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Audits uncover ‘significant’ problems in children’s services in Newport

28 Jul 2023 3 minute read
Newport City Council Civic Centre. Credit: Google

Nicholas Thomas, local democracy reporter

Audits have uncovered “significant” problems in children’s services in Newport over the way the department handled payments to families.

The city council’s governance and audit committee heard this week the department’s performance was rated “unsatisfactory” three times in a row for its handling of allowance payments to families who adopt children.

Sally Jenkins, standing in for head of children and family services Natalie Poyner, apologised for the series of disappointing results and said recent reforms would bring improvements.

But committee members called the findings “worrying” and voted unanimously to refer the matter to the city council’s leader and executive board.

Children’s services is responsible for paying out adoption allowances to families who adopt children in the city.

An audit in 2018/19 rated the department’s performance as “unsatisfactory”, and although a follow-up review in 2020/21 found some improvements – earning a “reasonable” opinion – that was then downgraded because of a “delay in receiving a formal response from management to the draft follow-up report”.

A second follow-up audit opinion, this year, also found the department’s handling of adoption allowances to be sub-par.

Significant weaknesses

Specifically, the most recent audit described “significant” weaknesses, including that adoption allowances had been paid to families “without an assessment of need being carried out” – a legal requirement.

Assessments for new claims “were not being undertaken in a timely manner”, and “independent checks to ensure correctness were not always completed on annual review assessments”.

The audit committee called in Ms Jenkins, the strategic director of social services, to explain the situation. She told them the department had moved responsibilities for adoption allowances to a new team.

Committee member Norma Barry called the audit results “very worrying” and said she “couldn’t understand why it’s taking so long” to make improvements.

“To me I could take a day out of my working week and sort that,” she added.

But Ms Jenkins said making improvements was not “a simple procedure” or “just a tick-box exercise”.

The department aims to complete an action plan by the end of the year, but committee deputy chair Dom Reed said the matter “needs to be escalated”.

The committee also asked Ms Jenkins to explain why children’s services had earned an “unsound” audit opinion for its safeguarding of children’s money.

This includes money belonging to children who are in care, for example.

Ms Jenkins said the department had referred itself for audit because she had “considerable concerns that we were struggling”, and called the audit’s findings “disappointing and shameful”.

Councillor Ray Mogford asked whether it took an audit for the department to “realise something was not quite right”.

Ms Jenkins said this was the first time safeguarding of children’s money had been brought to the committee, and Newport was “not the only council that has struggled with this”.

Mr Reed told her the committee was “bound” to escalate the issue and the decision to refer the matter to the leader and executive board was also passed unanimously.

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