Dave Evans: We need a Department for Social Care to give the issue the focus it needs

13 Aug

Cllr Dave Evans is the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People and Lead Member for Children’s Services on Stoke-on-Trent Council.

Social care in England must sit as one of the longest running soars of any issue for any government. Governments of every colour have proclaimed that fixing social care is their top priority, only to find that other more politically sensitive areas such as education and health care have usurped this laudable statement. Although understandable, given their importance, it is this inherent failure to understand the impact the social care system, be it for adults or children, can have on these wider issues.

It is a sad fact, replicated across every city in the country, that when adult social care runs into difficulty; when practice is not robust; or when capacity in the system is unable to meet demand, pressure inevitably builds. Hospitals back up and are unable to discharge patients back to their home in a safe, sustainable way or into another safe setting. General practitioners are pulled from pillar to post dealing with minor ailments which should be done by other professionals.

Similarly, we know that poor social care for children impacts on other areas. Children with a poor home life are unable to utilise the education provided, irrespective of the quality of the school, its OFSTED rating or indeed the teaching. Nationally, 52 per cent of young people who are care leavers are not in education, employment or training. This must speak volumes about the essential role social care departments across the nation have on the economic success of our country.

Further, we know that poor quality social care and early intervention services completely change the life chances of many young people. The over prevalence of young people in care within the criminal justice system and the increased likelihood they will receive a custodial sentence – all indicators of the need to drive change in social care both for adults and children.

We have seen challenges in Stoke-on-Trent, both in terms of adults and children services. Both have received damning judgements by their regulators in recent years after decades of poor performance. Both judgements have stirred action. In the case of adult social care, previously we had one of the highest rates of delayed transfer of care (people unable to leave hospital after they were declared medically fit). After intensive work, this has been turned around making us one of the best performing areas. In the same vein, we received a challenging OFSTED rating for our children social care in 2019, pushing us onto an improvement journey which will not only improve our services, but reshape the way we prioritise them across our council and our city.

It is this experience that has led me to the view that for us to really pursue the levelling up agenda which the Prime Minister rightly speaks of, we need to give that equality of opportunity to all our residents regardless of background or circumstance. Social care needs more than just words, it needs to leapfrog up the political agenda and be truly recognised as the enabler of better public services and life chances. I believe that by creating a separate department within government, bringing together both children and adult services, would be the way to deliver this change. It needs to have its own budget; its own team working with local government to drive change in social care practice.

A separate department with its own machinery of state can bring this much needed focus, it will put social care where it needs to be, as an equal partner to health and education. By bringing the focus to adult care, working with providers, commissioners and local authorities, we can create better care arrangements, really get to grips with the home-first models adopted in places like Stoke-on-Trent and create a fit for purpose service which is both financial sustainable and able to provide the care we would want and need for our own loved ones, of which they deserve.

For young people the change can be even more significant. Giving the focus to a sector which has the potential to radically change the lives and prospects of young people by giving them a future, and in places like Stoke-on-Trent the economic and talent potential that can really drive forward our left behind communities. It is a reality that being a child in care becomes a life-defining event. In many cases, these young people are not given the support they need and aren’t prioritised in the way they need to be. Anna Longfield, the previous Children’s Commissioner said that the government ‘seemingly doesn’t know what to do with children in care’. A dedicated department would put a firm line in the sand to say we want more for our young people, they matter to us and we will be relentless in securing the best for them. We would truly be the one nation government I believe in.

Our party, the Conservative party, has always been, and will always be the party of opportunity. That opportunity must extend to everyone. We need to act now, and I’d urge the government to look at this seriously to make a significant change for those in our society that need it most.

 

Roger Gough: The number of asylum seeking children in Kent has forced us to threaten the Government with legal action

21 Jun

Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Asylum seekers arriving on Kent’s shores. A council unable to meet its statutory duties. The same, Conservative council reportedly considering legal action against the government.

What is going on?

It starts with geography. As the closest and most direct link to the continent, Kent has consistently experienced large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers since around the turn of the millennium. In the last eighteen months, truck and train routes – which often meant asylum seekers making their claims elsewhere in the country – have been closed off or much reduced. It is small boat crossings through the short straits between France and the Kent coast, much more rarely seen before 2020, which have become the predominant route into the UK.

Most of those who arrive on Kent’s shores are dispersed across the country, but unaccompanied under 18s – Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) – come into the care of Kent County Council (KCC) under the Children Act.

