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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 69) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 1999-2000 and 2000-2001

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 21 November 2000

[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 69) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 1999-2000 and 2000-2001

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 69) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 1999-2000 and 2000-2001.

Improving opportunities for vulnerable children in society is one of the Government's most important objectives. The quality protects programme is central to meeting that objective, and the money that we are making available to local authorities through the quality protects special grant is one of the keys to enabling them to deliver that objective.

The quality protects programme was launched in September 1998. A small amount of preparatory funding was made available to all councils in 1998-99, but the main funding—starting with £75 million—began in 1999-2000. Great progress has been made during the first 18 months of the programme. There has been an increase in the number of children being adopted, with more support for those leaving care, a decrease in the number of children being re-registered on the child protection register and looked-after children experiencing fewer placement moves. There is a lot more to do, but the quality protects programme is beginning to make a difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in England, and we must ensure that councils continue to build on the success that has been achieved so far.

That is one reason for the Government's recent announcement that the quality protects programme is to be extended from three to five years, matched by an increase in the special grant from £120 million this year to £290 million by 2003. More than £117 million of this year's total grant of £120 million has been allocated to councils to help them to deliver the children's social services objectives. The rest has been allocated to meet the cost of regional development workers and the national foster care recruitment campaign.

This year, like last year, we have required councils to target the special grant on certain priority areas. In 1999-2000, councils were asked to focus expenditure on six priorities. They were as follows: increasing the choice of adoption, foster and residential placements for looked-after children; increasing the support for those aged 16 to 18 living in and leaving care, including steps to prevent inappropriate discharge from care for those aged 16 and 17; enhancing the development and use of management information systems; improving assessment, planning and record keeping; improving quality assurance systems to ensure that services are delivered according to requirements and are meeting local as well as national objectives; and listening to the views and wishes of children, young people and their families.

There are two additional priority areas for 2000-01. The first is to improve the life chances of looked-after children through expenditure on their education and health needs, reducing offending and improved cultural, leisure and sports activities. The second is to manage change with expenditure in this priority area being targeted on human resource issues, communications and work to strengthen the governance of children's services.

Of the £120 million special grant for 2000-01, £730,000 has been set aside to meet the cost of the equivalent of eight full-time regional development workers and their assistants to work in partnership with local authorities and colleagues in the regional social services inspectorate to deliver the programme of change. Their role is crucial to the successful implementation of the programme, and they have been doing excellent work in providing practical support and advice to individual local authorities, hosting seminars and setting up network groups to help to spread good practice.

A new major national campaign to recruit foster carers is being funded with £1.5 million of the grant. This is a joint venture with the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Local Government Association, and is being managed on our behalf by the National Foster Care Association. Foster care is the placement of choice for the majority of looked-after children, and we have recognised the need to do more to raise the profile and highlight the national shortage of foster care. We believe that the outcome will be greater placement choice and fewer unnecessary changes in foster care arrangements, which will mean that more looked-after children can be placed with foster carers who meet their particular needs.

Next year, the special grant will increase to £180 million. Payment of that grant will again be subject to satisfactory management action plans that set out progress so far and plans for the future. We have listened to concerns about the work involved in producing management action plans. We have simplified the requirements significantly so as to give a more streamlined approach that is fully integrated with our performance assessment of personal social services, and which is better focused on outcomes. Of course, we shall seek parliamentary approval for the grant once the management action plans have been considered.

In return for this new investment, we are determined to achieve real improvements both in service quality and opportunities for children in need. We shall continue to work in partnership with all the stakeholders—not only the councils, but the NHS, the voluntary and independent sectors and, of course, the children themselves—in delivering the quality protects programme. Only through working together effectively will we be able to drive forward what is a radical programme of change in children's social services. Clear, rigorous plans that focus on tangible outcomes for children and their families will be necessary if the ambitions inherent in the quality protects programme are to be achieved. We cannot afford to be complacent, but I am confident that the programme will continue to make a genuine difference to the day-to-day lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

4.36 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): As the Minister will know from our previous encounters over the quality protects programme, I do not intend to detain the Committee for long. The Opposition support the objectives of the programme, and I believe that all hon. Members support the objective of ensuring improvements in the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children in our society. However, I have a few questions that I would like to ask the Minister.

We are gratified to discover that the Government have responded to criticisms made last year about the over-prescriptiveness of the procedure. That was especially true of the procedure that sought not only to specify desired outcomes, but to prescribe methodologies for arriving at them. From the information that is available to us, it appears that many of those points have been taken on board and that future arrangements for the preparation of management action plans by local authorities will be more appropriate and less onerous.

