Lifting the veil

It appears that a public-spirited councillor has provided the press with the independent social worker’s report on events surrounding convicted paedophile Mik Smith’s application to become a foster parent.

I have been pursuing this issue for upwards of two years and, although I am not responsible for the leak, I salute the member who was.

What has precipitated this latest development is my notice of motion to last December’s meeting of council calling for the report to be published.

That was sent off to January’s corporate scrutiny committee with a recommendation that the issue should be added to its “forward work programme”.

Naturally I objected to having the matter consigned to the “long grass” and persuaded the committee to send it back to full council for determination.

When it came before last week’s meeting Cllr Jamie Adams proposed it should be sent back to the scrutiny committee and that was carried on the casting vote of the chairman.

The issue is now on the agenda for Friday’s meeting of the scrutiny committee with the recommendation from the head of legal services:

That Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee make a recommendation to Cabinet for final decision.

That Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee note that the report has been disclosed to the Western Telegraph newspaper and that this Authority should not publish the report.”

As there is no cabinet meeting scheduled for April, this would ensure that the issue is conveniently swept under the carpet until after the May council election.

However, now that the report has been leaked, it is a bit like slamming the stable door after the cat has escaped from the bag.

Anyway commenters on the Western Telegraph’s Facebook page are congratulating the paper on its courageous investigative reporting.

The fact, alas, is that the story fell into its lap and with the Herald breathing down its neck it had no option but to do something about it.

Way back in March 2015, I posted an article on the Mik Smith affair in which I analysed the the less than truthful account peddled by senior members of the county council – leader Jamie Adams in particular.

So the Telegraph, which at that time completely ignored the matter, has come rather late to the party.

Briefly, for those without the time to revisit that post, in July 2014, former Pembrokeshire County Council youth worker Mik Smith was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual offences against a young child he had befriended.

Indeed, the actual sentence was much more severe: six years for causing a child to engage in sexual activity; four years for sexual assault; two years for videoing the abuse; and twelve months for the possession of 1,136 indecent photographs – all to run concurrently.

The day after Smith was sentenced, elected members were called to a meeting with the then director of social services Jake Morgan and head of child safeguarding Brian Relph during which we were briefed on events in 2005 when a complaint had been upheld against Smith for inappropriate behaviour at a youth camp in 2004.

Also during this meeting, we were told that, in 2010, Smith had applied to become a foster parent and had been given a clean reference by the head of youth service.

Some time prior to Smith’s conviction, I had been contacted by one of the eight youth workers who had blown the whistle on Smith in 2005 so I knew a good deal more about the case than most of my fellow councillors, including that this whistleblower had been sacked in January 2006 after she refused to return to work with Smith as her line manager.

When I asked about the failure of the head of youth service to mention Smith’s previous disciplinary record in the foster parent reference I was told that, as it was a verbal warning, it would only remain on file for twelve months.

As we shall see, like most of what we were told at the time, this wasn’t true.

However, as I pointed out, the same head of youth service had administered the verbal warning to Mik Smith and subsequently provided the reference for him to become a foster carer – so there was no need for him to consult the file.

I was then told that the head of youth service (HYS) had now left the authority and I said that this was typical of the way public bodies operate – at the first whiff of trouble, removal from the firing line by sloping off on early retirement.

Not so! I was told – HYS had retired because he had reached retiring age.

As we shall see, this wasn’t true either.

At the July 2014 meeting of the council a series of questions about this affair were submitted by Cllr Paul Miller and myself.

I will not catalogue all the half-truths (at best) that were trotted out, but one – Jamie Adams’s claim that, despite HYS’s failure to disclose Mik Smith’s previous on his reference, Smith had been denied a position as a foster parent because the council’s “system of vetting” had turned up his disciplinary record – is worth consideration because, as we shall see, that was also misleading.

Cllr Tessa Hodgson wasn’t happy with what she had heard and during the October 2014 meeting of council and she extracted a promise from cabinet member Cllr Sue Perkins that we would be given a further briefing before the Christmas meeting of council. This took place on 28 November 2014, which, by sheer coincidence, was two days after the deadline for submitting questions to the meeting of full council on 11 December.

What we were surprised to hear at this second briefing was that, in addition to the disciplinary action in 2005, there had been another complaint about Mik Smith’s conduct with children in 2006, following which he was issued with a written warning by the same HYS who, in 2010, had given him a clean reference supporting his application to become a foster parent. And, while the 2005 investigation had been carried out by a qualified independent social worker, this second complaint was handed to “a trainee from the chief executive’s department”.

This was the same chief executive, who, Cllr Adams had told us, had only heard about the matter three weeks before the October 2014 meeting.

And the same chief executive who, in 2005, had been sent two emails by the sacked whistleblower setting out her concerns about Smith’s conduct and the way her complaint had been handled by HYS – to one of which he replied dismissing her complaint as being due to a clash of personalities between herself and Smith.

