A local authority has warned that cuts it is proposing in response to a potential £46 million budget deficit could result in more children on child protection plans and entering care.
Reports published by East Sussex council ahead of a 13 November cabinet meeting set out in stark terms the impact its bare-minimum ‘core offer’ for the next three years would have on children’s services, recently rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
Services for families who have had children removed and for young people at risk of criminal exploitation are both under threat, while some training for social workers would also be stopped under the plans.
The council’s chief executive Keith Glazier described the core offer as “not the ideal we would wish to be able to provide, but [seeking] to capture what is most appropriate and possible in a time of austerity”.
The authority cautioned that even the bare-bones approach may not be sustainable because of ongoing funding uncertainties. These include a lack of clarity over how the £410 million of extra social care cash announced in last month’s budget will be distributed.
Further savings of up to £33.4 million could still be required in a worst-case scenario, a statement by the council said.
‘Current, very real’ problems
A number of English counties have found themselves in dire financial straits this year, with Northamptonshire issuing a section 114 notice, signifying an inability to set a sustainable budget.
Speculation has mounted as to whether others will follow, with Somerset voting in early-help cuts – prompting fears families could later need expensive interventions – and Nottinghamshire warning of financial problems resulting from children in care placements.
Placement costs were a key area of financial concern highlighted in a report issued this week by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), which mapped the landscape of increasing demand and shrinking resource councils face.
The Safeguarding Pressures study of 140 councils, the sixth in a series, also flagged up high numbers of children “tipping over” into statutory social care, and spend on agency social workers, as huge issues as budgets recede.
“Interviewees and questionnaire respondents talked about overspends in the millions on 2018/19 budget that were unavoidable,” the report said. “This budget shortfall is current, very real, and is not going away as it is driven by demand-led services which local authorities must fund by law.”
Like Somerset, East Sussex is planning to cut its early help services, with a view to saving more than £1 million.
“A review is underway which will be the subject of consultation,” the cabinet report said. “It is likely to result in working with fewer families and focusing support to those most at risk of social care intervention.”
But the cabinet reports also revealed plans to reduce safeguarding services, including cutting back on some training social workers can access to assist in work with children and families. Ofsted’s recent inspection singled out East Sussex’s investment in staff as a reason why it has been able to develop a skilled and committed workforce, with many children able to work with the same social worker “for many years”.
Other cuts to safeguarding services, which are projected to save £854,000 over three years, include:
- Stopping family group conferences, which have been hailed for their effectiveness in facilitating collaborative work
- Cutting an outreach service for young people at risk of criminal exploitation, a high-profile area given the rise of ‘county lines’ networks and associated violent crime, which was highlighted in a recent serious case review
- Reducing a service that works with families who have already had children removed from their care.
“The impact of these reductions is likely to mean more children may become subject to child protection plans, or enter or stay longer in the care system,” the cabinet report said.
Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of the Family Rights Group charity, said there would be “no winners” under the scenario East Sussex is proposing, which she said was striking for its explicit admission of future impact and for the range of services facing the axe.
“We don’t want to get into a blame game with local authorities who are facing severe financial turmoil,” Ashley said, noting that East Sussex is a “Tory council who have made clear to a Tory government they need help”.
But, Ashley added, “The costs of the short-term measures proposed would be felt long-term by children and by families who are pulled apart unnecessarily – and will cost the taxpayer far more in the process, with more children entering the care system who need not have done.
“Given there is already a crisis across our child welfare and family justice system, and [the Care Crisis Review] made very clear what the way forward needed to be, this is running in the opposite direction,” she said.
An East Sussex council spokesperson declined to answer specific questions around the core offer proposals, pointing out that decisions would be taken by full council in early 2019 as part of its usual budget-setting process.