probably covet jobs in less challenging circumstances nearby.

Regular criticisms featured in previous serious case reviews concern a lack of communication between different agencies and missed opportunities.

But Mr Grant said Birmingham had a harder task than many other authorities because of its diverse population and the resulting problems regarding language barriers and the importance of staying sensitive to tensions in communities.

He added: "It's characteristic of bureaucracy that people tend to operate in their own silos.

"Whether it's police, social services, schools, they do not work well across boundaries. Even if liaison officers are appointed, it's very difficult because groups have different priorities."

He also said there was "no magic wand" and people had to be realistic about what could be achieved.

But Labour MP for Perry Barr Khalid Mahmood has a less sympathetic view.

He pointed to "systemic failures" in the management structure of the council's children's department, which has had four different strategic directors - Tony Howell, Eleanor Brazil, Peter Duxbury and Peter Hay - since 2005 and been in special measures since 2011.

He also said it was not true the council did not have adequate resources to improve children's services, pointing out it had received more than £40m funding from government to turn around the service after the case of Khyra Ishaq.

Khyra, seven, died in 2008 after being starved at her home in the Handsworth area of the city.

Birmingham skyline In 2010, Birmingham was ranked 13th in a government list of the most deprived parts of the country

"It's true that it's a big authority but that does not mean it can absolve itself of responsibility," said Mr Mahmood.

"The issue is the council has continually failed to listen to the recommendations. It has failed to tackle issues like sickness. I have had workers come to me complaining about workload issues and feeling they have no choice but to go off sick.

"There is no integration, no communication, no responsibility."

Mr Mahmood and Mr Grant agreed breaking up Birmingham City Council into a number of smaller authorities, like in London, would not resolve the issue.

"It's a huge size but you still need to have central policy," said Mr Mahmood.

"I don't think it would work."

'Hard call'

Bob Badham, who resigned as children's services boss at neighbouring Sandwell Council after Ofsted rated the department inadequate, said nothing could be done to guarantee children's safety.

"It's the duty of every local authority to make sure we make children's lives as safe as possible but I don't think you will ever get a 100% success rate," he said.

"The people who commit these crimes are good at covering their tracks.

"There are always going to be cases that slip through the net."

He added: "Social workers can be hesitant to report things because they are worried about the consequences. React too quickly and they can find themselves in the papers for taking a child away too quickly. It's a very hard call.

"It's a difficult area to manage and come up with plans to make things safer for children but you have to try."

Birmingham City Council declined to comment ahead of the publication of Thursday's serious case review.

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