The political fallout from Watford Borough Council's decision to “ban” parents attending council-run play sessions with their children continued this week as it was blamed for turning the town into a national “laughing stock”.

Two Labour councillors claimed in today's printed edition of the Watford Observer that the Liberal Democrat-controlled council led a “public relations disaster” by blaming Government policy for restricting parental access to Harwoods Adventure Playground, in Harwoods Road.

A letter sent to parents claimed that “due to recently changed Ofsted regulations we have a responsibility to ensure that every authorised adult who enters our site is properly vetted and given a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check”.

The council has now admitted this “error” but has maintained that for the children who use the facility to be given the full attention of council-employed play workers, parents can no longer be allowed to remain on site.

Harwoods Adventure Playground and its sister site Harebreaks Adventure Playground in The Harebreaks host council-run play sessions where parents can leave their children, aged between five and 15, in the care of “properly vetted” council staff on weekday evenings and on Saturdays.

While the "no-parent" policy has been upheld at Harebreaks, at Harwoods the council said a minority of parents began to stay inside the enclosed area, often bringing children under five with them.

When the play workers felt they were unable to supervise the children properly, following a “number of incidents”, they decided to enforce the policy.

A letter was then sent out to about 300 homes on September 14 this year, informing parents they would no longer be allowed to stay on site with their children during the sessions, citing Ofsted regulations behind the decision.

Following complaints to the Watford Observer by furious parents last week, which led to the story receiving national attention across print and television news, Mayor Dorothy Thornhill publicised on her own website her unhappiness that the issue had been misrepresented following reports that parents had been “banned” from every park and playground in the town.

In a blog entry published on Wednesday, October 28, Mayor Thornhill said that because some parents “started to stay around for all the sessions, this increased to the extent that staff felt they were spending more time worrying about what the parents were up to rather than watching and supervising the children.

“They should not have been allowed to stay that’s never been the policy, so yes we were lax in allowing it and have now decided to tighten up.”

This entry was later removed but it reappeared the next day alongside a second blog entry in which she attempted to clarify the council's position. This second blog was also the content of an email sent out to residents to “reassure” them she had “not taken leave of her senses” and that the council had not banned parents from parks and playgrounds.

She wrote: “What has happened is that at Harwoods a handful of parents have been staying on, not just dropping their kids off. After a number of incidents, staff that run the facility felt that the presence of these parents was hampering their ability to supervise the kids properly.

“I'm not saying adults shouldn't be allowed on playgrounds – I'd go out and shoot myself if this was the case – only on these specialised play facilities. We have 40 other playgrounds elsewhere in the borough where parents are welcome to stay.”

Holywell ward councillor Nigel Bell writes in today's Watford Observer: “There is a tradition going back many years at Harwoods Road of parents and grandparents being on site and as far as I know there has never been a problem.

“This should have been handled in a more sensitive manner with a proper, open consultation.

“It has led to Watford being seen as a 'laughing stock' nationally at best and, at worst, as an example of 'unauthoritarianism'.”

Councillor Jagtar Singh Dhindsa, leader of the Watford Borough Council Labour Group, adds: “Of course, the Government's Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) stipulates by law that staff who work at adventure playgrounds have to be vetted.

“That does not apply to parents who turn up with their kids – the Mayor is simply wrong, confused and should apologise for misleading people.”

Meanwhile, Watford MP Claire Ward said she is “hopping mad” at council attempts to blame “Government legislation” for the move to ban parents from the play sessions.

She has now written to Mayor Thornhill, asking her to explain a “series of conflicting statements made to both parents and the media last week”.

Her letter said: “Whilst I am sure we can all understand the need to protect children, surely as a mother yourself you can see the absurdity in the reality of leaving a five year old to play with 15 year olds in an adventure playground and relying on three good but probably over stretched staff to keep a watchful eye on these activities. I think parents now need reassurance that common sense will be brought back into play at Watford Borough Council.”

In a statement, Ofsted said: “Ofsted would never seek to prevent parents and carers having access to their own children, or insist that each parent must have a member of staff with them at all times. Many settings operate very well with parents and young children settling somewhere new.”

Council representatives told the Watford Observer the Mayor's first blog was removed once it “became clear that at least some of the coverage implied these were public open accessible playgrounds” and not enclosed supervised facilities.

Cate Hall, executive director at Watford Borough Council, said: "There were media reports last week that we banned parents from all our public parks and playgrounds. To be 100 per cent clear – this was not the case.

“This is about one of our two supervised play facility sites registered with Ofsted and not a general public park. The Harwoods Adventure Playground is for unaccompanied children and is supervised by the council's qualified play workers.

“The parents of unaccompanied children expect our staff to give their full attention to the children and look after their safety and well-being. If we have adults on site, that distracts our staff from that purpose. Parents would expect that if adults are staying on site regularly, where they cannot always be with the staff, they go through some basic checks.

“As part of a wider operational review of how we manage play services, officers used best practice guidance to help shape our policy. There was however an error in the original letter we sent to parents when we said that the decision was due to recently changed Ofsted regulations. The letter was sent without checking the contents with senior management or the mayor and I very much regret that it contributed to the confusion.

“Of course, parents are very welcome to bring their children into the site and settle them in. We also welcome parents who want to become volunteers.

“During the play sessions at the facility this week, we have been there to help with any questions that parents might have. I'm pleased to say that there have not been any issues raised."

Sal Brinton, the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Watford, said the council had followed Government advice.

In a letter to Richard Harrington, the Conservative PPC, she said: “There is standard guidance from the Department of Children, Schools and Families to all local councils. This states that Adventure Playgrounds are environments in which children are expected to be independent from their parents, but that staff should be provided, to ensure that children remain safe.

“It is not dissimilar to the experience that many children have when they go to holiday play schemes, Scouts and other supervised voluntary groups. The two Adventure Playgrounds in Watford have followed this advice, but following some parents starting to attend, re-issued their advice. I suspect you will also find that most Conservative-controlled authorities also follow the same practice.”

Matt Hopkinson, of the Department of Children, Schools and Families confirmed that any volunteers staying on site would need “basic checks”, although this would not apply to parents dropping off or collecting their children from the playground.

He said: “It’s important to remember than this isn’t a general public park and is actually a registered childcare place where children are left for the day, under the supervision of qualified play workers.

"Parents would expect that if volunteers are staying on site regularly, where they may not always be with the staff, they go through some basic checks. This would be the same in a nursery school or other play setting where children are left in the care of others.

"However, common sense must always prevail and no parent needs to be checked just because they are picking up or dropping off their children or staying on the site occasionally in the presence of the staff.”