MPs have criticised the Department for Education for what they describe as ‘slow progress’ in improving children’s social care.
A new report from the Public Accounts Committee has warned that children’s social care is ‘not financially sustainable’. It found that around 91% of local authorities exceeded their budgets for spending on children's services in 2017-18.
Ministers also do not have a clear understanding of the demand pressures the sector is under. According to the PAC report, the Department for Education does not possess a comprehensive assessment of the resource needs of children’s social care services.
The report also discovered that there is ‘significant variation’ between different councils in both the activity and cost of their children’s social care. The rate of children in need episodes during 2017-18 ranged from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 children between local authorities. The amount spent by local authorities per child in need episode ranged between £566 to £5,166.
The Public Accounts Committee also warned there was little evidence of strong cross-government collaboration in improving children’s social care.
‘Government’s progress with reforming children’s services has been painfully slow and it has still not made clear what sustainable improvements it hopes to achieve. Children, many of them in desperate circumstances, deserve better,’ said PAC chair Meg Hillier.
‘The Department for Education regards children’s social care as its most important responsibility. If it is to live up to that responsibility, it must first address what are persistent shortcomings in its understanding of the sector.’
Responding to the report, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, urged the Government to make the sector more ‘sustainable’. ‘The LGA has long argued for a stronger cross-government commitment to children and families, and we are pleased that the Committee supports this,’ she said.
‘This lack of joined-up leadership within government has contributed to a situation where councils find themselves looking after record numbers of children in care, with nine in 10 councils subsequently forced to overspend their children’s social care budgets by more than £800m in the last year alone.
‘There is no right amount for councils to spend on children’s services, with the majority of spend variation due to wider economic or geographic circumstances largely outside their control.
‘It is clear that the most urgent and pressing issue is not variability but using the Spending Review to tackle the country-wide funding crisis in children’s services, which face a funding gap of £3.1bn by 2025.’
Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, commented: ‘Every day at Action for Children we see how children’s services can be a lifeline for families and play a critical role in stepping in early to keep vulnerable children safe from neglect, abuse and harm.
‘Yet faced with crippling funding cuts, cash-strapped councils are struggling to keep open early help services and are being forced to spend more of their shrinking budgets on crisis services, which means thousands of vulnerable children and families are left to fend for themselves as problems spiral out of control.’?
Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said: 'Together with local authorities and dedicated social workers, this government is driving up standards in children’s social care. The number of children’s services rated outstanding is rising and the number rated as inadequate has fallen by a third since 2017. But, of course, we want to improve services across the board so our £200m Innovation Programme is backing the sector to put new and even more effective measures in place to help vulnerable families.
'We know there are financial pressures in the system and in the last year we have given local authorities an extra £410m for adult and children’s social care. We will continue to work with sector better understand what is driving demand and how we can work together to respond to those challenges.'