Coughlan: Long-term hike in care cases would hit budgets

Councils could face significant financial difficulties if the post-Baby P spike in care applications becomes a long-term trend, a children’s services leader has said.

The warning – from Hampshire Council director of children’s services John Coughlan – came after family court body Cafcass revealed that applications from November 2008 to March 2009 were one-third higher compared with the same period in 2007-8.

Post-Baby P thresholds

Cafcass said the figures “may be explained by a lowering of the threshold of intervention by local authorities” after the Baby P case.

Coughlan, speaking for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said it was too soon to assume that councils’ thresholds had been lowered because the data did not present a uniform picture.

Care fee hike

But with councils having taken on responsibility for funding care proceedings last year – bills rose from £150 to a maximum of £4,825 a case – Coughlan said authorities needed to monitor the situation closely.

The government transferred a non-ringfenced £40m from the courts budget to local authorities to help fund the increase in fees.

Inadequate resources

But Coughlan said: “The court fee settlement was based on historical activity. If the spike turns into a trend, this will be one of the many things local authorities don’t have enough resources for.”

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “We will know more in six to nine months’ time [whether it is a trend], but the figures show no sign of reducing. After most tragedies like Baby P the status quo resumes, but this time the effect has been national, the repercussions have been significant and are indicative of a heightened awareness of risk.”

Historical fluctuations

British Association of Social Workers professional officer David Barnes did not believe the increase would be maintained, however, adding: “History shows there are short-term fluctuations and then care cases return to the same level. I can’t see that the level of applications at the moment would be sustained beyond 12 months.”

Local Government Association policy consultant Clive Grimshaw said he “wouldn’t suggest [the increase] will continue into the long-term”.

Councils not deterred

He added that the data also showed that councils had not been deterred from taking out care cases as a result of the shift in responsibility for fees, as many campaigners had alleged.

A government-commissioned review on the impact of the fee shift, led by Francis Plowden, is due to report back in September.

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