In 2015, 2020, and now again in 2021, UASC have arrived in especially large numbers. The Government’s National Transfer Scheme (NTS – of which more later) Protocol stipulates that no council should have more UASC in its care than 0.07 per cent of its child population. For Kent, that equates to 231 UASC. The current number in KCC’s care is 429. So far this year, over 300 have arrived and come into our care, up substantially on the same time last year.

Whatever the arguments about immigration in its various forms, KCC has no role in decision-making about it. Our role is to discharge our duties to those who come into our care, something that we have sought to do humanely and efficiently over many years, and we take pride in that record.

What starts as an immigration issue, rapidly becomes caught up in children’s services legislation. In 2018, for example, councils’ obligations to Care Leavers (young people over the age of 18 who have been in council care) were extended from the age of 21 to 25. This was a policy clearly not designed with UASC in mind but in Kent we have almost 1,100 Care Leavers of UASC background – a majority of those who use that service.

Last year’s increase in Government funding rates addressed the immediate burden on the Kent Council Taxpayer; however, this is not now an argument about money.

What this is about is the delivery of safe and effective services, not only to those of asylum-seeking backgrounds, but to all the young people in our care. With large-scale UASC arrivals, social worker caseloads rise to critical levels and placements have increasingly to be made outside the county, with safeguarding and supervision inevitably more challenging as social workers try to cover an ever more geographically disparate group of young people.

To put it another way, forget for a moment that the 115 young people who came into KCC’s care in May were asylum seekers. What council could take over 100 adolescents into its care each month for months on end without its services being affected?

And to what degree should any council, even one of the biggest in the country, shoulder the effects of what is a national and international issue?

That principle was recognised after the first of our recent crises in 2015. The Immigration Act 2016 established the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) with the aim of ensuring that councils across the country shared in responsibility for UASC. After the experience of Kent in 2015, the mood among policymakers, both national and local, was: never again.

Except that, by 2020, here we were again. Despite the Immigration Act giving the Home Secretary power to require, if necessary, local authorities to take UASC (‘mandation’), the Government disregarded Kent’s objections for a voluntary scheme. Within two years, placements under the voluntary NTS had first slowed and then stopped altogether.

Then, in a few short months in the spring and summer of 2020, hundreds of UASC arrived in Kent. By mid-August, its services overwhelmed, KCC reluctantly had to suspend its statutory duties and cease taking UASC into our care. This continued until, with numbers reduced, it was possible to resume in early December.

After this, the Home Office, working with us and with other local authorities, successfully placed hundreds of UASC across the country. Around half of the children’s services authorities in the country have accepted at least some UASC from Kent. However, half have not and by the early months of this year, the numbers being placed were once more slowing – and were rapidly overtaken by the big upswing in arrivals from the spring. And so, last Monday, for the second time in just under a year, Kent County Council once more suspended taking UASC into its care. Here we are again. Again.

The Government conducted a review and consultation on the NTS last autumn and revealed its proposals earlier this month. It proposes a regional rota system and has added to financial support to encourage local authorities to take part. But it is – still – a voluntary scheme.

The issue of these dangerous cross-channel journeys must itself be addressed, and that is rightly a government priority. But in any case I believe that we will only break this cycle of crises when there is a robust NTS sustainable over the long term. There is nothing in the experience of the last five years that suggests that a voluntary scheme can deliver this. KCC has twice had to suspend delivery of its legal responsibilities because its service was overwhelmed.

In our view, this could have been prevented by the use of provisions already on the statute book that have not been put into effect, and are still not set to do so. That is the basis of our differences with government, and of the Letter Before Claim that we presented to the Home Office earlier this month.

We have worked closely with the Government over the last year, and in some areas we have made progress. I appreciate the serious engagement of Ministers – especially Chris Philp, the Immigration Compliance Minister – in this. But in Kent, as in other areas with ports of entry, we need a resolution that will stick and that will last. We don’t yet have it.

Rehman Chisti: A staggering 180,000 people go missing each year, and the recovery must help them

25 May

Rehman Chishti MP is the Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham and Chair of the APPG on Missing Children and Adults, as well as a former Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee (2017-2019).

As we look to build back better following Covid-19, our focus must shift and widen to cover issues that have until now not been properly addressed.

Before the pandemic, a staggering 180,000 people went missing from their families and friends every year – many of them repeatedly.

With the pandemic increasing the number of people dealing with issues around mental health, facing serious financial challenges, or suffering from domestic abuse, the scale of the issue is likely to increase still further in the coming months and years.

