EXPENSIVE agency workers earning “thousands of pounds a week” have helped cause a £1.5 million black hole in Sandwell Council's under-fire Children’s Service department's budget.

A council report this week revealed failures which have dogged the department for years persist despite the council paying £1.5 million to private consultants.

Impower were hired to sort out the inability to appoint permanent social workers and delays in placing vulnerable children into foster care.

But the strategic resources report said: “The service continues to be reliant upon agency workers due to high turnover and delays in the successful recruitment of suitable substantive employees.

“Agency workers add considerably to the budgeted cost of the workforce within children’s services resulting in the present forecast deficit.”

Whistleblowing Langley Independent Socialist councillor Mick Davies accused Sandwell Council and Impower for failing local children. He said: “This is yet another report showing a litany of incompetence in the department.

“The budget is projected to be almost £1.5 million overspent this year and this, remember, is one year into a £1.5 million contract with ‘improvement partner’ Impower.

"These issues have been ‘issues’ for the last 10 years and as a council we are no further forward."

He added: "Agency staff are still relied upon means some of these staff are earning thousands of pounds a week. Why?"

Cllr Davies, who runs two children's centres in Walsall, has unsuccessfully asked the council for information regarding the reasons staff give for leaving.

"We need to know why there is such a high turnover of staff, I can bet it is to do with lack of management support, lack of supervision and high caseload for frontline staff."

He added: "They are now hoping the redesign of services will make it possible for a large number of these agency workers to be exited, hope springs eternal. It seems the tactic of privatising of the management of children's services may not have been the wisest course of action.”

The department was branded inadequate by Ofsted this year but Cllr Simon Hackett, who was appointed cabinet member for children’s services in the spring, promised they have turned the corner.

He said: “Our first and highest priority is to protect children.

“The council and our improvement advisers Impower are 12 months into a two-and-a-half year programme to improve Sandwell's children's services department.

“I always said it would take time to turn the service around but I am confident that together with Impower we are beginning to make the improvements needed."

He added: “For example, we have just restructured the service, focusing on earlier work with families to prevent problems hitting crisis point. And over the coming months, these changes will help reduce the reliance on agency workers.

“We are holding an all-year-round campaign to recruit foster carers, to increase the number of carers and reducing the cost of external placements."

Cllr Hackett also pointed to groundbreaking work the council is doing to safeguard children.

He said: "We have also made significant progress with the opening of a safeguarding hub where the council's social workers, police, NHS and other partners all sit together to share information and work jointly together to protect children that come to our attention.

"This safeguarding hub is the first of its kind in the West Midlands and it addresses the criticism in so many cases like that of Baby P that the agencies did not work together or share information well enough."

Cllr Hackett is hopeful the budget situation will improve next year.

He said: "As the improvements we want to make begin to take full effect, this will help address any budget problems that currently exist.”