Taxigate: Council failed to respond to ‘child sex exploitation’

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A DAMNING report has laid bare a catalogue of shocking failures behind the South Ribble taxi scandal.

The 210-page dossier into the licensing scandal savages South Ribble Council’s response to reports of alleged child sexual exploitation by taxi drivers and once again highlights widespread department mismanagement.

Compiled by Coun Mick Titherington, the authority’s chairman of scrutiny, it outlines 20 key problems including “major corporate governance failure”, with failures “exacerbated by weak political and senior management leadership”.

It includes 16 recommendations for the council to improve, as well as candid interviews with key town hall players – both councillors and senior officers.

Coun Titherington in charge of scrutiny at South Ribble Council, warned the report may be “uncomfortable reading” for some, and criticised some councillors and officers for reluctance to engage in the process.

Coun Titherington and a specially-selected task group were asked to look into the way an external investigation into the taxi licensing scandal was handled, after an interim report by an external solicitor’s firm was leaked to the press in April.

The secret report criticised the council for failing to carry out background checks on drivers and not carrying out appropriate investigations into allegations of child sexual exploitation by two male taxi drivers.

Since then, three more incidents of abusive behaviour by taxi drivers has emerged, there has been a police investigation into who leaked the report, the leader of the Council, Margaret Smith, has resigned due to ill health, the chief executive Mike Nuttall has resigned, and Ian Parker, the monitoring officer in charge of council standards, has been suspended.

The scrutiny task group got to work when a final version of the external report was made public in June.

The first finding noted was that there has been a “major corporate governance failure” at the council, with failures “exacerbated by weak political and senior management leadership”, with a lack of regard to the council’s policies on safeguarding.

It states there was no safeguarding referral made by any cabinet member or member of the senior management team to the safeguarding lead and no formal meetings of the cabinet were held.

The decision to commission a team of solicitors to carry out an external investigation into the problems was also slammed, with the report saying it was “difficult to see any justification” for doing so, with procurement rules not followed and no evidence of effective management costs.

The report also mentions a leaked interim report by the solicitors, which “should not have been kept secret”, and that members should not have been involved in commissioning the solicitors to work on disciplinary matters.

Senior officers are said not to appear to know distinct roles of members and have not been assertive and communication across the board was not effective and damaged the council’s reputation.

Additionally, the report states it is “inexplicable” why the then leader of the council, cabinet member for regeneration and leisure and the chief executive should allow themselves to be excluded from the investigation into failings and “did not take control of the situation”.

Interviews with key players in the council reveal thoughts on a power struggle between members of the Tory party, plots to overthrow the leader and chief executive, rumours of a deal between the Tory and Labour leaders to embarrass three Tory councillors, and signs of a breakdown in relationship between the chief executive and the monitoring officer.

Coun Titherington said: “There is no doubt that this has been an extremely challenging exercise, and this report is the result of a lot of hard work undertaken by the members of the task group who were determined to establish the full facts.

“While it may prove uncomfortable reading for some, it is important that the Task Group was able to unravel the sequence of events and produce an evidence-based report for the council to learn valuable lessons and move forward in a positive way.

“The findings in the report are all based on evidence collated throughout the review, which was supported by a highly qualified independent expert – well versed in dealing with these issues and ensuring that investigations like this one are done right and to an extremely high standard.”

He added: “It’s now important that our findings and recommendations are taken on board and implemented at the earliest opportunity to help re-build South Ribble’s reputation as an excellent council delivering first class services across the borough.”

The report will be presented to the Scrutiny Committee when they meet on September 20. The meeting will start at 6pm at the Civic Centre, in West Paddock, Leyland, with residents welcome to attend.

It will then be debated at the next full council meeting, on Wednesday October 5 – again this meeting is open to members of the public.