Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has said there is a case for a “national care system” to enable children to receive similar standards of support across the country.
The suggestion, which would implicitly strip local authorities of at least some of their responsibilities for managing care systems locally, came in a speech in which Longfield said the government’s long-awaited care review should overhaul a system failing thousands of children and “rapidly running out of money”.
Longfield said the review, which children’s minister Vicky Ford said last month would be launched “imminently”, should “consider a national care system”, adding: “I want decisions to be taken locally, involving families. But some issues need to be tackled nationally and all children should be entitled to the same standard of care.
Lack of national leadership
“Children’s social care has not had the same national leadership as the NHS. Are we really happy with 152 different social care systems?”
The Children Act 1989 makes local authorities responsible for children taken into care, and those accommodated with parental agreement, which is strongly linked to their responsibilities for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in need. Longfield did not elaborate on which responsibilities would best be handled nationally, however, in a speech that covered the whole spectrum of children’s needs and services.
She said her research showed just a “tiny proportion” of children in need received support from social services, often for financial reasons, in a context in which spending on higher-end safeguarding services and the care system has been maintained but preventive services substantially cut over the past decade.
Longfield said the care system had “become almost entirely focused on the need to safeguard children from immediate risk – too much on process, and not enough on either wider need or outcomes”. Echoing several recent reports, including from the commissioner herself, the speech highlighted the instability, inadequate or unsafe placements and poor educational outcomes experienced by many in the system.
Care review ‘a golden opportunity’
She said the care review would be a “golden opportunity” to improve outcomes for children through learning from what works, which she said included:
- Consistent work with families by designated key workers.
- Loving foster families, including specialist foster care for children who need extra help.
- High quality children’s homes for those who need it.
- A trusted, stable relationship with an adult who won’t give up on the child.
- Parenting support.
- Family therapy and mental health support for both children and parents.
- Speech and language therapy.
- Involving children in decisions made about their care.
Given that half of children entering care returned to their families within a year, she said the care system needed to work collaboratively with families, while also “[hardwiring] permanency and stability into everyday decision making” .
“Decisions made with children and their families should always be focused on where they will be in six months, three years, five years from now: that is especially true for children coming up to their transition out of care,” she added.
Challenge to politicians
In a closing message to politicians, Longfield said: “You know the system is failing thousands of children, you know it needs urgent reform and you know it can’t survive for much longer without serious investment.
“Will you apply a sticking plaster? Or will you stand up for the thousands of children who are in your care and do what needs to be done, so that every child is not just protected, but also given the support the need to live their best life.”
Longfield’s speech came before Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered his spending review yesterday, which allocated an extra £300m for children’s and adult social care, £24m for investment in secure children’s homes and £98m to help councils meet their duties to provide support to domestic abuse victims and their children in safe accommodation.
However, following Sunak’s statement, Longfield tweeted that the Treasury had “missed the opportunity to put vulnerable children at the heart of levelling up” – a reference to the government’s agenda for narrowing regional economic inequalities.
‘Investment needed in prevention and care’
In response to Longfield’s speech, Association of Directors of Children’s Services vice president Charlotte Ramsden said the ADCS “[endorsed] the emphasis on the need for government to invest in a system that is resourced to both prevent the need for care and nurture and support those children and young people who benefit from it”.
She added: “The much-anticipated care review represents an opportunity for the government to be bold and ambitious and to learn from the expertise of those who are care experienced of all ages. National investment in early help, national standards for our care system together with the capacity to deliver them, will mean fewer children need to be in care but that those who do can flourish.”
Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said “If we are to avoid families falling into crisis and causing long-term damage to the prospects of children and young people, we need to ensure councils have enough funding to reinvest in the preventative services that children, young people and families need, as soon as they need it – and before problems escalate and reach crisis point…
“Pressures have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Additional funding for children’s social care is desperately needed, alongside proper investment in both children’s mental health services, which are under enormous strain, and vital youth services to help a generation hit hard during the crisis.”