Officers running Herefordshire Council’s troubled children’s services department failed to keep councillors informed of long-standing problems, it has been claimed.

Vice-chair of the children and young people scrutiny committee Coun Jennie Hewitt said this week that the committee “has in the past been left in a dark cupboard somewhere in relation to some issues, and why that happened needs to be understood”.

In 2017 the council commissioned an independent investigation into the handling of a case in which a pupil at a Herefordshire school sexually abused another.

The resulting report, known as the CSO report, set out how victims of such abuse should be shielded from their abuser, including not having the two continue to attend the same school.

But council officers did not share the report’s findings with councillors or with schools, prompting a further investigation into why, announced by the then leader of the council in late 2020.

Coun Hewitt noted that a year has now passed without this appearing. “This lies at the heart of a broken contract between elected members and officers,” she said.

A written question to the committee from a member of the public claimed the council’s legal services department were aware in 2019 “that other victims of serious sexual assault were being put back into school with their attackers, and that this had caused serious harm in more than one case”.

The questioner asked: “Has anyone asked Legal Services why they did not pass on the concerns to the scrutiny committee, or to properly investigate those concerns themselves?”

The council’s reply, made prior to the meeting, was: “An external independent investigation commissioned by the council is currently considering the circumstances regarding the sharing of the CSO report, and so it is not possible to provide a response.”

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The meeting heard that interim director of children’s services Darryl Freeman has become permanent holder of the role, following the departure of his predecessor two months ago.

“New officers are making a very good start in mending the contract, but we have to clear out the cupboard before we put new things in,” Coun Hewitt said.

“The relationship has to be built on absolute trust, established by having clarity about what happened in the past.”

Endorsing this view, committee chair Coun Phillip Howells said: “We will be holding officers’ feet to the fire more than we have done.

“There is a need for a culture change. In the past it’s been driven more by officers and not enough by the committee.”

The Department for Education (DfE) served and Improvement Notice on the council in May, following a damning High Court judgement on the conduct of its children’s services department towards a family of foster children.

The DfE also cited “further cases of concern in the court system”, “long-standing issues of inconsistent practice”, and “a lack of pace and progress” by the council in addressing problems raised in a 2018 Ofsted inspection.

As a consequence, the government appointed an improvement advisor, Gladys Rhodes White, to oversee the department on its behalf for at least 12 months.

She chairs an Improvement Board to ensure the council complies with an improvement plan to address the issues set out in the improvement notice. The three-year plan was signed off at the end of last month and shared with the Government.

Darryl Freeman said DfE officials have since expressed “confidence in the direction of travel, in the decisions we have made so far, and in our plan”.

Backing a stronger role for the committee in implementing this, Mr Freeman said: “It’s absolutely in our interests that scrutiny is effective in ensuring we deliver on what we say we will.”

Scrutiny committee member Coun Jim Kenyon said: “I welcome this opportunity to get things right, because over the last ten years, we haven’t.”