Herefordshire children’s services – a public inquiry: if not here, then where?

A fascinating hustings took place in Hereford prior to the election concerning the ‘Crisis in Children’s Services’.

Nationally, as we all know, children’s services are in crisis: a ‘scandal’ … ‘disgraceful and utterly shaming’, to quote Sir James Munby. Special Educational Needs funding is £1bn in deficit: austerity, Ofsted targets and relentless managerialism have undermined the aspirations of many teachers to make their schools inclusive.  Teachers have left, pupils are ‘school refusing’ and for many families the only option is to seek an Education Health Care Plan – a traumatising process that epitomises this broken hostile system.

Parenting classes (aka parent blame) have become the default response for many councils when parents approach them for additional support and the number of allegations of Fabricated and Induced Illness (FII) made against parents appears to be spiralling. And as to accessing justice, legal aid is no longer available for most families who want to apply for contact with their child in care or seek discharge/variation of a care order and there are very real concerns about the effectiveness of the local Government Ombudsman given the funding cuts it has experienced since 2010.


Herefordshire Council

At the General Election hustings in Hereford about the crisis in Children’s Services, there was one question and one answer which had particular resonance.

It is not disputed that Herefordshire’s children’s services are in crisis – notwithstanding the fact that the department contains many dedicated practitioners. At the macro level the council’s management of the service (under successive administrations) has been a disgrace.

At the end of this post is an Annex that outlines the shocking behaviour of Herefordshire’s children’s services over many years. The High Court, Ofsted, an Independent Commission, BBC, the local MPs, senior councillors and very many families have all attested to serious corporate failings and, as the hustings demonstrated, this concern has not abated. 


The Hustings meeting 18 June 2024

Candidates for election in Herefordshire, including from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberals, Greens, Reform and an Independent attended the event and answered a range of questions posed by an audience of about 50 – many of whom were family members or friends of families who had (and continued to have) traumatic experiences caused by the council’s serious corporate failings.

Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, said that he had witnessed what amounted to “a colossal failure in accountability” in cases raised with him by local families, stating that it was, in his opinion “an absolute outrage that I have constituents who are in this kind of pain, and we are unable to make local authorities make the difference when it’s in their power to do so” – adding that the council’s “hiding and bureaucratic tricks are unacceptable.”

The Liberal Democrat candidates spoke of the frustrations experienced by their county councillors, stating that they had had “meeting after meeting … but there is no accountability in Herefordshire and that needs to change.”

Conservatives, Labour, Liberal and Green Party candidates all spoke of their awareness of the long-standing failings of the council and attested to the fact these failings were continuing.


The question

A key question at the hustings referenced the disastrous record of the council’s children services and the failed Department for Education intervention, and then asked the prospective candidates: “If elected are you going to actively campaign for a Public Inquiry alongside families – Yes or No?

There was cross-party agreement in answering this question, with all speakers backing a call for independent scrutiny of the department’s failings, which some likened to the Post Office / Horizon scandal. In one case, however, a candidate added an observation of the ‘not a magic bullet’ / ‘be careful what you wish for’ variety.  The argument being that such inquiries are not a panacea: that many public inquiries concerning the harm caused by dysfunctional organisations have not necessarily brought about significant changes in those organisations. In this respect one can perhaps refer to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Grenfell inquiry, the many NHS inquiries (South Staffordshire, Maternity Services, Infected Blood) and so on – it is a long list.  

As a wise friend pointed out, public inquiries take many forms – with one statutory and four non-statutory types and the inquiry process can take a long time: of the active 18 statutory inquiries, 5 have been going on for 5 years or longer and of the 22 inquiries that have been completed since 2005, the average duration was 3 years 10 months.  He finished by cautioning against the Government’s power to predetermine the outcome of an inquiry by its choice of its scope and its chair.  He could have then quoted Sir Humphrey Appleby’s comment in ‘Yes Minister’, namely “never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be”.

It is indisputable that public inquiries are expensive, long winded and that their recommendations do not necessarily result in any significant change: indisputable that they provide an opportunity for lawyers to make money and all too often, by the time inquiries report, the world has moved on.  All of these criticisms are, we know, true.