I was personally absolutely astounded by this figure when I was preparing to ask the Secretary of State for Health a Question on the Government’s missing people and mental health strategy following the case of one of my constituents going missing in August 2020.

The national definition of a missing person is “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or risk of harm to themselves or another”. As the Chair of the APPG on Missing People I welcomed the Government’s announcements in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward measures on mental health, the commitment to ensure children have the best possible start in life, and the promise to do more to address sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls.

However, I believe these measures must only be the first step on the road to a joined-up strategy to tackle the issue of missing people, which affects all 650 constituencies from around the United Kingdom.

Challenge 1: Many people go missing more than once

For too many people, going missing is not a one-time occurrence: the 180,000 people who are reported missing every year actually make up more than 350,000 separate missing incidents. This means that thousands of children and adults are going missing more than once, some many more times.

People going missing repeatedly means that we are not effectively safeguarding them. Going missing is a warning sign that something is wrong in a person’s life. They may be being exploited, escaping harm, experiencing mental health crisis, or facing other significant risks. Some will be seriously harmed while away.

Every time someone goes missing there is an opportunity for intervention. We should be providing help to address underlying issues and opportunities for escalated support when necessary.

Challenge 2: Looked after children are more at risk

One group is at risk of going missing more than almost any other. One in ten children looked after in the care system will go missing, compared to one in 200 generally. In 2019-20 over 12,000 looked after children were reported missing. They are also more likely to go missing repeatedly, on average each child will go missing more than six times.

Evidence suggests that looked after children can be at increased risk of many of the harms known to be linked with going missing.

We must do better for these young people. Providing safe and supportive homes, with appropriate care in place to meet the needs of their individual circumstances. All agencies involved – carers, residential homes, social workers, police officers, schools and many others – should be focussed on building positive relationships and preventing harm.

Challenge 3: Adults with mental health issues are disproportionately likely to go missing

Amongst adults, too, there are certain factors that make it far more likely that someone will go missing: up to 80 per cent of missing adults will be experiencing severe mental health issues when they go missing. Yet the issue is often overlooked in national and local policies and action plans regarding mental health.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having a further severe negative impact on the nation’s mental health, with increased isolation and decreased access to support, this is likely to become a still more urgent problem in the coming months and years.

Challenge 4: Missing children are at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation

Children going missing can be a serious warning sign that they are being groomed, or exploited, including by criminal groups. With thousands of children across the UK being victimised in this way, this is a problem that needs to be recognised and faced urgently.

We now know that a shocking number of children are being exploited criminally by criminal groups to deliver drugs across the country in ‘County Lines’. With many children less visible to services dedicated to identifying and helping them during the Covid-19 pandemic, these problems have not diminished.

Instead, exploitation has often only temporarily shifted from travel (county lines) to taking place locally or over the internet.

Challenge 5: Long-term missing people

The last challenge comes from perhaps the most heart-rending fact of all: not all missing people come back. The data shows that over 5,000 people are currently considered to be ‘long-term missing’ in the UK, meaning they have been missing for over a year. Over 5,000 families are left in limbo, waiting to hear what may have happened to their missing loved one.

This is an unimaginable situation that no one would wish to be left in. Every missing episode should be a priority for all of us, from day one and for as long as it takes until they are found.

What can be done to tackle these challenges? There are three distinct opportunities for change that the Government, I believe, should look into at the earliest possible opportunity.

Recommendation 1: New Missing Children and Adults Strategy

First and foremost, what is needed is an overarching plan across Government, spanning across departments, to address the issue of missing children and adults.

The reasons why people go missing are complex, the harm that they may experience while away is varied and the support that people will need is unique to their individual circumstances. Missing people truly is an intersecting issue and requires a multi-agency response.

There are excellent examples of multi-agency working across the country, but the Government must take a strong national lead. In 2011 the Home Office published the ‘Missing Children and Adults Strategy’. Ten years later this needs to be reviewed, updated and strengthened with Cross-Government commitments to prioritising the response to missing within all the relevant agencies.

Recommendation 2: Out of area placements/care review

The second issue that must be looked at is children’s care, particularly with regards to out of area placements. With the Independent Review on Children’s Social Care having just been launched, we must not let this opportunity pass to seriously address the issue of provision and sufficiency of placements where children need them, as well as to review how decisions are made about children being placed out of area.

With 12,000 looked after children currently going missing every year, tackling this issue would go a long way towards reducing the number of children going missing and all the harm that follows from that.

