For the Sake of Children
On Friday, 9th June Wing Commander, Councillor Richard Willis was sentenced by Lincolnshire Crown Court to 8 months in prison and 8 months on licence for taking and distributing images of children being sexually abused, some of which were in the worse category possible. In addition, Willis has been placed on the sexual harm register for a period of 10 years. As we know, before residing in Sleaford, Willis was a prominent member of Reading’s community and served as a Conservative Lead Councillor. Although I have no reason to believe he committed any offenses in Reading, I also cannot rule it out by dint of the secrecy surrounding that sort of repulsive activity.
I have tweeted much about the state of Reading’s Children Services. For too long its performance has been substandard and presently the department is under review by a Government appointed Commissioner. The case of Richard Willis focuses the mind on the reasons why this important department cannot be left to wallow in its failings. Children’s services need to be resolved efficiently and effectively and for that process to happen it requires fresh leadership and competent management.
Reading Borough Council needs to put money behind child protection and safeguarding rather than reducing its funding even more, which it has done. It is not palatable to see the vast sums spent to support property developnent in the Borough when the basic foundations of a civilised community are dispensed with. The Council’s excuses proffered – the cuts are due to Government austerity measures and have to be imposed to deliver a balanced budget, a requirement in law – deserve our ridicule and contempt. The issue is far too serious a matter for the usual platitudes of Councillors.
A month or so ago, the distinguished Chair of Reading’s Child Safeguarding Board resigned in protest at the further funding cuts imposed by the Council, handicapping the board’s role. It was not a sudden decision. Warnings had been issued which should have been followed up. The seriousness of this departure cannot be overstated. A highly respected professional working across other Boroughs concluded to opt out in the face of cuts to a service already in dire straits.
The Council’s Children’s services have a very chequered history. The department has seen extraordinary breaches of practice for example “Shreddergate”, where three social workers destroyed records one Saturday when the department was off limits. The Council has a habit of scoring own goals which are papered over. I would have expected that a vote of no confidence passed against another holder of the office of Lead Councillor would have been a sufficient signal that change was essential. We should all be concerned that a flawed system will ultimately fail a vulnerable child; in short a “Child P” waiting to happen. And that is the worry and the ticking time bomb. It is not sensationalism, but the hard reality that lies ahead for a department which cannot meet caseload demands, a department which is overpopulated by temporary staff and is incapable of keeping those who have the ability to resolve the problems.
As a very average town Reading has its share of paedophiles, but their presence within the community is more worrying when they come from within local government departments and schools as in the case of Rev. Peter Javis, a former Chaplain at the John Madejski Academy and Richard Willis. Whilst West Berkshire held a serious case review into Jarvis I have not known such practices here in Reading. These are known cases and there are many more that have reached public attention. There are also those that have been settled by resignation.
Safeguarding children means checks and balances are in place, that there is proper oversight, sound vetting and that cases raised are investigated. If Reading Borough Council does not give resource they surely, at the least, are failing in their duty of care and that I think is a great indictment of democracy where an overabundance of resource for vanity projects on rail, roads and buses can be found whilst prime services are cut. Personally I find the state of Children’s Services as morally offensive as it is concerning; particularly as the town learns today, 6th July 2017, that yet another former Councillor, a Reading Council cohort of Willis, Warren Swaine, a Liberal Democrat, was given a suspended sentence for possession of child sex and bestiality images.
What are the odds that a council of 46 members of whom roughly two-thirds would be male, at a point in time, have two people serving on it that would be in the future convicted of crimes of a gross sexual nature? Add those convicted of a sex related crime, in 2010 would be three, with further accusations made against another for sexual harassment.
I attempted to ensure that all Councillors are properly vetted before taking office as members of public are if they work with children. That campaign failed.
I started my tweeting on children’s services over a year ago with a warning that the Council was not going to fool anyone into believing that they were serious about providing a strong social service. At that time they, as is there modus operandi, reverted to setting up systems to show process in order to avert criticism of them from Ofsted. It did not work and Reading continues to fail with each and every assessment. I gave the Lead Councillor in place today the benefit of the doubt, but not now. I now am in no doubt that Children’s Services will benefit from new external leadership, not just because of the lack of progress in fulfilling their obligations, but because of Council’s ineffectiveness to recruit and to keep the right senior staff which surely leaves improvements a distant pipe dream. Then there is the overreliance on temporary staff which has not been addressed. The overall result is the department’s inadequacies has impacted its reputation and puts the very people they are there to assist in jeopardy?
The Council has just seen a senior, newly recruited competent officer resign. We can move forward on a bus route (MRT), but we cannot behave responsibly and in the interests of the town’s needy children? And people wonder why I single out Whitley as being in Crisis.
Houston we have a problem and it is this. We can wait till the cows come home for change or the Government steps in now, as it should, to convert the service into an externally managed trust run by professionals, not the lay wisdom of Councillors. I am 100% certain that the Council will do everything in its power to ensure that does not happen and they no doubt will lobby from all angles, but it is the right thing to do. It is a matter of confidence. It is a matter of Child safeguarding.
I would not be comfortable leaving the lives of vulnerable children in the hands of Councillors from any party and strongly believe politics should not be played in the care of the weakest in a society – it should be provided as a matter of course and in a timely manner. I hope the Secretary of State, who, will ultimately be called on to make the decision, concurs. Procrastination is unhelpful. What if……?