So, would a public inquiry into the failings in Herefordshire children’s services do anything more than provide funding for lawyers and delay / divert attention from the dreadful injustices that have taken place?  Is the crucial issue, not the holding of a ‘public inquiry’ but the need for those whose behaviour has been called into question, to be held to account and for there to be public acknowledgment of the dreadful way that families have been treated?  In Herefordshire all other mechanisms to force the council to answer key questions have been tried without success – a point evidenced by the fact that even the local MP has been unable to make any headway on the issues he has raised.  If so, then what is needed is an independent process that can call leaders to account for what has occurred – force disclosure of all relevant materials and compel witnesses to testify.  At present the only show in town that does this is a statutory public injury: which is scandalous.  At present the lack of legal aid, means that many families do not have meaningful access to Family Courts and that local authorities can be highly selective in the evidence they share with families and the courts – as has clearly occurred in the Herefordshire cases (see Annex below).  At present local authorities can – and do – label anyone that seeks to question their actions and inactions, as an unreasonable or vexatious or acrimonious or defamatory complainant and then use this as a reason for refusing to respond to the questions / the issues of concern they have identified.  

And even if a public inquiry is effective in this respect, is it realistic to expect that multiple such inquiries be held – as there are other councils with not dissimilar track records.  It is, however, quite possible that the spectrum of Herefordshire’s corporate failings and its hostility to criticism could act as a paradigm case study: an example of what has gone wrong and act as a case study as to what needs to be done. 

It was, for me, towards the end of the hustings that the question was asked that prompted the answer that had particular resonance.  The question was, in essence, “why are families in Herefordshire clamouring for a public inquiry?”

The key answer was not provided by the candidates – but by a sole voice in the audience who cried out ‘for the truth’.

Regardless of whether (against all the available evidence) the authority dramatically transforms the culture of its children’s cervices – there are many families whose lives have been devastated by its actions.  Families who – like the sub-postmasters in the Post Office Inquiry – have the right ‘for the truth’ to be publicly proclaimed: for the injustices done to them (and in some cases still being ‘done’ to them) to be officially acknowledged – even if it is too much to ask for some form of accountability.



An overview of the serious corporate failings of Herefordshire Council’s Children’s Services.

The High Court

The council has been repeatedly castigated by the High Court.  In 2018[1] a judge stated that he had ‘never before encountered two cases where a local authority has so seriously and serially failed to address the needs of the children in its care and so seriously misused, indeed abused, the provisions of section 20 of the Children Act 1989’.  Later that year, the same judge referred to a catalogue of failure by the authority in a separate case,[2] including the misquoting of a consultant psychologist’s report and ‘omitting a key passage from that report which completely changed its import and reasoning’ – for which, in the judge’s opinion ‘the only credible explanation … was a deliberate act to mislead’.

In 2021 the judge in another case[3] referred to the utterly contemptuous response of an assistant director of children’s services as ‘absolutely appalling and shocking’ and ‘completely inexcusable’ demonstrating ‘skewed and wholly inappropriate response … to the desperate needs of the children and reveals a mindset which has ultimately caused them considerable possibly irreparable emotional and psychological harm’.  The judge added that the council had treated with contempt ‘the clarion call of a senior family judge for the local authority to re-evaluate its approach to these children, to the family and to the carers’.  At paras 226-227 the judgment reads:

… In the whole of my professional life I have rarely encountered such egregious and long-standing failures by a local authority. The worst of it is, I cannot after the closest possible enquiry, understand why or what motivated the local authority to fail these children, this mother and the interveners as appallingly and for as extended a period of time. The whole history of the role of this local authority in the lives of these children is highly inexplicable. The only matter which is clear to me is that it did not have the welfare best interests of the children at the heart of its decision-making, such as it was.’ 

