Children’s Services operates a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, which acts as a single point of contact for safeguarding concerns about children and young people.
The hub currently receives its administration support through West Sussex County Council’s contract with Capita, which covers a number of back office functions.
However the council is bringing the administrative part of the MASH service under direct management, as ‘vulnerable children are at risk of harm due to insufficient numbers of assessments being undertaken within 24 hours’.
This was the conclusion of Nathan Elvery, chief executive of WSCC, who in a letter to cabinet member for finance and resources added: “There is evidence to suggest that the performance of the MASH is declining. Therefore this is causing unacceptable risk to children in the system.”
Sue Mullins, leader of the Labour group at County Hall, said: “We were delighted to hear that this service was being brought back in house, it should never have been out sourced in the first place, as our group continually said.
“This is an appalling failure in service provision to our most vulnerable children.
“To not only have to admit that the service provided is not up to the required standard, but to then have to enact the decision with such unseemly haste, because of ‘unacceptable risk to children in the system’, is staggering.
“How could things possibly have got to this sorry state of affairs?”
A joint statement by the county council and Capita explained that a review of the MASH had shown the need for ‘more flexibility and closer integration to manage demand’. The service has seen a recent increase in referrals, which is a national trend, making the need for change ‘more pressing’.
The county council’s children social care service will therefore take over the administrative part of the MASH from October 1.
The joint statement said: “A qualified and experienced social work manager or senior practitioner currently looks at all enquiries as soon as they come into the MASH and highlights any which need an immediate response.
“This enables us to be confident that any risks are responded to and we would like to reassure residents and partners that these measures will continue.
“The quality of the decision-making in the MASH has been recently reviewed externally and found to be good.”
In response Caroline Fife, regional organiser at UNISON South East, said: “UNISON is pleased that the council is being pragmatic and bringing this service back in-house.
“The reality is it could do little else if it cannot meet its statutory obligations to vulnerable children by sticking with the Capita arrangement. That is very worrying indeed and UNISON will cooperate fully with the TUPE process that will be put through at speed in the next week.
“UNISON has been saying for years that this privatised contract is bad value for taxpayers, delivers poorer services and hammers staff as their pay and pensions are reduced. The contract was set up in 2012 with a view to Capita taking on ever larger parts of the council’s services.
“That hasn’t happened, and you can see why. UNISON has played an important role for taxpayers and our members in scrutinising this contract and the independent research we commissioned in 2015 on the Capita West Sussex contract is still available online.
“The council is conducting a broader review of the rest of its outsourced back office services and we await the outcome of that with interest.”
The MASH is multi-agency and includes police, the health service, housing, children’s social care, mental health support, and other children’s early help services.
Enquiries include concerns about the welfare of children, requests for information, signposting, and applications for plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
The partners contribute to a decision regarding the need for an assessment or if support is available through partner agencies.
The council is currently working with Capita to ‘refocus’ the ten-year contract, which started in 2012.
Labour county councillor Michael Jones described the changes as a ‘humiliating climbdown forced on the West Sussex Tory leadership committed to pursuing outsourcing for ideological reasons against all the evidence that it hasn’t been working’.
He added: “When a contract with another company means the county council has not met its statutory requirements for safeguarding and child protection matters, this is a serious matter.
“I hope the county council have acted promptly and this isn’t a problem that has persisted for months, or years.”