William Eichler 21 March 2017

Funding for children’s services failing to keep up with demand, MPs warn

Nearly 90% of directors of children’s services find it increasingly difficult to fulfil their duties to children ‘in need’, report reveals.

A year-long inquiry into children’s social care by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau published its findings today in a damning report.

Titled No Good Options the report warned a lack of Government investment in children’s social care had left councils struggling to keep up with rising demand.

Around 89% of senior managers said they found it increasingly difficult to provide children ‘in need’ with the support they required, including those with disabilities, families in crisis and those at risk of abuse and neglect.

Staff shortages and a high turnover of social workers is also affecting the quality of social care, the report found. In some local authority areas agency staff accounted for more than 40% of social workers.

The inquiry also discovered a shift towards helping children at crisis point, particularly those at risk of abuse, and away from proactively helping families in need of additional support.

This has led to poorer outcomes for children in need of help, with many being taken into care as a result.

The number of child protection plans, which social workers produce when they believe a child is at risk of harm, has risen by over 29% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. The number of children being taken into care rose by 17% during this same period.

However, despite these increased pressures local authority spending power has decreased by over 20% in the same period.

No Good Options also warns of a postcode lottery in how law and policy relating to children is applied. Figures indicate councils are taking ‘wildly different’ approaches to early intervention and identification of ‘children in need’.

The rates of children taken into care vary significantly from one area to the next, and in a number of places some children didn’t even know why they were in foster care or residential care, rather than with their birth families.

‘Children’s social services have never had an easy job, but recently the challenge has taken on a whole new dimension,’ said the inquiry chair, Tim Loughton.

‘Our Inquiry found that there is huge variation in the way in which local authorities decide to support the most vulnerable children.

‘Perhaps most strikingly, the proportion of children taken into care varies from just 22 per 10,000 in one local authority to 164 per 10,000 in another.

‘This cannot simply be explained by differences in deprivation – it points instead to variation in policy and practice.’

‘I urge ministers to focus on realistic resourcing of all children’s services, from prevention to early help for families, to care and child protection; and to look at ways to tackle the stark variation in standards across the country,’ he added.

Responding to the inquiry’s findings, Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Children and Young People Board, said: ‘Councils have been warning Government for some time that the pressures facing children’s services are rapidly becoming unsustainable, with a combination of Government funding cuts and huge increases in demand leaving many areas struggling to cope.

‘The number of inquiries into child protection concerns undertaken by councils has increased by 124% over the past decade, and the number of children needing child protection plans has increased from 26,400 to more than 50,000 over the same period – an increase of more than 23,000 children needing social work support to stay safe from significant harm.’

‘Councils have worked hard to protect funding for child protection services in response to this rapidly rising demand, but ongoing cuts to local authority budgets are forcing many areas to make extremely difficult decisions about how to allocate increasingly scarce resources,’ he continued.

‘The LGA’s most recent analysis suggests that councils will be facing a £1.9 billion funding gap for children’s services by 2020, and in many areas the pressure on children’s budgets is now even greater than that faced by adult social care.

‘Councils have responded by reducing costs and remodelling services, but we must be clear that there are very few savings left to find without having a real and lasting impact upon crucial services that many people across the country have come to rely on.’

This week, the MJ revealed that in 2016/17, 46% of children’s services budgets across the country were directed towards looked after children (LAC).

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