This must call into question whether this local authority’s children’s services department is fit for purpose. …

BBC Panorama 2022

In 2022 a journalist, Louise Tickle applied to the High Court for permission to access information concerning family care proceedings initiated by Herefordshire Council and to name one of the parents as well as the social workers. The application was resisted by the Council but in May 2022 the court ruled in her favour.  The evidence she was able to obtain formed the basis of a damning programme aired by BBC Panorama in May 2022.  It included a statement by a foster mother: “The whole of the local authority social care department, they haven’t looked out for anyone in this case, except themselves” and anonymous comments from social workers who said that ‘support [was] not there from senior practitioners’ ‘it’s a culture of bullying, it’s a culture of control, it’s not safe for families, it’s not safe for social workers’. 

Human Rights damages

Awards of damages for human rights breaches in care proceedings of the Article 8 family rights of individuals are not common, are generally modest and the process for quantifying these well established.  High Court proceedings in 2018[4] referred to the fact that Herefordshire was facing claims for such breaches and in October the Guardian reported[5] that between 2016 and 2021, Herefordshire council paid out £290,000 in human rights damages to children and families it had harmed. 

Ofsted 2022

Mr Justice Keehan ordered (in three separate High Court cases) that copies of his judgments be sent to (among others) Ofsted.[6]  In due course, in September 2022 Ofsted’s produced a highly critical report[7] on the performance of Herefordshire’s children’s services, finding it inadequate in all areas.  In keeping with so many such reports, Ofsted’s focus was on social workers, management and safeguarding action rather than the need for the authority to build relationships with families.

It found (para 29) that since 2018 the quality and impact of social work practice had significantly deteriorated; that significant numbers of staff at all levels had left the authority including the director of children’s services and the ‘vast majority of the senior management team’. It noted that a new chief executive officer took up post in May 21 and that in October 2021, the replacement (interim) director of children’s services resigned and was quickly replaced by a new director (following a short period as the improvement director).  Ofsted’s confident statement that in consequence a ‘permanent leadership team is now secured’ has, with the benefit of hindsight, been shown to be misjudged.

The Guardian reported[8] that at an extraordinary general meeting of the Council to discuss the Ofsted report one of the councillors said that parents who had tried to ask oral questions at the start of the meeting had been ‘shut down’ and that “Families have been intimidated into not attending,” and that “and most of their questions have been ruled out of order. We are destroying their lives.”

2022 Appointment of Department for Education (DfE) Commissioner,

After the “inadequate” rating by Ofsted, the education secretary issued Herefordshire council with a statutory direction, installing Eleanor Brazil (someone who had previously worked for the council) as Commissioner and charging her with assessing whether the council had the capacity to improve and requiring that she report to the Minister of State by 12 December 2022. 

As the social work journal Community Care reported in October 2022, the Department for Education said that where councils were rated inadequate across the board, there was a general presumption that services would be removed from the authority (and transferred to an independent trust) unless there were ‘compelling reasons not to do so’.[9]  The journal article referred to a meeting where the Commissioner had stated that the ‘pace of improvement is really important’ and that she would ‘be looking at the trajectory of improvement, the direction of travel, what difference are we making, not just in six months or a year’s time, but all the time I’m here.’  It was reported that the meeting ‘heard from families who had been affected by decisions by Herefordshire council, while a string of councillors – including from its ruling cabinet – expressed dismay and anger at the state of children’s services’.

Criticisms were made concerning the Commissioner’s failure to engage with families who had raised significant concerns about their experiences of children’s services.  Some of the families approached the Commissioner directly with details of their specific circumstances, many made representations at council and public meetings, and many contacted their local MPs and Councillors.  In recognition of this urgent need to restore confidence, the Commissioner established an Independent Panel with which families could share their experiences.

March 2023 the Commissioner’s report

The Minister of State had directed that the Commissioner submit a report concerning the Council’s progress by 12 December 2022.  The report[10] (dated 11 January 2023) was eventually published in March 2023.  It noted that there had been complaints concerning senior leaders resulting in poor staff morale, fearfulness, poor communication and a lack of transparency about decision-making.  The interim Director departed during this period and a new Director was appointed. The report also referred to a public meeting where families had spoken of (among other things) unsympathetic social workers, lack of knowledge or response to children’s special needs and of children being removed at short notice.