Recommendation 3: The issue of missing people being built into mental health priorities

The renewed focus on mental health announced in the Queen’s Speech is very welcome, especially as I have previously strongly campaigned on this issue, including by introducing two private members’ bills to Parliament in the past. I believe that this focus must include detailed consideration of the issue of missing people.

Currently there is almost no guidance or legislation that outlines the support that should be in place for people who go missing in mental health crisis, or for those who go missing directly from mental health care settings.

By building consideration of missing people into mental health policies and practice we would be supporting early intervention in cases where going missing is an early sign of worsening mental health; right through to preventing deaths, amongst those missing people who have gone missing with the intention of taking their own life.

The issue of children and adults going missing deeply affects hundreds of thousands of people a year, across every constituency, every local authority, every city and town in the country: it devastates families, confounds communities, and causes serious harm to those who go missing themselves. The Government must do everything it can to stem this tragic phenomenon.

Danny Kruger: Charities must be allowed to carry out their work. Our most vulnerable children need them.

29 Apr

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes. He chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Commission on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Care.

The number of children in care has never been greater. Over 68,000 children were living apart from their families in June 2020 – an increase of three per cent over the previous year.

Already before the pandemic, the care system that should support these children was under pressure. In 2018 Ofsted judged 58 per cent of local authorities to be ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires improvement to be good’ with regard to their children’s services.

But the pandemic has made things much worse. In the first six months of the pandemic, incidents involving death or serious harm to under-one year olds because of suspected negligence or abuse increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2019. Among one to five year olds, it increased by 50 per cent.

Directors of Children’s Services reported that, as a result of Covid-19, families face less support, more investigations and more removals of children in response to their difficulties.

But the pandemic has also tapped an extraordinary voluntary movement in this country. Small local charities have worked in innovative ways to help feed, educate and advise families. Charities provide ideas, energy, and cost-effective interventions.

By relying on these under-used grassroots voluntary organisations, service professionals can reach deep into the community, engaging with the most disengaged. Using informal networks – including youth organisations, church groups, local volunteers – complement statutory services to support the most vulnerable. Free of bureaucracy, place-based and highly flexible, this community-level support can transform outcomes for children at the risk of going into care.

Vulnerable families like volunteers because they are local, less intimidating, and often unpaid. They also invest the kind of time that social workers, overwhelmed by caseloads, cannot afford to dedicate.

One model is the wrap-around service offered by the charity Safe Families for Children. A church-based volunteer organisation, Safe Families for Children delivers temporary foster care to support families in crisis.  The charity offers a befriending service whereby a volunteer will act as a mentor/befriender for the family in crisis and offer financial support for the family in terms of goods or skills. They host the family, and will support them for months on end, developing a strong relationship with family members.

The programme has reduced the flow of children into care by between nine to 16 per cent, and is now working with more than 30 local authorities. It numbers 4,500 volunteers from over 1,000 churches and community groups, and 100 professional staff.

The West London Zone for Children and Young People, a charity I set up in one of the most unequal areas in the country, is another example. WLZ covers an area with 60,000 school-age children and young people, among whom one in five is at risk of leaving school without the proper skills to thrive. Twenty-nine schools across four councils refer children to the charity because of needs such as low grades, poor attendance, wellbeing concerns, low levels of parental involvement. All children referred are below the threshold for additional statutory support.

Service professionals should welcome such collaborations, as they offer a way to scale programmes in a cost-efficient way. But, all too often, grassroot organisations report a defensive, “territorial” mindset among statutory partners. A survey of the 400 plus Centre for Social Justice Alliance’s charities found that members felt undermined by statutory services:

  •  “It’s as if they see themselves in competition with us”.
  • “It has not always felt like a mutually respectful platform”.
  • “I think some budget holders see us as competition eg. we have had occasional times where the cost benefit the LA has been willing to attribute to services has been down scaled because of concerns it would result in them losing staff.”
  • “It’s as if they see voluntary as secondary.”
  • “The demands to fall in line with “clunky” operating systems and LA databases can be prohibitive from a resource perspective with a small staff structures.”
  • “There is a definite sense that we are helping them with “their” cases. “

They also reported facing serious obstacles in getting funding from local government and non‑governmental organisations.[5]  One reason for this is that government funding comes in a large number of discreet, time-limited funds, pilots and initiatives which are too short-term for small charities to cope with.

Government can enforce the stipulation that public service commissioners’ contracts meet “social value” criteria. The taxpayer spends £300 billion a year on goods and services through hundreds of thousands of separate contracts that follow guidance laid down by government.

