Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 89) (HC 415) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grant Report for 2000-01 and 2001-02

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Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman does not bother me at all. It is a pleasure to enlighten Opposition Members about how the Government spend the significant extra money that goes into children's services. One management action plan is expected for the quality protects programme in advance of the year. If he is asking whether the Department thinks that we must carefully consider and rationalise the number of plans that we expect local authorities to produce, I agree. That work is already under way. I am sure that he will have read with interest the proposals in the local government White Paper on rationalisation of local authority planning. Given the significant investment in children's services, I do not think it unreasonable to expect local authorities to produce an action plan to spell out how they expect to improve local services, and to focus the increased Government investment on ensuring that that happens. That is what we expect.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): It is obviously important for the money to be spent; no hon. Member would disagree with that. The Minister referred to the proposals as a key vehicle that would make a lasting impact. However, the process by which authorities arrive at the sums must be transparent. Will she describe to us the criteria that have been used for determination of the sums? Anything between £20,000 and £6 million could be allocated to authorities.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Lady will be interested to know that the allocation for the most recent year was made on the same basis as in the previous two years. Fifty per cent. of the grant was allocated on the basis of the 1998-99 standard spending assessment formula for children's social services. There has been no difference in the allocation process this year.

I was attempting to talk about the additional provision that we expect this year. As I said, we expect local authorities to focus on children and young people with disabilities. Also, for the first time, we have asked for responses to the needs of black and ethnic minority children to be integrated into the mainstream provision of services. The proposed plans contain improvements, but more work needs to be done.

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The Government are determined to improve the educational attainment of children in the looked-after system. Quality protects funding has been used to implement and embed the joint Department for Education and Employment—as it was then—and Department of Health guidance issued in May 2000. More councils have designated teachers in schools. More looked-after children have personal education plans. There is still much to do, but the latest attainment figures show progress. Quality protects has been a key driver of that change.

As I said, £850,000 of the £291 million in the 2001-02 special grant will be set aside to meet the costs of regional development workers, who will work in partnership with councils and the regional social services inspectorate to support and facilitate a programme of change. That will be crucial in supporting local authorities with practical advice and in disseminating good practice. Next year the grant will increase to £451 million. Allocations were announced earlier this month with the local government settlement. The payment is again subject to satisfactory management action plans detailing progress to date and future plans.

The children's grant and the quality protects programme represent a significant investment in services for our children. We expect to see continued improvements in the quality of services for children in need and the opportunities open to them. By continuing to work in partnership with local authorities, the national health service, the voluntary and independent sectors, children and their parents—

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I sense that the Minister is drawing her remarks to a conclusion. Before she does so, I must say that I have been disappointed by the tone of the questioning in the Committee. That questioning has overlooked the considerable amount of money that the Government are investing in the development of children in care. Before 1997, that money was simply not available. Sefton borough council, the local authority in my constituency, was bereft of funding for such services. The authority is grateful for the new funding and looks forward to its continuance, so that it can do important work on behalf of children who were neglected for far too long.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree that we should use today as an opportunity to commend those authorities that have begun to make a difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable children, using the investment.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): It is true to say that local authorities are happy to receive the additional funds. However, some local authorities, including the one just mentioned by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) have suffered a net reduction this year in quality protects money. That reduction may be a result of reconfiguring; it may not be a real

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reduction. Will the Minister reassure me that no authority this year has suffered a reduction in the total funds available for quality protects?

Jacqui Smith: I am unclear about what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He implied that Sefton had had a reduction, but then asked me whether any authority had had a reduction.

Dr. Pugh: I am reliably informed.

Jacqui Smith: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is reliably informed. I will reliably inform him in response to his question about whether any authority has suffered such a reduction. The point remains that the overall sum available this year is significantly higher.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the Minister given way?

Jacqui Smith: No.

As a result of that increase, more and more children and young people will be given the chances and opportunities to which they and we should aspire. On that basis I commend the report to the Committee.

4.49 pm

Tim Loughton: The Minister's welcoming attitude to questions became unwelcoming when we started to deal with the nitty-gritty. That is the problem with grant reports, particularly for quality protects. The Minister knows full well that the quality protects money, particularly for adoption services, has been announced, reannounced and re-reannounced about 14 times. In fact, it is all the same money. Hence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) rightly tried to discern what is new money and what is reannounced money that is coming from other budgets. The Minister may like to revisit her comments in the light of the question about where the money is coming from.