While acknowledging that the Panorama programme raised serious issues about decision making, the lack of consideration given to the views of children and the poor support of social workers, the report appeared to blame the BBC programme and ‘a small number of parents’ for having a ‘detrimental effect on confidence in the service’ and in essence of deflecting the council by requiring it to respond ‘to a range of individual complaints relating to past events and actions’: complainants who ‘publicly raise their concerns at council meetings and through emails and complaints to the local M.P.s and Councillors’.

Despite little or no meaningful progress being evident, the report recommended that the council be given a further 6 months.  The Commissioner added that ‘If the level and trajectory of progress that is required is not achieved within 6 months, consideration should be given to whether an alternative delivery model is required’.

June 2023 independent commission report

The Commissioner accepted that although children’s services had paid far too little attention to seeking the views of children and young people – she had not (during the review) met directly with any children or young people.  Recognising ‘the urgent need to restore confidence and learn from what had happened in past years, and to try and resolve issues for families’ she convened an independent Commission to consider families’ experience of children’s cervices in Herefordshire.  The Commission gathered evidence during ten day-long sessions and published its report in June 2023.[11]  The report is damning and deserves detailed reading.  Some examples of its findings / observations include:

  • [it heard of] no examples of early help intervention being offered to families asking for help; on the contrary, the concerns raised by individuals were used in assessments and reports as ‘labels’ about the parent that would follow them through the system, sometimes for years of social care involvement. (para 3.3.6)
  • On too many occasions, the label remained despite independent evidence to the contrary (para 3.3.7):
  • One child old enough to have a clear voice never understood why it took thirteen months in care and a decision to “vote with their own feet” to be allowed back home to the person who meant the most to them. The child was never asked what they wanted (para 3.3.12)
  • Families with a child or children with complex medical needs described a process of continually being disbelieved. More than one individual described how they were labelled as ‘FII’ [Fabricated or Induced Illness] when seeking to get a proper assessment of a child’s health and educational needs. No one listened to the child(ren), despite them being of an age deemed to have a strong voice (para 3.4.2);
  • The fixation of the ‘FII’ label, contrary to independent medical and education reports, has resulted in some families spending years trying to get social work files corrected via freedom of information and subject access requests, to show how inaccurate records were or are and that the ‘FII’ label permeated throughout professional opinion, completely losing sight of needs of the child(ren). (para 3.4.3)
  • The majority of individuals seen by the panel described Children’s Social Care meetings as having unbalanced representation: sixteen council representatives in one online meeting but not the family health visitor or the key family member labelled as ‘the acrimonious parent.’ Vulnerable individuals were not supported in the meetings and described how they had to listen to professionals ‘scoring’ them (para 4.1.1).
  • “Forget you’ve ever seen that letter; you don’t want anything affecting your court hearing.” (Social worker when an individual advised she had received someone else’s paperwork) (para 5.1.4).

The Commission concluded that the evidence it had heard from ‘articulate, intelligent individuals, in a predominantly balanced way, produced credible accounts which the panel believed’ –the panel was compelled by the totality of the examples cited of core failings in the system’ (9.3).  It added

  • For the individuals in question, nothing can change the experiences they have had, and the impact on their families. Their loss of faith in the services and systems that they believed were there to help and support them is profound. (para 9.5)
  • the impact on parents and children of not being heard or believed was significant and longstanding. It was a sobering reminder of the importance of treating people respectfully and well, no matter what the circumstances, and of how easy it can be to destroy lives when in a position of power and authority. (para 9.7)

June 2023 Hewitt / Howells report

Shortly after the Commission’s report, the former Chair and Vice-Chair Herefordshire Council’s Children and Young People Scrutiny Committee took the courageous step of publishing a devastating critique[12] of the council leadership, the Children’s Commissioner’s March 2023 report and in particular their failure to engage in a positive way with the families and children that had been so profoundly ill-served. 