The Public Service (Social Value) Act 2011 required commissioners to consider the wider social value of bids when awarding contracts for services. Despite this, Social Enterprise UK found that only eight per cent of the £300 billion public sector procurement budget actively champions socially and environmentally responsible business practice.

Government can also ensure that Job Centre Plus staff are aware of the amount of volunteering claimants can take part in, and correctly informing them of it; and it can include information on volunteering in the pensions pack sent to those who reach retirement age, as was recommended by the House of Lords committee on civic engagement.

The post-pandemic economy will see a surge in unemployment. Channelling the energy and creativity of job-seekers and the job-less, especially among the young, into community engagement will benefit these individuals and the local area. According to Department for Work and Pensions guidance, volunteering can count for up to 50 per cent of a jobseeker’s time that they are spending taking reasonable action to find a job.

The introduction of the government’s Innovation Partnership model may help counter this: it allows commissioners to work with potential providers on the design of a contract, seeking to leverage their resources to support the public budget using simpler, outcomes-based contracts.

It would be a shame for the goodwill, energy and flexibility of the voluntary sector to be wasted by bureaucracy and wrong assumptions. Government must act urgently to ensure that charities are allowed to carry out their work: our most vulnerable children need them.

The CSJ’s report Safely reducing the number of children going into care was published this week.

The number of children in care has increased during the pandemic

1 Mar

While all children have had difficulties during periods of lockdown, it is fair to say that the burden has been uneven. If the family home is a large house and a garden, it is a different proposition to an overcrowded flat. The educational attainment gap between rich and poor has predictably widened. Policymakers are considering how this could be addressed. Professor Len Shackleton, in a paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, notes that rich parents can use private tutors to help their children catch up. He suggests  pupil premium funds could allow poorer parents to do the same:

“More power could be placed in the hands of poorer parents, who are likely in most cases to have a better understanding of their children’s needs. One way to do this might be to redirect the pupil premium in future to parents in the form of vouchers which could be used to hire tutors or to use for other educational purposes such as theatre or concert visits. This was proposed by Frank (now Lord) Field at the time the pupil premium was announced, and fitted in with his general philosophy that the state and its employees make too many decisions which are better taken by individuals and their families.”

But surely the worst consequence of lockdown will be on children taken into care. The increase in domestic violence and mental illness has made that an inevitable “safeguarding requirement.” What is absolutely not inevitable is that the remainder of their childhood should be spent shunted around the care system – with the disastrous consequences for their life chances that so often entails. Yet that is their current destiny.  Most of them will be placed with foster carers who do their best to achieve some stability for the child. Through no fault of the foster carers that seldom lasts long. Usually, the children are often taken back to the “birth mother” then, typically, taken back to care – after more abuse and neglect. Then starting again with a new foster placement. Research from the charity Action for Children found that one in four foster children in the UK moves home two or more times a year. The law that the interests of the child are “paramount” is routinely flouted. Professor Elaine Farmer carried out a five year follow up study of 138 neglected children who had been returned to their families. 59 per cent of the children “had been abused/neglected after return”.

Much better outcomes are achieved by adoption. Justice James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, declared in 2014 that, despite what the Government says, adoption is a “last resort”. Yet it offers children the best chance of a permanent loving home. One study of 165 Romanian orphans adopted in the UK found only two breakdowns. The official mantra is repeated that adoption “can only be considered for a minority” of children in care. Where is the evidence to back up that assertion? The implication is that children in care are too “challenging” for a normal couple to cope with. Some are. Yet the claim that this applies to a majority is never substantiated. On the contrary, it usually follows that examples are then offered of those with the most extreme and exceptional disorder.

Most exasperating is the self-fulfilling prophecy where obstruction and delay is imposed and then the children have been so harmed by years in care that they are deemed too far gone. Around a fifth of children in care are under the statutory school age. It is generally accepted that adoption would be viable for them – it is a question of whether that option is chosen. But what of the great majority of children in care, who are of school age? Of course, the needs and circumstances of each of them will be complicated and unique. But a good starting point to consider the feasibility of adoption is the type of school they are in. If they are in Pupil Referral Units or “alternative provision” that may well mean that they have been excluded for disruptive behaviour. It might well follow that, while adoption should certainly be considered, those willing to take it on might find it a daunting prospect and would need exceptional strength of character. But most children in care do manage to stay in mainstream education. For them the presumption should be that adoption would be the best option.