Were all progress reports received by the Minister submitted by 31 January 2000, which was the originally envisaged cut-off date? If so, why is the Committee meeting so late in the year? If I am not mistaken, last year the corresponding Committee met in July. We are now halfway through the financial year to which these grants apply. Has any money already been paid out, or have local authorities borne the costs themselves, presumably in anticipation of parliamentary approval for these grants at a time of year when half the money should already have been spent?

The special grant will be paid only to local authorities with satisfactory progress reports and management action plans that are fully up to standard. That is quite right, but we are told that all authorities submitted adequate progress reports. Perhaps that should be applauded, but does the Minister agree that one might be a little sceptical about 100 per cent. compliance with the requirements? Can he tell us something about the auditing process, which ensures that the progress reports reflect what is happening on the ground? My understanding is that authorities write their own progress reports. It would be a generous man indeed who did not have a scintilla of scepticism about 100 per cent. satisfactory progress reports, given that the authorities that are being assessed write them.

I should like to ask the Minister about a number of minor issues arising from the evaluation of local responses to the quality protects programme, which was compiled by his Department. According to that evaluation, six of the eight priority areas were subject to slippage, the main explanation for which was difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff. Does the Minister expect the problem to ease? Is it not more realistic to expect the problem to worsen, given the current state of the labour market in southern England in particular?

The figures show that, in each case, much work remains to be done to achieve the targets. To be classed as satisfactory, will next year's reports need to show a certain level of progress against targets for the current year? One could be forgiven for forming the impression from this report that, although local authorities are working diligently towards the Government's targets, there is still a long way to go. How does the Minister expect progress to be achieved in the coming years?

Can the Minister tell us something about quality of data? According to the report, the quality of much data is questionable and does not correlate well with other published sources. The root of this problem is to be found in auditing. What steps is the Department taking to audit authorities' reports about themselves?

To satisfy my curiosity as much as anything else, can the Minister explain the rather peculiar circumstance of Birmingham city council, to which, according to the report, an amount of money is payable for the previous year? Did the council forget to send in its chit on time, or is there some other, more complex explanation for the report's inclusion of a 1999-2000 sum for Birmingham under the regional development worker grant programme?

How will amounts payable to authorities be calculated? I understand that authorities will prepare a plan and then bid for the money that they expect to spend implementing it. Is there any correlation between amounts set for individual authorities and those authorities' level of need, which is perhaps measured by relevant standard spending assessment criteria relating to children's needs?

How will this programme interface with the recent Children (Leaving Care) Bill? The Department's circular LAC (2000)22 suggests that the sums available for the quality protects programme will increase substantially in the next three years. For example, the 2002-03 ring-fenced grant of £220 million under the quality protects programme will be supplemented by a further £233 million from other Departments. I assume that that money will be transferred from the Department of Social Security, and reflects the transfer of responsibility for children who are leaving care from the social security budget to social services departments. However, for 2002-03 the same circular also states that £298 million of the total grant will be ring-fenced for support under the Children (Leaving Care) Bill.

According to the Department's figures, under the management action plans for the first year of the programme only 12 per cent. of the money allocated to local authorities was to be used on the targets relating to children leaving care. In 2002-03, under the existing grant arrangements, local authorities would have expected to spend 12 per cent. of the total—that is £26.4 million—on supporting children leaving care. The Government propose to transfer £233 million from other Departments—principally the Department of Social Security—in 2002-03, which will produce a total of £259.4 million, but the Government's circular indicates that they intend to ring-fence £298 million for children leaving care in that year.

The Government seem to be imposing on local authorities a significant transfer from other targets in the quality protects programme to the ring-fenced children leaving care programme—a far greater percentage of the money than local authorities have chosen to target on children leaving care in the first year of the programme. That would be a rather prescriptive move suggesting—in contradiction to what was said in the Standing Committee that considered the Children (Leaving Care) Bill—that the costs of the Bill are not being fully funded in addition to the quality protects programme, because money is being siphoned off from other parts of the quality protects programme to deliver that ring-fenced £298 million.

I emphasise that our remaining questions and concerns are essentially technical and methodological. I am happy to confirm that we very much support the objectives of the quality protects programme and the Government's proposals to make the process of delivering and approving management action programmes less prescriptive and more outcome-oriented. That is an important step forward.

4.47 pm


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