The children's services sector is not "financially sustainable," the Public Accounts Committee has warned.
In a report, the PAC said that it has reported several times in recent years on the poor state of children’s social care, and in 2016 concluded that the Department for Education was worryingly complacent that nothing could be done to improve services more quickly.
"While the Department considers children’s social care to be its most important responsibility and seeks to increase its knowledge about demand pressures, it still has not done enough to make the quality or finances of children’s social care sustainable.
"We are disappointed that it has not set out the sustainable improvement it seeks to achieve for children.
"For the avoidance of doubt, we expect the Department to improve both the quality and the cost-effectiveness of children's social care in measurable ways by its goal of 2022," said the report.
A step-change is required in the Department's understanding of pressures, the reduction of unnecessary variation between areas in their social care activities and the costs of providing them, and greater pace in its work with struggling local authorities.
With 91% of local authorities having exceeded their budgets for spending on children's services in 2017-18, it is imperative that the Department "get to grips" with its understanding of demand pressures if it is to make a compelling case for adequate resources in the anticipated spending review.
The disconnect between the Department for Education making policy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government allocating funding can only be a hindrance to improving services and needs resolving, the PAC adds. The committee said it sees all too often that decisions in one area of government can increase spending elsewhere or in the future, but high quality, effective, early support for children is not only vital for them and their families, but beneficial for the taxpayer as well.
Chair Meg Hillier said: "Government’s progress with reforming children’s services has been painfully slow and it has still not made clear what sustainable improvements it hopes to achieve. Children, many of them in desperate circumstances, deserve better.
“The Department for Education regards children’s social care as its most important responsibility. If it is to live up to that responsibility, it must first address what are persistent shortcomings in its understanding of the sector," she added.
The report recommends that the Department should set out by December 2019:
- Data on the costs and quality of children’s social care for each local authority in England, which is easily accessible publicly and enables comparison between authorities;
- The key factors contributing to the variation across local authorities;
- The action it is taking to reduce variation; and
- Its future targets for limiting the levels of variation between local authorities in cost and quality of children’s social care.
The Department should also set out by December 2019 the thresholds it deems acceptable for (i) rate of children in need episodes, and (ii) amount spent per child in need episode.
By September 2019, the Department should decide how it will assess and monitor the cost effectiveness of children’s social care in inspected local authorities. The Department should also within this time frame set out what action it has taken to encourage the take-up of good practice in children’s social care across local authorities and how it will assess take-up.
Furthermore, by December 2019, the Department should set out how it will work with local authorities to manage the supply of high quality and cost-effective residential care and match this to demand.
The Department should also develop and lead on a cross-government strategy for raising quality in children’s social care, with a cross-government approach agreed by December 2019.
Ms Hillier concluded: "The Department still cannot explain the significant variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care, nor does it have an adequate understanding of demand pressures.
"It will need to rapidly acquire that understanding if it is to make a convincing case for funding to the Treasury. But beyond that, it must show leadership in government.
“Woolly ambitions are not enough to deliver lasting change. The Department must drive cross-departmental work that will enable the government to properly meet the needs of vulnerable children.”
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: "While recent Ofsted reports have been clear that the quality of children’s services is continuing to improve across the country, we agree with the Committee that urgent action is needed to make the sector financially sustainable and ensure that all children are able to access the help they need, when they need it.
"The LGA has long argued for a stronger cross-government commitment to children and families, and we are pleased that the Committee supports this. This lack of joined-up leadership within government has contributed to a situation where councils find themselves looking after record numbers of children in care, with nine in 10 councils subsequently forced to overspend their children’s social care budgets by more than £800 million in the last year alone.
"There is no right amount for councils to spend on children’s services, with the majority of spend variation due to wider economic or geographic circumstances largely outside their control. It is clear that the most urgent and pressing issue is not variability but using the Spending Review to tackle the country-wide funding crisis in children’s services, which face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025," she added.
Stuart Gallimore, ADCS President, added: "Local authorities are committed to improving children’s lives and outcomes but there is simply not enough money in the system to meet the increasing level of need in our communities. No one can underestimate how hard we have worked to make savings but this has been at the expense of the very services that are designed to prevent children and families’ needs from escalating and reduce future demand. Despite the significant financial and demand pressures we face Ofsted’s latest annual report acknowledges an improving picture in the quality and overall effectiveness of children’s services across the country.
“Some level of variation in levels of demand, activity and spend between local authorities is to be expected and this is driven by factors largely out of our control but central government can, and must, make a difference by tackling the wider social determinants that fuel demand, such as deprivation and the prevalence of domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and poor mental health. A child poverty reduction strategy would be a good place to start. The issue of variability should not be used to suggest there is scope for more efficiencies because there is not. Even high performing, well-run, low spending councils, like my own, simply have nowhere left to go. Collectively, children’s services overspent by more than £800 million in the last financial year and face a funding gap of £3 billion by 2025, just to stand still. It is crucial that a compelling case is made for our services to be properly resourced ahead of the Spending Review and we would be happy to work with the DfE on this on behalf of children. Children’s services urgently need to be put on a sustainable financial footing, or I worry about the nature and type of services we will be able to provide to vulnerable children and their families," he concluded.