When it comes to covering child protection services in Birmingham words like “failing”, “damning” and “struggling” have become so very familiar.
Over the best part of a decade we have seen a revolving door of cabinet members, managers, troubleshooters, directors and even government overseers come and go and all to little effect.
In the media we have understandably focused on the tragic, disturbing, harrowing and extreme cases of child death: Khyra Ishaq, starved to death aged eight; Keanu Williams, beaten and abused aged two; and Keegan Downer, a happy toddler handed to an abusive foster parent and dead soon after.
But the data has also shown a system in crisis – overbearing case loads, a rapid turnover of staff, over-reliance on temporary and agency staff, all amid the stress and strain of looking after vulnerable children in a diverse and complex city with high levels of deprivation.
The head of Ofsted described Birmingham children services as “a national disgrace”.
But we were recently assured that it is now different, that a three-year plan drawn up chiefly by former health minister Lord Warner would deliver the turnaround.
Below: Dispatches undercover film footages finds Birmingham social worker cannot cope
Now two years on the data, we are told, shows some progress on workloads and staff turnover but still the department is rated as inadequate.
It would be easy to blame the austerity measures for the problems but, after some cutting five years ago, Birmingham City Council has increased the department’s budget as part of the plan to turn it round.
Labour cabinet member Brigid Jones told the council they had done everything asked of them by Lord Warner and his bosses at the Department for Education.
But with progress still slow and still no one willing to give any commitment to the safety and protection of children in this city, the council has now voted to look at a trust model.
Privatisation of child protection is rightly not allowed – no one should profit from these cases. But setting up a not-for-profit trust or asking the charity sector, perhaps the likes of Barnados, the Children’s Society or the NSPCC, to bring the expertise to the table is.
So it is hardly surprising that the council is now looking – or has been forced to explore – this and about time too.
While arriving at this conclusion there was much heat and anger in Birmingham’s Council Chamber this week.
A 90-minute debate saw the opposition Tories demand the resignation of Labour cabinet member Brigid Jones who they claimed had either kept the council in the dark about the trust plan or misled the council about this being the council’s decision.
Written answers ahead of the meeting showed that the council had been in talks with the Department for Education about this in February, yet the Labour group had thrown out a Tory trust proposal in the March budget debate.
It certainly appears, as Conservative councillor Alex Yip suggested, that Birmingham was jumping before it was pushed into a trust by the Department for Education.
In response, Labour pointed out that the trust had been first floated in the 2014 LeGrande review of children’s services, but that it should only be explored once the department was off the critical list.
Coun Jones also accused the Tory proposal of being designed to save money, part of “an outsource-athon” of council services, whereas Labour were increasing the child protection budget.
It was angry stuff and shows that, after years of tiptoeing around each other on the issue, children’s services has been dragged into the party political arena. Those bridges will need to be rebuilt for the sake of everyone involved.
A most telling contribution came from Labour leader John Clancy.
Those concerned with the tribal ins and outs will have noted his staunch support for Brigid Jones, an appointee he inherited from his predecessor and who supported a rival candidate for Labour leader last year.
But his final point was perhaps more striking in the great scheme of things. Ofsted inspectors have now rated 25 per cent of UK children’s services departments as inadequate and a further 50 per cent as requiring improvement. Another 25 per cent are good and none are outstanding. Some of the earlier trusts set up by the Government – in Doncaster for example – have hardly covered themselves in glory.
Government favourite troubleshooter Eleanor Brazil is currently working to turn around Sandwell children’s services. A role she carried out as interim director in Birmingham for two years up to 2012 - with little sustained success. That too now looks to be heading along the trust route.
As Clancy says, perhaps this is not just a Birmingham problem, but a British one.
When question time became all about councillors car parking
In an extraordinary piece of navel-gazing, the city council found one of its questions taken up with the thorny issue of councillors’ free parking spaces.
They have been grumbling ever since the basement car park under the Council House was closed and sold to the Paradise Circus developers.
The poor dears have not been making full use of their assigned ground floor at the multi-storey behind the Library of Birmingham. This will now be returned to public use.
But while a major concern to the 120 elected members, did the rest of the world need to hear they would be given free on-street parking for meetings and appointments in the city centre?
We are in competition with Manchester after all
The respective leaders of this nation's great cities are very respectful of each other, in public at least. All that 'which is the second city?' is very much downplayed at every opportunity.
But Birmingham council leader John Clancy let the mask slip during one of his trademark rambling answers to a question from the floor of the chamber.
He was regaling us with a tale from his recent trip to Chicago to a conference of global city leaders when he let slip a little fun fact: Birmingham would be the tenth biggest city in the US.
He then muttered that Manchester would be only 43rd, before hurriedly moving on.
So when it comes to city rivalry, size does matter after all.