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Number of children in council care up 12%

The number of children in council care in England has risen by 12% in the last four years, with overall costs calculated at £3.4bn, according to new research by the Audit Commission.

Its report – ‘Councils’ Expenditure on Looked After Children: Using Data from the Value for Money Profiles Tool’ – highlighted that in the four year period ending 31 March 2013 the figure for children in care stood at 68,1100, up by 7,210. Of the total, 42,228 were in care as a result of abuse or neglect.

Despite the 12% rise in the number of children in care, councils’ costs increased by only 4% nationally. And, due to a number of factors that influenced spending, regional costs varied from a 15% rise in the north east to a 7% reduction in London.

The Audit Commission added that there is significant variation in the amount councils spend on each looked-after child. In 2012-13, 21 councils spent less than £40,000 per child and 32 councils spent more than £60,000 per child.

Jeremy Newman, chairman of the Audit Commission, said: “It is beyond question that councils must place children in settings that meet their individual needs and that provide cost effective, high quality care. With pressure to improve outcomes and reduce costs, all councils are faced with the challenge of getting the optimum value from the £137 on average spent per day, which equates to £50,000 a year, looking after each child in their care.

“Our briefing highlights considerable variation between councils’ spending on looked after children in their care. We encourage all councils to review their spending and in particular urge higher spending councils to understand the reasons for this and to consider whether they can secure more cost-effective placements without compromising on the quality of care.”

Helen Berresford, of the 4Children charity which is working towards an integrated approach to children’s services, added that there is a high financial cost to councils of caring for these vulnerable young people. “But there is an even greater social and economic cost to not giving the support they need,” she said. “We need a system of early and intensive support for struggling families.”

A Department for Education spokesman stated that nothing is more important than keeping children safe.

“That is why councils have a legal obligation to identify young people who are at risk of harm and intervene,” he noted. “The law makes clear that children are best looked-after within their families but every decision to take a young person into care is a matter for the local authority.”

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