The report warrants extensive citation, given the status of its authors and the searing insights it provides concerning the authority’s fundamental corporate failings.  Key extracts include:

  • April 2021 [following the High Court judgment in March 2021[13]] should have been a fresh start and the end to the merry-go-round of Improvement Plan followed by failure.
  • there was a public statement from the Leader of the Council, who said at the April 21 EGM: “We will be looking for cultural change, more openness and honesty where questioning and challenge are welcomed, where promises are delivered and mistakes acknowledged.”
  • However, in their opinion the Commissioner’s report failed ‘to focus on corporate failure or the recognised need for culture change’; failed to ‘engage with or address the Leader’s clear call … for “cultural change”.
  • The blame for the failure to make progress and deliver change has not fallen on the shoulders of the CEO. Rather it is shared amongst a number of individuals and groups: (i) The social workers on the ground (ii) Interim managers (iii) The Councillors, who are paid less than £10,000 to represent their constituents and who have no responsibility for day-to-day operational matters (iv) The parents/carers who raise the alarm about risks to children, make complaints or attend public meetings, or continue to object to ongoing, but avoidable poor practice or safeguarding risks (v) Journalists Louise Tickle and Judge Keehan, whose work created unwelcome and difficult publicity for the Council. The report does not directly assign any responsibility to the CEO for the lack of improvement in services since April 21, or for the shocking contents of the July 2022 Ofsted inspection report.
  • Had the Commissioner chosen to listen to the families from the outset, some of what is now widely known about the experiences of families might have been reflected in her report and would have provided the opportunity to look at the cultural issues we raise below.
  • There is little attempt by the Commissioner to unravel why so many different Improvement Plans have failed, nor to interrogate why there was so little progress in the 21 months since the arrival of the new CEO and Improvement Advisor.
  • The Commissioner resisted for at least six months addressing families’ concerns about an ingrained culture of cover up, bullying and silencing until it became impossible to ignore. She produced her report without their evidence and in so doing she has failed to win their trust.
  • The Hereford Times coverage[14] of the April 2021 EGM was comprehensive. Their article dated 27 April 2021 starts with the following sentence: “Councillors have criticised a culture of lying, delay, and misdirection in Herefordshire’s children’s services department.” The Hereford Times article goes on to say: “Councillors at the meeting said … they had been obstructed from properly scrutinising the children’s directorate because they were not told the truth by officers.” “Councillor Carole Gandy … hit out at the “often evasive” and untruthful culture within the department.”
  • “[Carole Gandy’s] views were backed by Councillor Jennie Hewitt, who said proper scrutiny had been prevented by officers failing to act in a timely manner, using general data protection regulations (GDPR) as a smoke screen to avoid uncomfortable questions, not responding to emails, closing down public questions by labelling them as defamatory, and frequently adopting a threatening and obstructive stance.” “I have found them to have their own best interests at heart when there is a problem. The best interests of children have not been the driving factor in their decisions.”
  • The Commissioner makes no reference in her report to the evidence given by family after family at that meeting about a pernicious culture of lying and cover up, bullying and silencing, which stretches beyond Children’s Services into the complaints process and to Legal Services. This was the single unifying factor in every story recounted at the meeting and is now evidenced in the Report of the Commission.
  • The Commissioner does not properly acknowledge the suffering caused to the families by inadequate service or the true human cost of egregious and long-standing failures. Referring to the families affected as “long-standing complaints” belies the painful truth that these are people who have already suffered hugely and continue to be unfairly treated by the children’s directorate, the complaints department and Legal Services.
  • The analysis in the Commissioner’s report is limited. She has chosen not to address the “toxic” organisational culture publicly identified in April 2021 by Councillors, including the previous Leader; a culture which has undermined multiple attempts at improvement over the years.

The June 2023 reports from the Independent Commission and from the former Chair and Vice-Chair Herefordshire Council’s Children and Young People Scrutiny Committee are barely 12 months old – something of particular concern since (as it noted in the Independent Commission’s report) most of the cases it considered were ‘still open with Children’s Services.’ (9.3), some still not resolved.    

