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.