Birmingham City Council’s new executive member for children’s social care has pledged to intervene early to stop serious problems arising.
Coun Matt Bennett, aged just 35, who has only been elected for three years, has been placed in charge of Birmingham’s failing social services department.
Coun Bennett admitted in an interview with the Birmingham Post that he understood the importance of his role, saying: “There is a lot riding on this.”
The quick rise of Coun Bennett came after the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition suffered its worst local election result.
Conservative city council leader Tory Mike Whitby and his Lib Dem deputy Paul Tilsley decided early on that the reason they lost 13 seats between them was a result of the national mood turning against the Coalition Government and that they could do little to improve matters and have stuck with the same top table.
But among the second tier of council appointees much change is taking place, partly as a result of filling dead men’s shoes and partly as a result of clamour from within the Tory group.
A few years ago a group Tory councillors, including Coun Bennett (Stockland Green) and Philip Parkin (Sutton Trinity) challenged Coun Whitby over his plans to revive the Municipal Bank.
They were then were thought to be supporters of Coun Randal Brew’s failed leadership bid of 2009 – for which Brew was rewarded with a Cabinet post last year, while Parkin found himself elevated to group deputy leader by his colleagues.
Now the leader has, perhaps under growing pressure from within, used the loss of six councillors and a couple of resignations to promote more of those councillors once dismissed by a member of Whitby’s team as a ‘boys’ club’.
These include Robert Alden, who is leading the equalities and human resources scrutiny committee and Philip Parkin, who has been handed leisure, sport and culture scrutiny.
The swiftest and most surprising elevation saw 35-year-old Coun Bennett, who has been warming the back benches for just three years, elevated to executive member for children’s social care, a role just beneath Cabinet level.
He takes over from the formidable Len Clark for whom the job was created last year.
Coun Clark had exposed the failings of children’s social care in a damning report and was then given the specific task of overseeing the much needed improvement. He was one of the casualties of the recent election.
Not only had the department failed Government inspections, but it was tragically found lacking in a series of high profile deaths of children known to social workers, including Khyra Ishaq who was starved to death by her parents.
Coun Bennett is under no illusions over the scale of the task he has taken on, but has the comfort of knowing that a recovery plan has already been put in place.
“It is a challenging role, but one I asked for," he says.
"I want to improve the lives of children in this city, to improve their life chances. There is a lot riding on this. I have yet to immerse myself in the detail. But there is a process in place, there’s the Leader’s task force, we are working with Government and there is a plan in place.
"It’s about keeping the pressure on officers – and intervening if I see something which sets alarm bells ringing.”
Although a relative political newcomer Coun Bennett brings much experience to the job through a background in public and voluntary sector management which included jobs with Action for Children and the Birmingham Children’s Fund.
Most recently he was vice-chairman of the council’s education scrutiny committee.
He joined the council in 2008 following a shock victory in the previously safe Labour ward of Stockland Green, and after seeing Labour win twice there in the last two years, faces a tough battle to retain his place.
“It was a shock in 2008 and there is still everything to play for,” he argues.
He is quick to downplay the squabbles of the recent past.
“There were a few issues and we had healthy robust discussions as any political party does. But whatever our few differences we are all part of the Conservative Party and believe in the same things.”
He denies there is any agenda or a new generation coming through in an orchestrated way, insisting: “Mike Whitby had our full support, he is an excellent leader for the group and the city council."