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Calls for children's director to go

There have been fresh calls for Rotherham's director of children's services to step down after it emerged she is absent on sick leave.

Joyce Thacker has been at the centre of the controversy sparked by the Jay Report, which highlighted how at least 1,400 children were exploited in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.

Earlier this month she was grilled by MPs on the Commons Home Affairs committee who called for her to step down from her post.

Today, a Rotherham council spokeswoman confirmed Ms Thacker had been on sick leave since Monday. She said it was not appropriate to discuss the reason for her absence.

Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs committee said today: "This appears to be a fudge.

"Joyce Thacker seemed to be in perfect health when she appeared before the Home Affairs Committee nine days ago.

"The temporary absence of Ms Thacker from her desk at Rotherham Council is not the fresh start that the victims deserve.

"Ms Thacker will still receive her six figure salary, and will be able to return to her position in the near future. This leaves children's services in Rotherham in limbo at a time when they need positive and strong leadership.

"Ms Thacker should take note of the other resignations and follow suit, and if she does not, then Rotherham Council should make the decision for her."

The news of Ms Thacker's absence emerged after an interim South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner (PCC) was installed to replace Shaun Wright, who resigned earlier this week following three weeks of pressure for him to step down following the publication of the Jay Report.

Accountant Steve Pick will be the acting commissioner for just over a month until a new PCC is elected in a by-election on October 30.

Last week, Ms Thacker told Mr Vaz's committee that she had given a "lot of thought" to resigning but insisted she had "worked hard" to improve services in Rotherham.

Asked what she and Mr Wright had done about the problem, Ms Thacker replied: "We knew about child sexual exploitation and abuse but we didn't know the scale of it ... I have worked tirelessly to improve things in Rotherham and make sure that people understood it was everyone's business to stop this."

But Mr Vaz said the whole committee believed Ms Thacker should quit.

Mr Wright quit as PCC on Tuesday after three weeks of intense pressure following the publication of Professor Alexis Jay's report.

Critics pointed to his spell as the councillor responsible for children's services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010 and there were widespread, top-level calls for him to step down before he eventually went.

Mr Pick, who is the chief financial officer for the office of the South Yorkshire PCC, was appointed as interim PCC today at a meeting of the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Panel.

The panel chose Mr Pick ahead of Tracey Cheetham - Mr Wright's deputy who resigned as a protest when Mr Wright refused to resign last month.

Ms Cheetham was one of the most prominent voices calling for Mr Wright to resign. She stepped down as deputy PCC when he refused to go, saying she disagreed with his stance.

The panel heard today that she was still serving her notice period and was therefore still eligible to be appointed. Officials said the rules stated that the interim post-holder had to be a member of the PCC's staff.

After the meeting Ms Cheetham said she understood why the panel made its decision.

She said: "I've got to be honest, if I had been on the panel, given the general public feeling about politicians at the moment, I would probably have gone with a non-politician too.

"Steve is a very safe pair of hands. He's excellent at what he does."

Asked if she will stand for the elected post next month, she said: "Absolutely not."

Mr Pick made it clear his role was to prepare the ground for the next elected commissioner so he or she could "hit the ground running".

He said: "There's a job to be done. I'm confident it's more of a management and administration task.

"I think the main task is for whoever the people of South Yorkshire elect, to enable them to hit the ground running."

The by-election on October 30 will be run by Barnsley Council chief executive Diana Terris, who is the police area returning officer for South Yorkshire.

It will not be the first PCC by-election since the system was set up in 2012.

A by-election was held in the West Midlands last month after the death of post-holder Bob Jones.

There were criticisms of the process following the West Midlands poll and also dismay at a £3.7 million bill for the vote when the turnout was only 10.41% - a cost to the taxpayer of around £15 per vote cast.

Many of the grumbles surrounded the strict by-election timetable which gave candidates only four weeks to find a £5,000 deposit and campaign across a huge area of two million eligible voters. Some said this was why the West Midlands by-election produced no independent candidates.

In the South Yorkshire PCC election in November 2012, Mr Wright got 51.35% of the vote in the first round and was elected. The turnout was 14.53%.

English Democrats candidate David Allen came second.

Craig Paterson, a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University's department of law and criminology, said the by-election could open the door for a Ukip candidate or even the EDL.

Dr Paterson said: " Questions must remain about the attraction of a potentially toxic position, while the legacy of Hillsborough and the Miners' Strike rules out many former police officers.

"Also, the prolonged and painful resignation of Shaun Wright as South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner has highlighted a number of weaknesses in the PCC system.

"Most obviously, what can be done when the person voted into position is found to be completely unsuitable for the role? Wright's failure to recognise the harm his position was causing for victims of crime and public support for the police demonstrated the dangers of politicising governance of the police."

Dr Paterson said: " Looking ahead, this issue becomes even more important.

"The most obvious candidate to replace Wright, Tracey Cheetham, who has consistently championed victims of crime and vulnerable people, was rejected for the interim role.

"This creates a potential opportunity for someone who is able to capitalise on the sensitive issues raised by the continued mismanagement of crime and safety issues within the region. The stage is certainly set for someone who can manage public opinion but this could also mean an open invitation to the more radical fringes of democracy in the form of Ukip and even the EDL."

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