Protecting children and young people is undoubtedly a priority for councils, but how can they continue to deliver in the context of a £2bn funding gap by 2020?
Chief executives from across London gathered at a recent The MJ/Newton round table discussion to share their experiences of delivering children’s services. The issues they are dealing with are multiple and complex.
London is experiencing a knife crime epidemic, faces issues of child sexual exploitation and young people caught up in the county lines drug trade. The High Needs Block is under severe pressure, while there are growing levels of deprivation and soaring levels of family debt. Domestic violence is rising and more children are coming into care for basic neglect.
A number of delegates at the round table highlighted the issue of school exclusions driving young people’s criminality, while others mentioned mental health for people in crisis.
Recent research by Newton, conducted for the Local Government Association (LGA), examined the variation in spend across different local authorities and attempted to dissect why some spend more than others while delivering similar outcomes.
The report said: ‘We are regularly quoted statistics which show some children’s services departments spend considerably more than others, with the clear suggestion that higher spenders should be able to reduce their budgets to match those of lower spending areas elsewhere.’
But the idea that service costs can be cut to match the lowest spenders is a myth. The report found the majority of variations in spend are due to ‘wider economic or geographic circumstances largely outside the control of children’s services’.
Six out of the top 10 high spending local authorities on children’s services are in London, compared with only one of the bottom 10 authorities. There are high levels of deprivation sitting alongside boroughs that are more affluent.
Deprivation and the growing strain on household budgets is driving the cost of care. One chief executive explained: ‘We are definitely seeing a lot more children coming on to our radar because of basic neglect. It seems to be a product of there not being enough money in the household. Children dirty, not fed properly and those sorts of things.’ It seems incomprehensible in modern Britain.
‘The number of times that domestic abuse and domestic violence are on the radar is at epidemic levels. We have the highest levels of reported domestic violence in the boroughs.’
Counterintuitively, having higher levels of disposable household income drives spending on children’s services. Research suggests that, as affluence goes up, people’s perceptions of where to apply thresholds for care is a driver of higher costs.
In London, there isn’t a single picture in terms of issues. In one inner London borough the main challenges are exploitation, knife crime and county lines and a large increase in spend on looked after children (LAC) with numbers up by a third. Its chief executive said: ‘The council had a failed Ofsted inspection in 2015, and at that point had very low numbers of LAC. The inspection found thresholds were being applied inappropriately which has led to an enormous increase in both spend and numbers of LAC up by a third since 2015.’
The neighbouring borough had a far more stable cohort in terms of numbers of LAC, but the main pressure is on its High Needs Block and on mainstream children’s social care.
Budget setting is a source of tension for some. An outer London borough delegate said it ‘had taken the best part of three years to get consensus between finance colleagues and children’s services as to what the (budget) baseline should be. There is a big level of mistrust on both sides’.
This was echoed by another delegate: ‘We are finding the business of getting children’s services and finance to agree on how much it costs to run a children’s service the devil’s own business. In part it’s because I think finance people don’t really understand social workers and social workers’ skills in terms of managing and understanding budgets leave a little to be desired occasionally.’
The importance of good leadership and the ability to build relationships was emphasised by one debater: ‘We have recently had quite a significant change of leadership in children’s services, and it does bring home to me how important basic good management is in that service – good leadership, people talking to each other and relationships being medium to long-term.’
Another delegate agreed it was important for children’s services to be held close to the centre of the organisation in both a supportive and challenging way – and ‘very corporately owned – and you have to invest in quality to have any chance of making money work’.
In terms of frontline staff, one chief admitted their authority had 60% agency staff four years ago. That has been cut to 26% but it is ‘still too high – you can’t run a service like that’.
In the shadow of Brexit, another chief explained a successful recruitment campaign his authority had run in India which is now being replicated in Romania.
One participant said their council was a ‘high spender, but we unashamedly spend a lot on prevention and early intervention’.
The multifactorial issues they are tackling and their impact on families make solutions harder, said one chief executive: ‘We have about 3,100 households in temporary accommodation. We have got high levels of domestic violence, and high levels of substance abuse and mental ill health. All of those factors together are causing huge family stresses – particularly around teenagers who are picking up problems which are then very expensive to deal with. It’s difficult to get on top of any single set of solutions to all of those things.’
But one delegate said their council, despite high population deprivation levels, ‘bucks the trend a little bit because we don’t overspend our children’s services budget, and that’s not because we are starting off with a high base – and we have pretty low levels of looked-after children’.
What they have is the benefit of a director who has been in place for five years. ‘I deliberately appointed someone with a social work background who would invest in developing systemic practice – nurturing social workers to take good risk-assessed decisions – and considerable effort goes into the prevention and intervention services that are deeply embedded in the initial assessments. It is working, basically.’
With children’s social care becoming more of a worry than adult social care among local authorities, is there something that can be done to make the public aware of this as part of the finance lobby ahead of the Spending Review? Most delegates thought this would be challenging. One said: ‘There’s always a view that it’s a parental responsibility, and the parent hasn’t really done very well. I think that’s a really interesting public perception.’
One participant said if the issue was tackled from the angle of austerity ‘you’d get a greater buy-in from the public, because the public are absolutely sick to death of austerity, and they talk about it all the time’.
Another delegate said they had heard from Newton’s work ‘that there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between spend and outcomes for children and young people’.
They concluded: ‘While this is true, I think that somehow we need to make the case to Government that there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between the Government’s spend and levels of need.
‘We need to somehow assemble in London the fact that surely there should be a relationship between the need in an area and spend in the area and if the Department for Education is accepting that – as it seems to be in children’s services – then at some point that fact has to be heard by other Government departments.’
The discussion concluded on a note of optimism, with some delegates able to point to areas of improvement in London, including school quality and the safeguarding of young children.
One said: ‘I can promise you that what we do is better than what we did 20 years ago. We know it’s a bit uneven, but we are much more sophisticated than we used to be. I think we should be absolutely unapologetic that we have got better.’
The Newton report, Making Sense: Understanding the Drivers of Variation of Spend on Children’s Services, can be found at: https://www.newtoneurope.com/content/spend_on_services.pdf
Attendees of The MJ / Newton round table
John O’ Brien Chief executive London Councils
Chris Naylor Chief executive Barking & Dagenham LBC
Carolyn Downs Chief executive Brent LBC
Mike Cooke Chief executive Camden LBC
Paul Najsarek Chief executive Ealing LBC
Ian Davies Chief executive Enfield LBC
Zina Etheridge Chief executive Haringey LBC
Tom Whiting Chief executive Harrow LBC
Andrew Blake Herbert Chief executive Havering LBC
Lesley Seary Chief executive Islington LBC
Ged Curran Chief executive Merton LBC
Paul Martin Chief executive Richmond upon Thames RLBC and Wandsworth LBC
Mary Morrissey Interim chief executive Sutton LBC
Will Tuckley Chief executive Tower Hamlets LBC
Heather Jameson Editor The MJ
Rich Lum Director Newton
Edwina Grant Senior adviser Newton
Sarah Jordan Graduate trainee DfE
Ann McGauran Features editor The MJ