By Andy McNicoll and Chloe Stothart
Statutory safeguarding duties could be breached and children in care left with longer waits for specialist support under plans by local authorities to reduce spending on children’s services this year, a Community Care analysis has found.
As councils face a fourth consecutive year of cuts to central government funding and rising demand for care, our analysis of 2014-15 budgets from 55 of 152 local authorities in England found that spending on children’s services dropped by an average of 2% (or 4% in real terms once inflation is factored in).
While Community Care found local authorities are trying to protect frontline services by making the most substantial cuts – often millions of pounds worth – through back office restructures and reductions in the cost of care placements, the pressure to make year-on-year savings is also impacting care. We found plans to:
- Decommission specialist support for children in care. Brent council plans to save £405,000 by replacing a mental health service that provides specialist care for looked-after children with a cheaper “reduced” offering. A council report acknowledges that the move risks children waiting longer for care. A council spokesman said “we cannot cannot comment at this stage on the outcome of the tender process although we can confirm that it will be at a lower value.” East Riding council plans to save £30,000 by cutting an advocacy post for looked-after-children.
- Cutback on safeguarding. Brighton and Hove council plans to cut £62,000 from its safeguarding budget. A council report acknowledges that the move could see Independent Reviewing Officer caseloads “exceed” recommended levels and “impact upon the ability to fully discharge statutory duties”. The council says quality assurance processes “should mitigate against this”. The council also plans to save £126,000 through staffing cuts in its assessment, advice and referral teams. A council report acknowledges that the move “leaves no flexibility to cover long term sickness or staff vacancies” and “could potentially impact negatively on quality and timeliness”. The council declined to comment on the changes.
- Transfer social work cases to non-qualified staff. East Sussex council plans to save £297,000 by transferring 230 cases from qualified social workers to key workers. A council report acknowledges that the move will see “more risk” managed by non-qualified staff. The council says a quality assurance framework will ensure the changes are “managed safely”. A rapid response team which successfully reduced residential care admissions will also be disbanded to save a further £120,000.
- Find savings from social work caseloads. Newcastle council plans to save £273,000 through a review of caseloads and management arrangements in its children’s social work teams. A council report states that the move will lead to up to seven full-time posts being cut.
- Reduce early intervention work. East Riding council plans to save £300,000 by making early intervention services “less universal”, a move that will include the deletion of a specialist substance misuse social worker post. We also found examples at other local authorities of family support, children’s centres and voluntary sector services for vulnerable young people being cut back.
The ‘dilution’ of the social work role
Maris Stratulis, England manager for the British Association of Social Workers, said that many BASW members had reported concerns over similar cutbacks.
“The fact local authorities’ own reports are acknowledging that some cuts could see caseloads exceed recommended levels or risk statutory duties being breached is concerning. On one level there’s an honesty there but for us there’s a concern around the impact these types of changes have on the quality of safeguarding and the dilution of the social work role,” she said.
“If cases are currently held by social workers, it suggests that they have met the threshold for that, so to transfer them to non-qualified staff poses issues about the risk those staff are suddenly being asked to hold.”
The squeeze on care placements
The biggest savings – in cash-terms – are being targeted from care placements. Nottinghamshire council plans to save £2.3m from the cost of looked-after-children placements by reducing the use of independent fostering agencies and privately-run residential placements. The council told Community Care it plans to launch a recruitment drive for foster carers to boost internal provision.
Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said all local authorities were having to make “tough decisions about expenditure” but many were trying to prioritise children’s services. The climate demanded directors looked for “creative” ways to save on costly areas of provision like residential care.
“We are seeing more partnerships across local authority boundaries, joint commissioning and negotiation with providers to get a better prices – that is all to the good. It gives the best deal to local authorities and probably long term stability to the private sector which will be aware about numbers falling,” said Wood.
“Providers know that just as they are being squeezed, so local authorities are being squeezed. The money isn’t in the system. Some providers may find it very difficult to continue.”
Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Children’s Homes Association, said further reductions in fees for residential care providers “is likely to lead to a cut in the safety, the specialism or the choice” on offer.
“Local authorities are already finding difficulty in finding placements for some young people, particularly those with high level and complex needs. They need highly experienced staff, sometimes 2 to 1, so they are bound to be the most expensive placements,” he said.
“What are we doing with our most vulnerable young people? If those cuts come through we have to be able to protect the services for the most vulnerable young people. If those young people had health needs then we would do all we could to try to meet the needs. If they required high level hospitalisation we would find that money. It is intriguing that when it comes to looked-after children we find it possible to reduce that money.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The vast majority of councils have protected frontline children social care budgets. According to an independent Audit Commission report, council spending on children’s social care on average increased by 1.2% in real terms since 2010-11.
“Councils are responsible for ensuring that the services they provide are cost effective and meet the needs of their local area. We are improving child protection by cutting red tape and improving the skills and experience of social workers so they can make the right decisions for children.”