Haringey Chief Executive Ita O’Donovan was in charge at Stoke just before its children services were condemned

Haringey Council Chief Executive, Ita O’Donovan was previously city manager at Stoke-on-Trent Council (the top staff person in their then directly elected Mayor system). Her departure to become Haringey Chief Executive was announced in November 2005, and Ita O’Donovan took up post in Haringey in March 2006.

And in that same month, March 2006, the then Children’s Minister Beverley Hughes wrote that council failings were putting children in Stoke at risk:

In one letter, dated 15 March 2006, the minister wrote to [Stoke Mayor] Mr Meredith saying a report into care provided by Stoke City Council showed there were “critical weaknesses” which could contribute to children being put at risk. (Source: BBC)

Those weaknesses in children’s services were therefore there whilst Ita O’Donovan was in post. It looks to me that there are some serious questions for Ita O’Donovan, especially given the response to warnings made directly to her about problems in Haringey’s care for children, as Lynne Featherstone MP recounts:

I then asked for a meeting, and finally managed to get one with George Meehan on 31st January 2008. Ita O’Donovan (Chief Executive of Haringey) was in attendance at George’s request – so it was Haringey’s more senior politician and most senior member of staff at the meeting.

I brought the case histories and the letters with me and went over my extreme concerns with them both. They assured me they were as concerned as I was and Ita O’Donovan said she was looking at this in particular and commissioning an expert examination (I believe that is what she said).

But chasing letters following the meeting asking what had happened were not responded to.

Hat-tip: an anonymous comment on Lynne Featherstone’s blog for highlighting Ita O’Donovan’s Stoke background.

UPDATE: Ita O’Donovan was Assistant Chief Executive at a third council which had failing Children’s Services.

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  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Dec '08 - 9:57am

    I am wondering to what extent the cabinet system of local government, or the more extreme form used in Stoke, is contributing to the problem.

    When I was a councillor and we had the committee system, services had to report to the committee which monitored them and officially made its policy. That meant sitting on that committee you got to know the senior council officers for the service as they made reports to it, and you got a good overview of how it all worked. It meant, in fact, that one could effectively scrutinise the service.

    When the cabinet system was brought in, all that went. You no longer saw the detailed reports you used to see, you no longer got to know all the officers involved. Shorter summaries went to the cabinet. The service committees were replaced by “scrutiny” committees, but these just did not have the same overview. “Scrutiny” seemed to mean being tied up in some long and detailed investigation of some aspect, sometimes quite minor, of the service, while you were left in the dark when it came to the overall picture. I was often embarrassed to find I knew less about what the council was doing than my constituents. I often had to apologies to them when they told me about the laest new thing the council was doing and say “Sorry, I no longer get reports on things like this, I no longer have a vote on them, I no longer get to meet the officers responsible for them”. The result was that it was very much harder to know the right questions to ask, to know the stones to turn over to find what as nasty underneath – I could no longer effectively scrutinise the service.

    I am not sure what sort of scrutiny system exists in Haringey, but I would like to hear from Liberal Democrat councillors there why it is they were not able to scrutinise the child protection system there effectively. They ought to have been able to look at these things, ask the right questions, and have some idea of what was going wrong. If they felt the system stopped them from doing that, fine. So then, how could the system be improved so they could do a better job? Sorry, but I do NOT think it is sufficient for them to say “It’s all the fault of Cllr Meehan and Cllr Santry” forgetting that they had a scrutiny job to do on Cllr Meehan and Cllr Santry and the work those councillors were in executive positions over.

  • Dan Houghton 2nd Dec '08 - 2:12pm

    Hi Matthew

    I think part of the problem is that not only is the Executive controlled by the majority party in Haringey, but the scrutiny side is too i.e the chair of O&S is from the ruling Labour group. This does, of course, go against all best practice but there you are. It is my understanding that Lib Dem councillors called for a scrutiny review into child protection issues quite recently, but this was not accepted by the labour chair of O&S.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Dec '08 - 3:57pm

    Hi Dan,

    Yes, I imagined that how Labour would run O&S in a place like Haringey. But if so, I’d like the LibDem group to say that.

    It does not detract from my main case, which is that when there was a Social Services committee, a lot of material did go past all members eyes on it, and you did get a feel for what was happening overall. Bring in the Cabinet system, and now what was a whole committee’s work becomes a brief summary item on the Cabinet agenda.

    Meanwhile, officers and tame O&S Chairs can collude to keep O&S committees tied up with lots of work on trivial or side issues. If you don’t even see the overview given by the service committee having to go through the lot, you don’t even know what to scrutinise.

    I’m not saying the old system was perfect, particularly in a one-party dominated council, and of course there officers and the chair could collude to some extent to hide the dirty washing and present a neat public face just to be rubber stamped at the formal meeting. But I certainly feel the switch to cabinet style local governance has made things worse not better.

  • The trouble with social services is that in the normal course of events councillors don’t have much contact with it. Constituents don’t complain about it with any great frequency, and the small number of cases that do come councillors’ way are likely to be very difficult, and time-consuming – and to put it crudely, are worth very few votes, if any.

    In those lengthy interstadial periods between the few highly publicised scandals, how worked up does Joe Public get?

    For local councillors, planning, fly-tipping and canine excreta present easy opportunities to win popular support.

    Our first-tier authority councillors need one or two social services specialists in their groups who can scrutinise their social services departments and basically make a bloody nuisance of themselves. They won’t get much kudos for it, but they might actually do something useful.

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