Somerset DCS sacking: Peter Lewis speaks out

By Neil Puffett

| 24 October 2014

A lack of authority-wide support for change and an "arcane" IT system were key reasons for slow progress in improving children's services in Somerset, the council's former director of children's services (DCS) has claimed.

Peter Lewis was sacked from his position as interim director of children's services at Somerset after 18 months in post

Earlier this month Somerset County Council announced it had terminated the contract of the interim DCS Peter Lewis, who had been in place for around 18 months, for failing to deliver improvements at the struggling authority quickly enough.

His departure leaves the authority, which was rated "inadequate" for child protection by Ofsted last year, looking for its sixth DCS in as many years – the highest turnover rate of all 152 local authorities in England.

The authority said Lewis was sacked from the role following what it called “disappointing” reports into children’s homes and children’s centres and “too little, too slow” progress on children’s services overall.

Lewis initially said he was "puzzled" by the announcement, stating that just a few weeks prior to the announcement he had already signalled his intention to leave the authority, only to be persuaded to stay on until December to help in the search for his successor.

Now, Lewis, who cost the authority around £320,000 a year in salary and recruitment agency fees, has given a more detailed account of events to CYP Now.

He claims that, although political leaders at the authority were behind his attempts to improve services, he did not receive cross-authority support, and says a poorly functioning IT system was taking up the precious time of frontline staff and senior managers.

According to Lewis, the software used for child protection cases involved over–elaborate processes for dealing with cases.

“The IT systems were never where they needed to be,” he says. “It was such an arcane piece of technology.”

“If not everyone is behind efforts to improve, it gets to be more and more difficult."

Lewis also points to the fact that he did not gain control of responsibility for children’s centres until earlier this year as evidence of him being hampered in his efforts.

“If you are going to provide early help that is able to reduce the pull on social workers properly, you need to have a comprehensive early help service,” he said.

“Unfortunately we didn’t get hold of early help services until earlier this year.”

He criticises the chief executive of Somerset County Council, Pat Flaherty, for referring to expected poor inspection results for children’s centres in the county as a factor in the decision to terminate his contract.

“Where can accountability be said to lie when you are held accountable for something you have only just become responsible for?” he said.

Lewis also says that prior to the announcement by Somerset, at no point did Flaherty “express any dissatisfaction with my performance”.

He adds that progress within the department, and the pace of that progress, was something that was routinely discussed at improvement board meetings, which were ordered by government and took place every four weeks.

“The pace of improvement was something we felt we needed to get right,” he said.

“It needs to be slow enough to embed change and get it right. It’s not about just rushing through quick fixes.

“The Department for Education representative on the board shared that view.”

Lewis said he would like to return to work as a DCS at some point in the future, adding that the fallout surrounding his departure “could and should have been avoided”.

“It is very sad this has blown up in the face of the workforce who are trying very hard to improve, and young people, who have high expectations of what they should be getting,” he added.

A spokesman for Somerset County Council said neither Lewis, nor the recruitment company he was employed through, Penna, had made the authority aware of his intention to leave prior to the announcement that his contract had been terminated.

However the authority declined to say whether the chief executive was aware of Lewis's intention to terminate the contract.

“Peter Lewis was given all the support and resource he asked for as we invested heavily in the service in an attempt to make improvements," the spokesman said.

"This included handing him bigger budgets, more social workers and high level management support.

"Unfortunately, the improvement was simply too little and too slow – as the government has recently confirmed.

"We have received a letter from the relevant minister expressing his ‘great concern’ that the pace of change was ‘too slow’.

"We had not improved to a sufficient standard and drastic action was required in the best interests of our vulnerable children.

"We are obviously as disappointed as Peter that he was unable to deliver the pace of improvement required by both Somerset County Council and the government minister.”

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