Care review response delayed until 2023

DfE had pledged to respond to review and other key reports on children's social care by end of this year, but children's minister Claire Coutinho says this will now come 'early in the new year'

Claire Coutinho
Claire Coutinho (photo: HM Government)

The government has delayed its response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care until next year.

The Department for Education had pledged to produce an “ambitious and detailed government response and implementation strategy” by the end of this year, following the publication of the care review’s final report in May. It subsequently confirmed it would respond to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s inquiry into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson and the Competition and Markets Authority’s study into the children’s social care market, both of which also reported in the spring of this year, at the same time.

However, children’s minister Claire Coutinho said last week that the response and strategy would now come “early in the new year”, in a House of Commons debate on the care review, adding that it was a “huge priority” and would constitute a “programme for long term, once-in-a-generation reform”, as the DfE has long pledged.

Coutinho, who became the fourth person to hold the children’s social care ministerial brief in 2022 on her appointment last month, said there was “lots that [was] good about children’s social care”, citing the “dedication of social workers, family support workers, directors of children’s services, foster carers, kinship carers and others”.

System ‘not delivering well enough or consistently’

However, she added: “But the message from these reports and from the many excellent contributions made today is clear: the system is not delivering well enough, or consistently, for children and families it supports.”

Coutinho, who is now chairing the implementation board of sector leaders and experts by experience, established to advise on the DfE’s response, set out its broad priorities –  improving early help, child protection, the ability of kinship carers to care for children in their families and networks, stability in the care system and workforce skills – but without detail.

On early help, the care review urged the government to invest £2bn over the next five years for multidisciplinary council teams to deliver family help to 500,000 more families, to help rebalance a system that has seen an increasing proportion of resource flow into late intervention over the past decade.

Coutinho echoed this focus saying that, when families are struggling, “we should provide rapid and intensive multidisciplinary support at the right time to help fix the issues”, building on existing  government reforms on domestic abuse, drug and alcohol services and reducing parental conflict.

Resource concerns following autumn statement

However, she made no reference to resources, in a context of local authorities facing a reported deficit of almost £800m in children’s services in 2022-23 and leaders criticising chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s recent autumn statement for not recognising the pressures on services over the coming years.

On child protection, Coutinho referenced the recommendations of the panel’s inquiry into Arthur and Star’s murders, which she said sought to ensure services intervened “quickly and decisively through a more expert and multi-agency child protection response” when children were at risk of harm.

This would be through the creation of multi-agency child protection units, consisting of expert practitioners from social care, health and police, to handle all enquiries, a recommendation that complements the care review’s call for expert social workers who have completed its proposed five-year early career framework to lead all child protection work.

However, Coutinho did not indicate how the DfE would respond, beyond saying that it would use the reports’ recommendations to support councils, police and health in delivering their statutory safeguarding duties, and that it wanted to establish “a skilled and empowered workforce”.

This falls short of what her predecessor, Will Quince, said at the time of the care review’s final report in May, in which he supported the principle of the early career framework, and said the DfE would produce “robust plans to refocus the support social workers receive early on – with a particular focus on child protection given the challenging nature of this work”.

On kinship care, the care review called for significantly improved financial support for carers, along with an entitlement for families to produce an alternative plan for caring for a child before a council sought a care order.

In her speech, Coutinho said there were “practical, financial and cultural barriers” to kinship care, and that the system needed to be encouraged “to always look to wider family before care outside the family and to help equip families to do this well where that is in children’s best interests”.

DfE ‘working to increase foster placement numbers’

On the experiences of children in care, the minister said the “status quo [was] not an option” in providing stable homes, citing young people she had spoken to who had moved placement 21 times. She also said the DfE was “working to increase the number of foster care placements”, an issue whose urgency was highlighted by recent figures showing that more fostering households left the sector in England than joined in 2021-22.

However, Coutinho did not provide details on how it was looking to increase placement numbers. Nor did she reference the care review’s call for regional groups of councils to be established to plan and purchase care placements instead of individual authorities, which is designed to give commissioners greater leverage over providers, thereby tackling the shortage of placements and improving sufficiency.

Coutinho ended her speech by paying tribute to social workers, along with foster carers and other staff, “who are there tirelessly day in and day out providing support to children and their families”.

However, other MPs used the debate to raise concerns about the significant pressures on practitioners.

Too many social workers ‘burnt out and leaving profession’

Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who served as children’s minister from 2010-12, during which time he sponsored Eileen Munro’s report into improving child protection social work, warned about high attrition rates, amid DfE figures suggesting a 20% rise in the number of practitioners quitting local authority practice last year.

“Too many experienced, grey-haired social workers are burnt out and leaving the profession early, and are unable to pass on their great wisdom, experience and mentoring skills to new social workers coming into the profession,” said Loughton.

Though DfE figures have shown caseloads remaining constant from September 2020-21, other surveys, including from Community Care, have found they are increasing, a point picked up by Loughton, who said: “In their complex and challenging profession, social workers have to notice things, and they can do that only when they cross the door threshold, look in the fridge to see why the kids are not being fed properly, inspect their wardrobe and eyeball the mother who they suspect is not looking after the kids properly. It is not all done on a computer, and it cannot be done if social workers have to rush to their next appointment because they have so many cases to get through within an eight-hour working day.”

These concerns were echoed by Labour’s shadow children’s minister, Helen Hayes, who said social workers were “all too often working in incredibly difficult circumstances”.

Ex-minister praises fast-tracks but queries value of university courses

The debate also heard from another former children’s minister, Edward Timpson, who praised the introduction of fast-track training schemes Step Up to Social Work, in 2010, and Frontline, in 2014, in raising the standard of practitioners entering the profession, but he appeared to question the impact of university courses.

In an echo of a point made by the care review, which was led by Frontline’s founder and former chief executive, Josh MacAlister, Timpson said that “70% to 80% of social workers coming into children’s social work are still qualifying through the traditional route, costing about £80m a year”. This is a reference to spending on the social work bursary and the education support grant, which funds practice placements, for all university students.

Timpson added: “There has not really been any change or re-evaluation of how that money is spent and of what comes through the system. I think there is a question about how we can level up some of those conventional routes, better support people through that experience as well, and ensure that, when they are working on the frontline, they have all the skills and the resilience they need to stay with children’s social work, because retention, as ever, remains an issue.”

After being set out by the care review, the view that university courses were not sufficiently evaluated was rejected by academic leaders.

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2 Responses to Care review response delayed until 2023

  1. Bea November 28, 2022 at 10:33 pm #

    Of course a conservative MP is going to back a Conservative initiative in Frontline. The values expressed by the ex minister in the piece, when talking about families, demonstrate there is no real understanding of the profession but seem to indicate a desire for social workers to judge families rather than make real change.
    Not surprised by any of the comments reported. What a sad society we are living in.

    • dk November 30, 2022 at 9:30 am #

      Because members of the parliamentary Conservative Party have such good recent form for backing each other? Some of the ideas that persist about Frontline 8 years after its pilot are bizarre, not least the idea that it is somehow “Conservative”. It defies even the most basic, cursory research into the political affiliations of its originators, as well as how non-fast track social work programmes are funded. It’s neo-liberal, sure, but unfortunately neo-liberalism hasn’t been the preserve of the Conservative Party for about 30 years.

      The “eyeball” comment does betray some unpleasant, unhelpful and (hopefully) un-social work values, though, Agreed on that.

      When LAs can essentially only recruit newly qualifieds for permanent roles, how is this new 5 year career pathway going to even get started? We need some detail, and quick.