Getting a grip on children’s services costs

By Dan Peters | 15 August 2018

Councils have shouldered more than their fair share of austerity – a fact even the local government minister now recognises. But, although the focus has largely been on adult social care, children’s services has fast become the big issue – especially with the bill for looked-after children (LAC) in mind.

Speaking at a working lunch debate hosted by The MJ and Prospects, one guest said: ‘The debate is moving from adults to children. Children’s services is another problem looming – and not just on funding.’

The number of looked-after children has increased steadily over the last nine years. One local government boss whose council has high numbers of LAC said their figures had now stabilised but were still higher than the national average, amid a £4m and rising budget shortfall. ‘I don’t think we can get them down any further,’ he added.

Another attendee revealed their council had brought LAC numbers ‘safely down’ over two years but the figures were now starting to climb again across their region. ‘The “why?” question is the big one,’ commented the participant. ‘You can’t ignore the fact of 10 years of austerity.’

Another chief executive highlighted the impact of welfare reform saying it was ‘not causal’ but added to pressures. The chief said their council overspent by £8m on children’s services last year, driven significantly by youngsters with special educational needs and disabilities.

Recent research commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) found wildly different spending levels in children’s services across councils owed more to local demographic factors than to inefficiency or political decisions. The report discovered that variation in spending was largely down to socio-economic factors, which is likely to influence the sector’s lobbying message to Whitehall.

‘For me, the starting point is separating out efficiency or inefficiency from the actual cost of care,’ said one chief executive. ‘Somehow or other we’ve got to manage. This is pure cost. We’re not going to be able to drive it out through increased efficiency.’

Working to create a predictive model was the answer for at least one council boss. ‘Can we start to predict now which families in which circumstances will start to tip?’ the chief executive mused. ‘The key thing is can we use data to help predict?’

This council has twinned a predictive approach with a focus on prevention. Perhaps controversially, after finding that 70 women had mothered 231 children taken into care, the authority decided to ‘interfere with their fertility’.

‘The key thing for us to recognise was it was the council that could do it,’ said the chief executive. ‘You’d think the last people they would want to talk to were the bastards who are taking their kids away. I’m an optimist but, even doing all these things, it’s hard.’

Things are not made any easier by the shortage of social workers, with one chief executive reporting that up to half of their staff were from an agency and therefore paid more while another said they currently had 120 vacancies filled by interim staff.

‘Wherever we look in the system we’ve not got the right type of staff,’ another participant said. Some councils have struck memorandums of understanding with other authorities in their region, allowing councils to agree pay rates for agency workers and avoiding a race to the top.

However, authorities continue to face competition from nearby councils that have not signed up to such deals. Perhaps what is needed, it was suggested, is to change views about social work as a profession.

‘If we look back a decade ago teachers were not valued in our society,’ one guest recollected.

‘Then there was a national push. They got to see a career structure that keeps them in frontline practice.’

But it was recognised that being a social worker will always be hard, with the average professional lifespan of someone in safeguarding said to be seven years. ‘They do need rest and respite from these complex families,’ our participant continued. ‘The complexity of the families we’re dealing with now is astounding.’

The Government’s Troubled Families programme attempted to address this, but there were varying views, with some describing it as a ‘positive experience’ that has had a ‘massive impact’ while others bemoaned it turned into a tick-box exercise and ‘felt like a bolt on’.

One said: ‘Unfortunately, one of the challenges is we’re potentially meeting these families too late.’ Another chief executive warned of a ‘broadening of criminality’ involving children, adding youngsters were being used to commit ‘some of the most horrendous stuff’.

On top of all this, populations are changing rapidly in many areas and keeping up with this churn is a huge challenge. ‘People are moving for work much more than they ever did,’ said one chief executive. ‘People are more mobile. Some of the old hierarchies and infrastructure that was there is not quite there anymore. We do have to think more about systems rather than some of the more informal mechanisms because they’re not there anymore.’

Another chief executive suggested the solution was to build families’ resistance and capability but added: ‘It’s a huge endeavour. That is the answer but it isn’t an easy answer and it does take a whole council and a whole area. I know that we have to improve what we do on children’s social care in particular. We haven’t been very good at planning ahead and investing in the right systems. We need to do better at that. To get our places to be better places we need to focus on the lives of children.’

Another chief added: ‘I do think there’s a lot more focus now on people and their lived experience than there was even a few years ago.’

But hanging over the sector is the risk of another Baby P, which led to both a marked decline in morale and a big spike in child protection concerns being flagged by the public and partner agencies.

‘I think we’re a little bit in a false sense of security at the moment,’ one chief executive confided. ‘We haven’t, thankfully, across the sector had anything like that [Baby P] for a couple of months – probably years now. We’ve tried to really get into our caseload and decided to take more risk, but I worry about the impact of an incident.’

Ofsted, as in any discussion about children’s services, was never far from the agenda.

‘The regulator is having an enormous impact on finances,’ said one boss who had worked at a council in the aftermath of an inadequate rating. ‘I think the role of regulator and how we challenge that is really critical.’

Running through the whole debate was the dilemma of how to sustain having the right resources at the child protection end with funding for preventative measures that will only have an impact in the long-term.

One council chief said their authority was doing as much early intervention as it could but added the ‘long-term doesn’t work for politicians’ because it takes years to get results, adding: ‘This is not a new problem but, with children’s services now routinely the biggest financial pressure councils face, MPs and councillors will soon find this is an issue they will have to tackle very much in the short-term.

The final word

Alison Williams, executive director, young people and families, at Prospects, gives her views on the discussion conclusions

There is acceptance, even within Whitehall, that rising numbers of looked-after-children has reached a critical point. While the Newton Europe report for the LGA provides evidence as to why council spend varies from one to the next there is still more to do to convince Government of the need for more investment.

Whitehall still needs persuading we need a shared strategy that is sufficiently funded and incentivised to provide for an invest-to-save, preventative approach, addressing the societal factors that underpin the crisis we find ourselves in: poor parental skills, increasing domestic violence, child poverty and the vulnerability of children being used in the criminal endeavours of others; at the same time transforming the life chances of those taken into care.

Those societal factors are not within the sole domain of directors of children services, it requires a whole council and a multi-agency approach. The Government, for its part, cannot merely say it’s a matter for councils. They and successive governments have set the financial and social policy framework under which this is happening.

The private and charitable sectors cannot stand on the sidelines and watch – we must work in partnership with councils to co-produce commissioning solutions built on the fundamental need for children to have stable lives and build long-term relationships.

The MJ/Prospects round table participants

Philip Simpkins Chief executive, Bedford BC

Steve Rumbelow Chief executive, Rochdale MBC

Sharon Kemp Chief executive, Rotherham MBC

Martin Swales Chief executive, South Tyneside MBC

Will Tuckley Chief executive, Tower Hamlets LBC

Chris Naylor Chief executive, Barking and Dagenham LBC

Edwina Grant National children’s adviser, Local Government Association

Richard Crouch Interim chief executive, Southampton City Council

Michael Burton Editorial director, The MJ (chair)

Nick Bell Chief executive, Prospects

Alison Williams Executive director, young people and families, Prospects

Mark Upton Head of policy and research, Prospects

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