DfE ‘should know more about children’s social care demand rise’

23 Jan 19

The government should know more about why council spending on children’s social care in England is increasing, the National Audit Office has said.

Local authorities expect to spend £4.2bn on children in care in 2018-19, which is £350m (9.1%) more than they budgeted for in 2017-18, a report by the watchdog released today pointed out.

Last year 91% of local authorities overspent on their children’s social care, the NAO stated.

In 2017-18 the number of child protection assessments conducted by councils soared by 77% compared to the year before, the watchdog highlighted.

The cases of children being taken into care – the most expensive and serious cases – have risen by 15% since 2010-11 – more than double the rate of population growth – the report noted.

The Department for Education previously estimated that 41% of the increase in the number of children in need between 2009-10 and 2016-17 was due to population growth, but it could not account for the remainder of the increase.

But the DfE has not done any work to pull available sources of information together to find reasons for the increase in the demand, the NAO concluded.

“The department does not fully understand what is causing increases in demand across all local authorities and, until recently, it did not consider this a fundamental part of its responsibilities,” the watchdog said.

“The NAO recommends that the department promptly improves its understanding of children’s social care.”

The watchdog found that the activity and cost of children’s services vary significantly between different local authorities, with the difference in spending ranging from £556 to £5,166 per child. And the number on child protection plans per 10,000 children ranged from 22 to 156 in local authorities last year.

Two years ago the NAO reported the DfE’s progress in improving children’s services was “not up to scratch”, NAO head Amyas Morse, said.

“Since then the department has adopted the target of giving all vulnerable children access to high quality support, no matter where they live, by 2022,” he explained.

“The department has started to build its understanding of variations in services, but it should know more than it does. Even with this understanding, the department faces a tall order to achieve its goal within three years.”

The watchdog gave several explanations for the variations, including:

  • Differing levels of deprivation between local authorities could account for 15% of the disparity in use of child protection plans;
  • National policy changes could be the reason for 10% of variations;
  • Just 6% can be explained by authorities’ level of spending on children’s social care and vacancy levels for children’s social workers.

Local authorities’ spending power has been reduced by 28.6% since 2010 and they have responded by cutting spending on non-statutory preventative children’s services like children’s centres and increasing spending on statutory social work, the NAO noted.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “With an overspend of £872 million last year on children’s social care and with local government under such funding pressure, government has got to grasp the nettle.

“Children’s safety and wellbeing must not be subject to a postcode lottery and it is appalling that the department does not fully understand what is driving demand for children’s social care or why there are such wide variations between local authorities.”

Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said: “We have raised the bar in children’s social care and the child protection system, so that children at risk are identified sooner, and we are tackling the reasons why children are in need in the first place.

“The number of local children’s services rated outstanding is growing, and the number rated inadequate has dropped by a third since 2017 – from 30 down to 19. By 2022, I want this reduced to fewer than 10 per cent of councils, and we are on track to meet this.”

Last week, the NAO urged the government to improve its oversight of governance in local authorities as their financial situation worsens.

Further comments on the NAO’s findings:


Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA, said:“Re-evaluating the effectiveness of existing spending programmes on children’s social care is now a matter of urgency, both to explain the increasing demand and variations of care between local authorities, and to ensure sustainable funding of these services which councils are working hard to provide to those most in need.”

Carl Les, County Councils Network children’s services and education spokesman, and leader of North Yorkshire County Council, said: “Today’s figures from the National Audit Office are another illustration of the unsustainable nature of children’s services – with demand far outstripping current funding levels.

“The rise in demand for children’s services is incredibly complex and cannot simply be put down to population increases. 

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Children’s social care is facing a country-wide cash crisis and this report rightly recognises the huge demand that councils are experiencing while attempting to manage significant funding reductions.

“Nine in 10 councils had to spend more than they had budgeted for children’s social care last year. It is clear that the most urgent and pressing issue is not variability but the very real funding crisis facing vital children’s services across the country, which face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025.

Tim Elwell-Sutton, assistant director of strategic partnerships at the Health Foundation, said: “Investment in early years services that support children's health and wellbeing is critical if we want to have a society that flourishes both socially and economically.

“There have been sustained cuts to local government budgets over recent years and funding for the services that keep children well, such as children's centres, has been particularly hard hit.”

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