Unanswered questions

Two weeks ago former county council youth worker Michael ‘Mik’ Smith was jailed for six years having pleaded guilty to serious child abuse offences.
This story goes back almost 10 years to the spring of 2005 when several of his colleagues in the youth service complained about his inappropriate behaviour towards children in his care.
Basically, this amounted to what has become known as “grooming”.
An independent investigation was set up which substantiated six of the 11 heads of complaint and concluded that Smith’s conduct gave rise to serious concerns.
The matter then passed into the council’s internal disciplinary procedure and it was decided that Smith should be given a verbal warning – the lowest level of sanction – and he was allowed to carry on working with children.
Several of the whistleblowers were unhappy with this outcome and one, Sue Thomas, refused on professional ethics grounds to continue to work with Smith as her line manager.
Mrs Thomas has helpfully provided me with a bundle of correspondence from that period, so I have a pretty fair idea of what went on.
On 9 November 2005 Sue Thomas emailed chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones, director of education Gerson Davies and several senior officers in both the education and personnel departments to express her concerns about the way the complaint had been dealt with.

“I would like to put it on record that I am totally dissatisfied with the way in which the above matter has been handled within the Youth Service/Education Department of Pembrokeshire County Council, by the above named members of staff and possibly others.”

And:

“When members of the Youth Action Team made the decision to come forward with their very re al concerns, the very least they expected was to be taken seriously by their own management.”

She then goes on to detail what she considered to be flaws in the procedure including a statement by the Head of Youth Service “indicating that PCC considers MS to be the victim in all this.”

“It has been intimated that there is some kind of personal vendetta being pursued against the above person [Smith], if that is true why are there at least eight professional youth workers that I am aware of with serious concerns regarding the work practices of this person. These concerns span over many years – well before I came into youth work.”

In his reply, dated 16 November 2005, Mr Parry-Jones told her:

“Your perceived problem seems however to relate to your personal circumstances and your relationship with others. If you have a grievance about such matters, there are established procedures for you to follow and it would be inappropriate for me to intervene personally.”

Not long after that Mrs Thomas was sacked.
So, as usually happens in these cases, it was the whistleblower who paid the price.
Following Smith’s conviction, the council is singing a different tune.
In a press release issued shortly after the conclusion of the trial it admitted:

“It is a matter of fact that there were significant failings in the disciplinary standards within the Council’s Education directorate in 2005 when Mr Smith was the subject of various allegations about inappropriate behaviour.

When this became “a matter of fact” is not made clear, but it certainly wasn’t seen as such in November 2005 when the chief executive dismissed Sue Thomas’ “perceived problems” as being attributable to her “personal circumstances and your relationship with others”.
It might be argued that, if Mr Parry-Jones had opted to “intervene personally” back in 2005, a lot of pain and trouble might have been avoided.
I have put down a question for Thursday’s council meeting asking the Leader if he thinks Sue Thomas is now owed an apology.
But the dog barks and the caravan moves on to the summer of 2011 when CSSIW published a devastating report on PCC’s child safeguarding record.
As a result of that, the council was ordered to conduct a review of 25 cases involving complaints against staff in the education department.
On hearing about this, Sue Thomas wrote to Welsh Ministers Leighton Andrews and Gwenda Thomas about her experiences in 2005 and, consequently, the Smith case was added as the 26th.
In the meantime, other complaints had been received about Smith’s conduct and in January 2012, almost seven years after the initial investigation, he was sacked,
What was revealed in case 26 is to my mind by far the most shocking aspect of this affair because it transpired that sometime between 2005 and 2011 Smith had applied to become a foster parent and the Head of the Youth Service had given him a reference which neglected to mention the 2005 disciplinary proceedings for inappropriate behaviour towards children.

Lest anyone should think this was an administrative cock-up, I would point out that this was the same Head of Youth Service who administered the verbal warning to Smith in 2005.
This would be a serious omission even if the reference had been for a coach of a junior football team, but to endorse someone as a foster parent, who would have almost total control over vulnerable children, doesn’t bear thinking about.
Fortunately Smith’s application was unsuccessful, otherwise the council might be facing an even bigger crisis than the one that presently confronts it.
I have tabled a question asking what disciplinary action was taken against the Head of Youth Service in respect of what might charitably be called a serious error of judgement.
Following Mark Twain’s advice: “Never ask a question unless you already know the answer”, I can tell you it was none.
As the 2011 joint Estyn/CSSIW report concluded: “There has been lack of oversight at the most senior level within the authority of the management of alleged professional abuse in education services.”
I understood “most senior level” to be a reference to the chief executive, so at the extraordinary meeting in September 2011 called to discuss these reports, I proposed a motion of no confidence.
The minutes of that meeting, which show that my motion was defeated 42 – 10, can be found here.
There was a recorded vote in which only Plaid Cymru of the political parties supported my motion.
The Tories were solidly against and, contrary to what Cllr Sue Perkins claimed at the February 2014 meeting of council, all the Labour members present, with the exception of Cllr Kate Becton, voted with the IPG.
However all that is in the past and as the council’s press release says:

“Since that time [2005] the Council has completely changed its procedures and management of the Education department and is confident that the failings of nine years ago would not be repeated now.”

That is true, but, with the education service in special measures and inspectors of various hues crawling all over county hall, it could hardly be otherwise.
But I’m prepared to go the extra mile and accept that, under the present management, these changes would have been made even if the Welsh Government hadn’t been breathing down their necks.
However, what I cannot accept is the idea that, now things have been rectified, we should forget the past and “move on”.
For a start, my recent experiences over my investigations into the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock grants scheme doesn’t fill me with confidence that the new culture of openness extends much beyond the education department.
The reaction to my revelations (whistleblowing?), all of which have turned out to be true, was to circle the wagons; mount a cover-up; and set loose the attack dogs [The Leader and Cllr David Pugh] to destroy my reputation.
And, of course, when we hear all this talk of new beginnings, let us not forget that the political party, the IPPG (formerly IPG), which presently controls the council is the same as that which presided over the “significant failings in the disciplinary standards within the Council’s Education directorate in 2005.”

By all means let’s have a fresh start, but only after past wrongs have been squarely confronted and reparations made.
It is much easier to forgive when there is an element of contrition.