The appointment of a young novice councillor to run Birmingham City Council’s challenged education and children’s social services departments at a time of great change has been labelled a “high risk strategy”.
Labour leader Sir Albert Bore stunned colleagues this week when he announced that Brigid Jones, who has been Selly Oak councillor for just one year, was handed the Cabinet brief.
Her background, a physics graduate and research scientist at the University of Birmingham, means it is quite a step-change to take political charge of the largest Local Education Authority in the country and one of the most troubled children’s social care department.
It is a department which is only just recovering following a string of tragedies including the starving to death of eight-year-old Khyra Ishaq, a girl known to social workers, in 2008.
Officially it is still on the government’s list of failing departments, but concerted efforts to transform the service under troubleshooter Eleanor Brazil and extra political focus provided by the previous Tory-Lib Dem coalition has seen improvements.
Tory leader Mike Whitby told the Post last week that the council had “taken its eye off the ball” when children’s services was placed with the education department in 2006, leaving officers equipped to deal with schools looking after an army of social workers and carers.
His solution was to set up a special task force and created an additional executive post – held in 2010 by Len Clark and then after he lost his seat by Matt Bennett – to focus on the over haul of children’s social care.
But now the Conservative opposition and several within the Labour group are questioning Sir Albert’s decision to strip that focus away – especially as Eleanor Brazil’s interim term has ended and the new director of children’s services, Peter Duxbury has only taken over this month.
Conservative deputy group leader Coun Robert Alden (Erdington) said: “We placed that extra focus on children’s services for good reason and it was beginning to deliver results. The improvement plan is still in progress and to put that at risk by messing around with the leadership is not a good idea.”
The Conservatives had already questioned the decision to merge the specialist vulnerable children scrutiny committee with its education counterpart, but this was rejected by Labour.
Coun Alden said that the group would appoint separate shadow cabinet members for education and vulnerable children to signify the importance they place on this issue. It also effectively gangs up on Coun Jones, who they see as lacking experience and suspect out of her depth.
Even some Labour group members are concerned about the change and while most say that Brigid is smart, very pleasant and a good party member, they believe she is too much of an unknown quantity to be given a major role.
One, speaking on condition their identity was not revealed, said: “This is a huge risk. The director of children’s services just left, a new one has just started, the department is still recovering.”
There is also a residual amount of sympathy for Kingstanding councillor Cath Grundy who previously held the education cabinet position in 2004 and has been the shadow cabinet member ever since. Coun Jones is away on a research project for the University and was unavailable for comment.
Council deputy leader Ian Ward said: “Brigid is a very intelligent and very capable councillor. She has a steep learning curve but I have every confidence she will do an excellent job.
“The focus of the new cabinet role will be on children’s social care. The education side has diminished as schools have control of their own budgets and under the Academies and Free School programmes an increasing number have opted out of LEA control.”
However she will have close support as the new Cabinet will share an open plan office with senior council officers.
The six members joining leader Sir Albert Bore and deputy Ian Ward are Tahir Ali responsible for development, jobs & skills, Steve Bedser responsible for health and wellbeing, John Cotton responsible for social cohesion and equalities, Brigid Jones responsible for children and family services, James McKay responsible for green, safe and smart city and former deputy leader Stewart Stacey who will oversee commissioning, contracts and improvement.
Heading the scrutiny and watchdog function of the council as chairman of the resources, governance and member development committee is senior Labour councillor Carl Rice.