Using some Freedom of Information requests I have managed to get some indications of the increase in the number of children in care since the last official statistics which relate to March 31st last year. Those figures had a total of 80,080 children in care in England, which was up from 78,140 the previous year. Some local authorities gave me figures which showed only modest changes since last year – broadly in line with the grim slow increase that has been the pattern over a number of  years. But there were many others that showed a significant increase, indicating a coronavirus impact. I also asked for numbers of children in care in mainstream schools and the numbers in Pupil Referral Units

Here are some examples from councils with high totals:

  • Barnsley 349 children in care, up from 300 last year. That includes 218 children in mainstream state education and under five children in “alternative provision” or Pupil Referral Units (PRUs).
  • Birmingham 1,933 up from 1,928. 1,016 in mainstream education. 12 in PRUs.
  • Bradford 1,386 up from 1,245. 774 in mainstream education. 17 in PRUs.
  • Coventry 762 up from 701. 430 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Derby 641 up from 588. 389 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Doncaster 523 up from 504.  277 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Dudley 639 up from 623. 331 in mainstream education. One in a PRU.
  • East Sussex. 615 up from 592. 359 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Gloucestershire 797 up from 731. 395 in mainstream education. 19 in PRUs.
  • Leicestershire 694 up from 654.369 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Lincolnshire 681 up from 622. 424 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Liverpool 1,508 up from 1,424. 607 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Nottingham 706 up from 656. 390 in mainstream education. Seven in PRUs.
  • Oxfordshire 781 up from 767. 367 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Peterborough 378 up from 372. 203 in mainstream education. Three in PRUs.
  • Plymouth 490 up from 434. 253 in mainstream education. 10 in PRUs.
  • Rochdale 559 up from 535. 335 in mainstream education. Eight in PRUs.
  • Rotherham 607 up from 595. 285 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Sandwell 888 up from 865. 561 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Shropshire 483 up from 399. 263 in mainstream education. 29 in PRUs.
  • Solihull 513 up from 461. 353 in mainstream education. None in PRUs.
  • Somerset 544 up from 529. 296 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Southampton 495 up from 486. 324 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Southwark 473 up from 458. 256 in mainstream education. Fewer than 10 in PRUs.
  • Staffordshire 1,270 up from 1,217. 662 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Stoke 995 up from 919. 627 in mainstream education. Three in PRUs.
  • Suffolk 941 up from 936. 499 in mainstream education. 36 in PRUs.
  • Sunderland 636 up from 582. 435 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Tameside 728 up from 704. 363 in mainstream education. None in PRUs.
  • Wakefield 643 up from 639. 425 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Warwickshire 836 up from 754. 432 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • West Sussex 924 up from 808. 377 in mainstream education. Seven in PRUs.
  • Wigan 610 up from 533. 371 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Wirral 825 up from 812. 645 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Worcestershire 832 up from 819. 498 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.

The Conservative Manifesto of 2019 stated:

“Children who end up in care are more likely to struggle as adults, denied the love and stability most of us take for granted. We will prioritise stable, loving placements for those children – adoption where possible or foster parents recruited by the local authority. We will review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings are providing children and young adults with the support they need.”

Earlier Conservative manifestos and Goverment pronouncements have given the same general promise. To say that there has been a failure to deliver is to understate. Ten years ago – when David Cameron was Prime Minister and Michael Gove was Education Secretary – there was frustration at the lack of any breakthrough on the issue. But a serious effort was made. For Gove it was personal – as he was adopted and he reflected how his life might have turned out very differently. The moral imperative of increasing the opportunity for adoption was highlighted. The difficulty was that the change relied on “guidance” – which was disregarded. But though it was a failure, one could argue it was a heroic failure. The difference now is that those with Ministerial responsibility have given up even trying. The situation is so woeful that no attempt is even being made to honour the Manifesto pledge.

 Around a quarter of prisoners were in care as children. It is estimated that children in care – or “Looked After Children” to use the official bureaucratic euphemism – are more likely to end up in prison than in university. This financial year, local authorities budgeted to spend £4.6 billion on children in care – though it is reported that spending will go over budget. Around 12,000 “children in care” are in children’s homes or “other residential settings.” Local authorities spent £1.4 billion on that in 2018/19, the latest year for which figures are available. So for those children, the annual cost is £116,667 per child. They also have the worst outcomes. Black children are the least likely to escape the care system – due to the pernicious insistence by social workers that they may only be adopted if an “ethnic match” can be secured.