Soon after he took over as PCC’s chief executive I had several long conversations with Ian Westley regarding my concerns about the way this had been handled, and, to his credit, he arranged for a qualified social worker from outside the authority to conduct a review.

That review, which entailed trawling through the council’s files, was completed in December 2015 and I was provided with a copy just before Christmas, but only on condition that I signed a confidentiality agreement.

I met with Mr Westley early in 2016 when I tried to persuade him that the public interest required the publication of the findings – at least to elected members, if not more widely.

Unfortunately, more than 12 months later he has still not come round to my way of thinking, so, now the report has been leaked to the press, it falls to me to reveal the truth.

For the sake of brevity, I will concentrate on the issue of the fostering reference, though there are several other areas of concern that I will return to in future.

First, the independent report reveals that, in addition to the disciplinary actions in 2005 and 2006, there were two other complaints against Mik Smith – in 2001 and 2009.

It is not clear from the report whether HYS was aware of the 2001 complaint, but with reference to the 2009 event it records that HYS told Smith (presumably in writing) that:

“there were inherent difficulties to address; the issue of crossing professional boundaries, the difference between being friend and professional.”

But what is striking about this 2009 case is its proximity to the events concerning the reference.

Here I will let the report, which was based entirely on the contents of the council’s files, speak for itself (emphasis added throughout).

January – September 2010.

“The Fostering Team (FT) wrote to the Head of Youth Service (HYS) to seek his views on MS’s application to become a respite carer.

HYS replied in “very positive terms”.

Later the FT sent a formal request for a reference to HYS.

The covering letter said:

“Agencies are reminded they have a duty to proactively inform [PCC] of any issues that arise that could impact on this person’s ongoing capacity to act as a foster carer or could represent a safeguarding issue to children who might be placed with them.”

The HYS’s reference was handwritten on a FT pro-forma. The form contains a section headed “Please highlight any concerns you may have regarding this applicant’s employment with yourself, including any disciplinary proceedings and the outcome.”

The HYS left this blank.

When papers were distributed to Foster Panel (FP) members for their meeting, Ms 3, one of the members of the FP, recalled that [Mik Smith] had been investigated some years ago for inappropriate behaviour with children and had been disciplined.

Consideration of the application was deferred for further enquiries to be made.

At a resumed panel the social worker reported his discussions with HYS who said there were no outstanding issues arising from investigations in 2005 and 2006 and he knew of no reason why MS should not be approved as a foster carer.”

So, the council’s head of youth service had three opportunities to put the record straight and declined them all.

Very strange, considering that there had been a third complaint in the previous twelve months.

As the report says: “It was only chance that a member of the Fostering Panel recollected the safeguarding investigation in 2005. It was only luck that prevented MS being approved as a foster carer.”

So that puts paid to Cllr Adams’ claim that the council’s “system of vetting” prevented Smith’s appointment.

And that wasn’t the end of the cover-up because, according to the report, after Smith was charged by the police:

“In January 2014, as part of the historic complex abuse enquiry two professional abuse strategy meetings were held in respect of the HYS.

These considered his failure to mention, on the reference he provided for MS’s fostering application, that MS had been subject to two disciplinary sanctions.

The strategy meetings were confused about the allegations against MS, concluding wrongly that they both related to the same summer camp. In fact separate but similar allegations were made about two different camps in two different years [So they couldn’t even get their facts right].

The strategy meetings accepted that the HYS had disclosed the disciplinary sanctions when the social worker made further enquiries of him and decided that he was, therefore, not trying to protect MS.

It decided there were no child protection or disciplinary matters to consider.”

This is a complete whitewash because, despite the clearest possible instruction on both the covering letter and the form itself, not only did the head of youth service fail to disclose this information, he also waved it off when challenged by saying there were no “outstanding issues” – even though he had issued a further informal warning to Mik Smith in 2009.

And to say that the head of youth service “disclosed the disciplinary sanctions”, when he only revealed them under pressure, is stretching language to breaking point.

And despite there being “no disciplinary matters to consider” the independent social worker’s report concludes:

“After a discussion with his line manager, the Head of Youth Service resigned his post on 28 January 2014.”

So, in addition to council leader Cllr Jamie Adams’ claim that his authority’s vetting procedures had turned up Mik Smith’s previous record, all that stuff about the head of youth service retiring in the normal course of events was also untrue.

And what we shouldn’t forget is that the youth worker who tried to have Smith’s activities properly investigated was rewarded with the sack.

The 2011 CSSIW report into PCC’s child safeguarding arrangements – which saw the authority put in special measures – contained the following statements:

“Generally cases are only discussed [with elected members] when they may have a high media profile and cause reputational damage.”

And in another part of the report:

“This lack of transparency raises questions as to whether the protection of the child is always given priority over the reputation of the authority.”

I’m afraid recent events seem to suggest that this cover-up culture is embedded in the authority’s DNA.