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Health secretary Alan Milburn has provoked the wrath of local government by announcing that social services departments, like the NHS, will be given star ratings this summer.

And he used his speech at the annual social services conference in Harrogate last week to name and shame 14 departments that had performed worst against a series of performance indicators - in effect pre-empting the star system, which will also take account of reports by the social services inspectorate and in-year monitoring.

The announcement, in a speech billed as an upbeat launch to a three-year social work staff recruitment campaign, was described as ‘ironic and disappointing’ by joint conference organisers the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services.

They described the performance indicator data as ‘questionable and limited’, and pointed out that, of 24 indicators ‘where comparisons can reasonably be drawn’ with last year, 19 showed clear improvement, two indicate no change and just three showed a worsening performance.

Mr Milburn’s speech drew a passionate response from Lambeth executive councillor for children’s services and health Judith Brody, whose social services department was named as one of the worst.

She wanted to set the record straight for the Lambeth staff ‘slogging their guts out’ to turn the department round, she said.

HSJ understands that Mr Milburn’s remarks, and the uncompromising local government response, led to a stand-up row between the health secretary and LGA chair of social affairs and health Rita Stringfellow.

Mr Milburn’s speech closely echoed government rhetoric over the NHS star-rating system, and the list of rewards for three-star departments and sanctions for the zero-rated largely parallel the NHS measures.

‘Today, I am putting this year’s worst performers on notice, ’ he said, adding: ‘Where councils and the NHS are not working together effectively, I will consider asking the Social Services Inspectorate and the Commission for Health Improvement jointly to investigate the reasons for partnership failure.

‘If necessary, I will use my powers to compel local health and social services to work more effectively together.’

Top performers can expect ‘lighter touch’ inspection, spending freedoms and the possibility of taking over the running of poor departments. No-star performers will be required to agree an action plan for improvement with the chief inspector of social services.

‘External expertise’ from the private or voluntary sectors could also be used to turn round ‘persistently failing’ departments.

There will be separate ratings for adult and children’s services.

LGA head of social affairs and health John Ransford said: ‘We are not against an overall rating per se, but we are concerned that in incredibly diverse and diffuse social services the star system reflects that.’ The LGA was ‘very concerned’ that Mr Milburn had used the performance indicators to announce publicly the best and worst performers. ‘To give the impression that the overall competence of an entire authority can be judged on those indicators is dangerous, ’ he added.

Unison head of social services Owen Davies said: ‘If the government wants to solve the recruitment and retention crisis… they have gone the wrong way about it. Social services workers need support, not threatening with a big stick.’