Wales politics

Child protection: Pembrokeshire council's final warning

A final warning has been given to a council accused of failing in its duty to safeguard children.

The Welsh government sent a panel of experts into Pembrokeshire last year after serious problems were highlighted in protecting children from abuse.

There are claims of children being locked in rooms and of one's hands being tied by a teacher.

The leader of the council said "significant steps" had been taken by officials and schools staff.

In a letter to Jamie Adams, the council's independent leader, ministers say they will force the council to comply if necessary.

A ministerial board was appointed last year following two highly critical reports, one of which identified problems in safeguarding children.

Ministers said on Tuesday that progress has been "worryingly slow" and that they have "grave concerns" about the authority.

Their letter says despite an initial investigation and police recommendations, no disciplinary investigation has been carried out into complaints about a small padded "time out room" at a unit for children with special educational needs and behaviour problems.

A complaint was made in June 2009 about children being locked in the room, which had no natural light or ventilation, at the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in Neyland.

In a series of questions for the council, ministers ask why no inquiry has been conducted by the council three years later.

When reports about it emerged the council said there was nothing similar at other schools in the county.

But the ministerial board has discovered a "very similar padded room" at a primary school elsewhere in the county.

This school also had two other windowless rooms in which children were routinely locked, the letter says.

Ministers say they have since heard about at least five rooms in which children were locked "and there may be several more".

The board has learned of at least 18 further rooms which were apparently being used for "time out" purposes in Pembrokeshire's schools.

Separate allegations were made in March about a teacher at Meads Infant School in Milford Haven tying a pupil's hands behind his back.

The board was told about the allegations only the night before they were reported in the press and the director of education did not step in until the board urged him to do so five days later.

In a joint statement, Education Minister Leighton Andrews and Deputy Social Services Minister Gwenda Thomas said: "We have waited long enough and we are not prepared to give another warning."

'Fail to disclose information'

They say there is a "culture where elected members seem unable to submit officers to proper scrutiny and challenge, and officers and front line staff are afraid to disclose concerns".

Senior officers appear not to know what is happening in schools or fail to disclose information when they do, they add.

Ministers are considering giving the chair of the board - retired judge Graham Jones - the power to issue instructions so the authority meets its safeguarding duties.

Mr Adams has been given a deadline of 17:00 BST on 22 June to respond before ministers decide what action to take.

Conservative education spokeswoman Angela Burns, the AM for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said there needed to be "strong guidance" on the use of time out rooms.

She said: "Having seen the time out room at the PRU in Pembrokeshire and heard evidence from children about other schools I fail to see how the use of a time out room can be deemed appropriate in this day and age."

Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas said: "There is a shocking lack of progress over this issue. The Welsh government should take action as soon as possible."

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