Will the Minister acknowledge that any new money must be applied to new responsibilities and a growing problem? The number of children who are looked after by local authorities using their own funds has increased by 8,300: from 50,600 in 1996 to 58,900 this year. That is a dramatic increase of almost 20 per cent. in care needs that the Minister knows are expensive. I am sure that she will confirm my figures, because she gave me them to me in a written answer just two weeks ago. The job that local authorities must do has increased greatly.

Will the Minister explain why we are debating grants that must be used by the end of the financial year 2001-02, which is a little more than three months away? Why did we not debate the grants earlier? She said that the allocations had been made known in rough form almost a year ago. However, the final version of MAPs were not demanded of local authorities until 31 January 2001. I gather that every authority has been awarded its funding in full. Can she explain the difference that a MAP produced after the initial allocation decisions made to the eventual allocation? It seems that it made absolutely no difference whatsoever. Perhaps she could enlighten the

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Committee—I know that she likes to—in more detail about the relation between the announcement of how much money an authority will get, and the plans that the authority must produce to get it.

I gather that there is a facility for the Government to claw back money if they deem that it has not been used appropriately. Presumably, it must be used in accordance with the MAP. Under what circumstances would a grant be repaid to central Government?

Will the Minister comment on the wide differences in payments to various local authorities? The Committee deserves greater detail about how the formulae are worked out. For example, under column 2, which gives amounts for quality protects generally, my own local authority of West Sussex will receive £1,356,226 this year. We have a particular problem with children in care, not least with child asylum seekers arriving through Gatwick airport. That is acknowledged as a big problem for our county, compared with others, yet the neighbouring authority of Brighton and Hove, which is one third the size, has received a grant of £868,594, which is more than two thirds of the amount for my authority. Why do many London authorities seem to receive disproportionately more, running into several million pounds?

Will the Minister say what safeguards are in place to ensure that when London authorities place children in care with shire authorities, for example, the full funding with which they have been credited under the quality protects grants follows the child, and that the local authority providing the service, supposedly contracted by the London authority, is duly refunded for doing so? As the Minister and I know from our experience in the Adoption and Children Bill Committee, there are some grotesque stories about London authorities washing their hands of children once they have been shipped out of the boroughs.

Will the Minister give the Committee further details about the outcomes that she expects? There is a vague reference to 75 per cent. of the average attainment level in various educational standards that are expected as part of the management action plans. Will she give us some more detail about the eventual thresholds of attainment on which the project's success will be judged and about the plans for progressing black and ethnic minority children? What note has she taken of the report by the social services inspectorate entitled ''Excellence, not excuses''? As she knows, a disproportionate number of children from black and ethnic minorities with special needs end up in care.

Can the Minister explain why, according to the explanatory note, despite an earlier undertaking about the additional money from quality protects to promote adoption, which has always been ring-fenced, it has been decided that this year, contrary to earlier indications, it will not be ring-fenced? How satisfied is she that the money will be forthcoming through local authorities to meet the enlarged expectations of adoption support services and adoption targets?

Will the Minister comment on the effect of adoptions within public service agreements as they relate to the special grant? Local public service agreements were piloted. I gather that, out of the

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20 pilot authorities, eight included more stretching adoption targets within their PSAs. How many of the other 130 authorities said that they would set adoption targets when they qualify for PSAs and how does the special grant report relate to that?

How many councils have applied for beacon status under the adoption scheme, the qualifiers for which the Minister will announce in April next year, and what recognition from the special grant will they get as a result? Perhaps the Minister can answer in more detail the justified question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove, which I supported, on the urgent requirement for additional foster carers and the progress that the Government are making in considering foster carer and adoption allowances, which is a key element in promoting greater foster care. Without foster carers much of the progress that the Minister hopes to achieve through quality protects will not be achieved.

I am sure that the Minister will be able to answer my questions in consummate detail in the Committee, but if she cannot do so perhaps she will write to me or allow us to ask further questions.

4.58 pm

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