This problem could be overcome with a strong clear legal change to give a presumption in favour of adoption for children in care. Unless that is done, those who went into care during the pandemic face a terrible legacy that could blight, not only the rest of their childhoods, but also their adult lives.

“The Chancellor has passed the responsibility to us. Can’t complain.” Council leaders respond to the Spending Review.

27 Nov

Thespians are well known for their fear of the name Macbeth. Should someone utter it, the culprit must exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, curse and then knock on the theatre door to be allowed back in. The correct form is to refer to “the Scottish play”. For council finance officers, the current equivalent is to utter a reference to “Croydon.” Best to protect sensibilities by reference to “a certain south London borough.” Croydon Council has not actually gone bankrupt – neither did Northamptonshire. But it is facing a struggle to balance its budget and thus avoid the men from the Ministry swooping in to take charge. Thus we have a Labour council, a Labour council, obliged to introduce what The Guardian describes as “drastic cuts.” Other councils – especially those who undertook imprudent investments in commercial property – are anxious to avoid getting into the same position.

Thus the Spending Review, which Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered on Wednesday was listened to with particular interest by decision-makers in local government. I have spoken to several Conservative council leaders to gauge the reaction. They included district, county and unitary leaders from north and south. One caveat was that they tended to be waiting to see the “small print” – specifically details of what funding individual local authorities will get when the grant settlement is revealed next month. But there was a favourable reaction to the broad headline announcements. The Chancellor said:

“Local authorities will have extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept which together with £300 million of new grant funding gives them access to an extra billion pounds to fund social care.”

Looking at The Treasury documents this turns out to mean that “upper tier” local authorities, that do most of the spending, will be able to increase Council Tax next year by up to five per cent – without needing a referendum. That is well above inflation (which is currently under one per cent). The distinction between Council Tax and the “Adult Social Care precept” is illusory – even more so than the distinction between Income Tax and National Insurance. It all goes into the general pot, not a special fund. Nor do councils have to impose either element of Council Tax increase. Some try to imply otherwise with references about applying the “adult social care precept on behalf of the Government”. The Government tends to be indulgent to misleading references of this nature.

Whatever bureaucratic locutions are resorted to, some of the council leaders I spoke to were nervous that people would still notice if their bills were pushed up. One council leader in the south said she would “probably” increase to the maximum allowed, but was nervous about the backlash:

“It’s shifting responsibility to us. It’s allowing us to raise more money. We can’t complain about that. But it will not be an easy decision. Many people are losing jobs. You have households that used to have two incomes coming in with only one. We have people taking wage cuts. The self-employed being hit. For Conservatives putting up the Council Tax is not something we like doing anyway. But if households incomes are rising they shrug it off. But if the family budget is already being squeezed there is more resentment. The alternative would be some difficult choices that would involve scaling back what we do.”

The public sector pay freeze will help. One county council leader from the north said:

“The payroll is a huge cost. We had budgeted for a two per cent increase. So a freeze will make a big difference. That’s more important to us than the extra flexibility on Council Tax – which I will try really hard to avoid using, anyway.”

One of the grim consequences of the lockdown has been an increase in the number of children in care. Domestic violence has increased and thus the “safeguarding” requirement for children to be taken from their families. This has huge financial implications. One council leader told me:

“If people thought about the full picture there would be much more opposition to lockdowns. The full consequences are not appreciated. I do get angry about it. We are trying to do more with early intervention. Once children are in the care system it’s very difficult. Placing them for adoption is very slow if it ever happens, there are all these bureaucratic obstacles. Sort of institutional resistance. The alternative of putting the children back with their families is dangerous. So they just get stuck in care.”

Even when coronavirus is eliminated there is some doubt as to what being “back to normal” will mean. One London borough council leader said:

“The statement did give some recognition that the problems won’t all disappear in April. That there will be an impact for a few more months. But if it is long term, I ask myself if our parking revenues will ever get back to normal. With the Council Tax revenues if people lose their jobs then it gets paid in benefits. What’s more difficult for our finances are the people who are still working but struggling. Quite a few have cancelled the direct debits and just paying when they can afford to.”

Another council leader was preparing to “go into battle” with his finance officers to resist increasing the Council Tax by the full amount:

“I will be told that if we don’t increase the Council Tax then the base will be lower which will restrict the amount of extra cash we can raise in future from these limits in percentage increases. My counter to that is that we have been increasing the number of homes and are due to do so further.”

