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04.02.16

Inquiry into children’s services as minister says funding and quality not linked

An inquiry into council-run children’s social care has been launched today (4 February) by the APPG for Children, just one day after children minister Edward Timpson MP claimed there is no direct link between the quality of these services and how much authorities spend on them.

The APPG’s inquiry will examine how these fundamental services are responding to shrunken budgets and increased demand, assessing which reforms are needed in order to improve support in times of a “rapidly changing landscape”.

It will publish its findings in early 2017 after investigating councils throughout this year – an important period of new challenges countrywide, including growing radicalisation, child sexual exploitation and reformed services, but with less money to go around.

Cllr Roy Perry, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said today that high-profile crimes of abuse and neglect mean “there are rightly thousands more children on the radar of social services” nowadays. According to the association, councils are supporting more than 20,000 extra children across today’s child protection plans than they did in 2008.

Tim Loughton MP, co-chair of the APPG and Timpson’s predecessor as children minister, said: “With the introduction of widespread reforms, a new inspection framework and changes to demand and resourcing, there is an urgent need to establish how local services are adapting to the new climate.

“Of course local authority providers face barriers to delivering effective services for children, but they also innovate and we hope this inquiry will provide a means of sharing that learning, as well as showing where policy and legislation must change.”

The focus of the investigation will be on care services in England, but the APPG, supported by the National Children’s Bureau, will draw upon evidence from across the whole UK, sharing examples of best practice nationwide. This will include hearing evidence from council leaders and service providers while also talking to affected children, young people and the families themselves.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland, also co-chair, said these discussions will take place over the next few months.

“With so many children who are facing difficulties depending on these services being effective and timely, these questions must be answered urgently,” she added.

The APPG will be engaging with councillors through the LGA for this inquiry, but also welcome hearing from them through the call for written evidence in their website.

'No correlation between quality and budgets'

The APPG’s inquiry comes just one day after departmental leaders told MPs in the Education Committee that there is no correlation between council spend and the quality of its children’s social care services.

The claims were in response to Ian Mearns MP, who argued his constituency of Gateshead would still have to cut care budgets even if it stopped providing all other services.

“With the withdrawal of the revenue support grant in total by the end of this Parliament, even if the local authority cuts 100% of all their services, which includes a number of statutory requirements like refuse collection, [it] will still have to make cuts in adult social care and children’s services,” Mearns told Timpson and care minister Alistair Burt MP.

But Timpson argued that the correlation between spend and quality is simply not there, with some of the lowest spending areas being some of the highest performers, and vice-versa. Some of the highest spenders even had deteriorating services which required formal intervention from the Department for Education, the minister argued.

Yet he agreed that every council is having to find different ways to delivering all their statutory responsibilities with a reduced budget, calling that “a fact of life”.

The main focus behind helping local authorities deliver improved children’s services, he said, is through the reinvigoration of the social workforce, innovations and looking at what councils can cut entirely so that they can “really concentrate on the things we know makes a difference”.

Working closely with each other and other agencies will also be a fundamental step in safeguarding services, Timpson said: “I think there’s a real opportunity for them through joint commissioning… to have a much more integrated approach – which we know that, within those successful authorities that are doing it, not only does it mean the overall budget needed to achieve that is reduced, but they’ve also got a service which is delivering for their population.”

Perry also raised the issue of Ofsted inspections and the impact an ‘inadequate’ rating can have on a council, “which can often see areas stuck in a vicious cycle of staffing shortages combined with rapidly increasing demand”.

“Councils, government and Ofsted must work together to ensure the inspection system helps drive improvement rather than simply exacerbating existing problems,” he added.

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