December 2023 the Commissioner’s report[15]

The Commissioner’s first report dated 11 January 2023 (published in March 2023) concluded that there had been no meaningful progress in the first seven months since her appointment – and noted that if in the next 6 months ‘the level and trajectory of progress that is required is not achieved … consideration should be given to whether an alternative delivery model is required’. The Commissioner’s follow up report was not published until December 2023 (11 months since the first report was signed off).  During that time there had been three Monitoring Visits by Ofsted (in March, June and September).  In overall terms, none of the reports were framed in positive language – the first concluding the pace of improvement had been too protracted; the second that ‘Leaders in Herefordshire know that they have not made enough progress in critical areas like recruitment and retention, and more needs to be achieved at greater pace’ and the headline findings section of the final report commenced with:

Since the last inspection, when the experiences and progress of children in care were judged inadequate, leaders have achieved only modest progress for children in care. The pace and impact of improvement are too slow. Significant objectives in the improvement plan have been delayed or are not on track. Concerns about children in care have been well known for several years, having received significant public attention even before the inspection last year. The quality of practice for children in care remains inconsistent and children experience too many changes of social worker

Notwithstanding these findings the Commissioner stated:

Whilst progress has been slower than we would want, there has been positive developments that hopefully can form the basis for quicker and more sustained improvement. I do not think any further consideration of an alternative delivery model is required as it remains my view that supporting the Council and its partners to deliver quicker and better improvements is the best way forward. 

The Commissioner concluded her report stating that progress should be reviewed in 6 months time’ (ie by the end of June 2024). At the time of writing (6 July 2024) this report has not been published and it is now two years since the Ofsted inspection that gave rise to its ‘inadequate in all areas’ report.  In March 2024 the Director of Children’s Services left the authority “with immediate effect”[16] and since then the department has, it appears, been without a Director although it is expected that the replacement (the fourth Director in three years) is scheduled to join the authority this month.[17]

[1] Herefordshire Council v. AB and CD [2018] EWFC 10 (1 February 2018).
[2] BT & GT (Children : twins – adoption) [2018] EWFC 76 (29 November 2018).
[3] YY (Children: Conduct of the Local Authority) [2021] EWHC 749 (Fam).
[4] A & B (care orders and placement orders – failures) [2018] EWFC 72 para 4 which concerned a failure by Herefordshire Council to (among other things) reach an agreement concerning the quantum of human rights damages.  The Judge lambasted the council and its Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs): at para 50 for example ‘I am appalled at the manner in which and the serial occasions on which the social workers and their managers have failed these two young people. The fact that I have chosen in this judgment to focus on the role and actions of the various IRO’s should not be taken in any way to diminish the failures of the social workers and/or their mangers in this case.
[5] Louise Tickle ‘Painful’ Ofsted report in Herefordshire leads to calls for resignations 1st October 2022.
[6] A & B (care orders and placement orders – failures) [2018] EWFC 72 para 62; BT & GT (Children : twins – adoption) [2018] EWFC 76 para 133; and YY (Children: Conduct of the Local Authority) [2021] EWHC 749 (Fam) para 238.
[7] Ofsted Inspection of Herefordshire local authority children’s services (September 2022) and see also Louise Tickle ‘Painful’ Ofsted report in Herefordshire leads to calls for resignations 1st October 2022.
[8] Louise Tickle ‘Painful’ Ofsted report in Herefordshire leads to calls for resignations 1st October 2022.
[9] M Samuel ‘It is very serious’: commissioner warns ‘inadequate’ council it must improve ‘at pace’ Community Care 10 October 2022.
[10] E Brazil Commissioner’s report on ways forward for children’s services in Herefordshire
Report to the Minister of State for Children and Families by Children’s Commissioner, Eleanor Brazil March 2023.
[11] Report of the Commission to Consider Families’ Experience of Children’s Services in Herefordshire (June 2023) at
[12] P Howells and J Hewitt Mind the Gaps A response to the Children’s Commissioner’s report on Herefordshire Council’s Children’s Services March 2023.
[13] YY (Children: Conduct of the Local Authority) [2021] EWHC 749 (Fam).
[14] C Moreau Herefordshire children’s services: lies, delays and failures Hereford Times 27th April 2021.
[15] Eleanor Brazil Report of the Children’s Services Commissioner in Herefordshire Progress report to the minister for Children Families and Wellbeing December 2023.
[16] C Gall Herefordshire Council children’s boss quits as Ofsted report published BBC 27 March 2024.
[17] G McEwan More heads must roll over Herefordshire children’s services – parents Hereford Times 10th April 2024.

Posted 6 July 2024

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