All those I spoke to welcome the Chancellor “new Levelling Up Fund worth £4 billion.” Sunak explained that:

“Any local area will be able to bid directly to fund local projects. The fund will be managed jointly between the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – taking a new, holistic, place-based approach to the needs of local areas. Projects must have real impact. They must be delivered within this Parliament. And they must command local support, including from their Member of Parliament. This is about funding the infrastructure of everyday life: A new bypass. Upgraded railway stations. Less traffic. More libraries, museums, and galleries. Better high streets and town centres. This government is funding the things people want and places need.”

A council leader from the Midlands told me:

“I do like the approach of allowing local decisions on what transport improvements should be a priority. We don’t need devolution – with extra layers of metro Mayors or whatever. We need decentralisation to the local government already in place.”

Just one sour note was struck – from a “red wall” area:

“If it’s a ‘Levelling Up Fund’ then how come any council can apply? Is money from the ‘Levelling Up Fund’ going to be spent in Surrey? It’s ridiculous.”

Expectations are important. The message I got was that though the Chancellor’s help was significant there was still a shortfall that they would have to cope with. But then they never imagined that he would pick up the whole tab for the pandemic. The consensus among council leaders is that they have been left with a difficult challenge – but not an impossible one. Should they need inspiration, they can look at what has happened in Croydon should they fail.

David Simmonds: Cutting early intervention in children’s services would cost more in the long term

25 Nov

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

Throughout this pandemic, government has extended support for children and families. From furlough, to uplifting Universal Credit, to rolling out the holiday food and activities programme for future school holidays, to keeping vulnerable children learning throughout the pandemic.  These have been appropriate and important interventions. However, the foundations upon which we seek to strengthen and support families are growing increasingly unstable.

Councils are at the forefront of delivering life-changing support keeping children safe and families strong. They are duty-bound to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their families, insofar as this is safe and in the child’s best interests. They are also required to deliver a balanced budget. Before this pandemic, the challenges facing local government finances and rising need for support meant that Children’s Services were placing a significant and unsustainable pressure on local authority budgets.  At a time when funding was falling, councils were being asked to do more and not less. This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and despite additional resources from government during the pandemic, there is an acute cash flow problem developing in the sector that means the measures required to balance budgets in year will have a long term impact on children.

Leading children’s charities have also reported recently that those areas the government has promised to ‘level up’ are amongst those where funding for children’s services has fallen the fastest. These also happen to be communities where indicators of demand for children’s services such as rates of domestic abuse, parental mental ill-health, and free school meal eligibility are the highest. Levelling up people and places must mean investing in children and families.

As a former Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, I know the true potential of children’s services: providing relationship support to help keep families together, helping new mothers struggling to adjust to parenthood, working with families and communities to protect children from abuse or neglect, giving children in the care system a second chance at a happy and safe childhood, and care leavers a supported transition into independent living. I also know the impossibly difficult decisions that colleagues in local government are taking right now as they try to balance the books.

They will be thinking about where they can deliver dramatic savings as they have in most years of the past decade. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed this Government to champion family hubs. It is exactly this type of provision that is needed, but that councils find impossibly difficult to fund as there is no duty or resource to do so. Perversely, this inability to fund early intervention will increase costs to the public sector in the long run as emerging problems go unaided until urgent and crisis-based intervention is required, adding pressure on other services such as the police and A&E. The life-long human and financial costs associated with childhood trauma can be significant – we ought to reinvigorate our collective efforts to prevent this.

Councils have done an incredible job of maintaining support by a combination of creative partnerships with other councils, charities, and the private sector, but as we see in adult social care, rising costs and market conditions are creating significant headwinds.  We are already well down this path with the numbers of children in care the highest they have been for several decades and rising still, and the cost of care placements skyrocketing as demand outstrips supply; and as costs have risen we have not seen a corresponding improvement in outcomes.

Helping families is core to who we are as Conservatives. As a former Local Government Minister, the Chancellor will be very aware of pressures on council budgets. I recently spoke with a  number of Conservative colleagues heading Children’s Services in local government. They were each honest about the difficulty of the challenge before them and they were all too aware of the cost of failure.  But they were also proud in the knowledge that every day their teams are doing the best they can in unenviable circumstances for their families and vulnerable children. The Spending Review is Rishi Sunak’s moment to deliver urgently needed investment to place children’s services on a sustainable footing.  If we are to build back better for children and families we need to stabilise the foundations. Only then will we truly be able to stand with families through the tough times ahead and turnaround the outcomes of vulnerable children.