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

[back to previous text]

Dr. Pugh: We have a few questions, some of which go over the same territory as previous ones. We wonder why we are here to verify awards that have already been made; to make any change in them would create upheaval across the country. We wonder, too, why five years is the magic figure for the funding programme, because children's needs remain in place after that. All money is welcome, but local authorities fear that there will be a tapering off and that the needs will be there but the funds will not. We question why the Minister thinks that a special grant is the most effective way to proceed.

I draw the Minister's attention to queries about the equity of the arrangements, and underline the point made earlier, that London boroughs have a disproportionate weighting in the funds that they receive. The Minister may care to comment on the following examples. Westminster has 91 children who are defined as at risk and 267 who are cared for. Sefton, the borough mentioned by the hon. Member for Crosby and by me, has 130 on the register of at-risk children, and 317 who are cared for. That is many more, but if we examine the comparable funding for the two boroughs, we find that Westminster receives £1.7 million and Sefton only £898,000. We are grateful for that money, but we wonder why we, too, do not receive £1.7 million.

If I understood the Minister's response when she was pressed on that point by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), she said that funding was in line with the standard spending assessment. That just seems to compound the evil. If the funding is in line with the SSA, why is it made through a special grant? Either the SSA is sound and can be beefed up to accommodate the needs of children, or we need a special grant to deal with special needs. If it is the latter, why are we slavishly following the pattern of the SSA, which is woefully inadequate?

Column Number: 11

Finally, in examining the figure awarded to Birmingham, which is significantly high, I am reminded of the Government's policy of earned autonomy and the fact that the social service department in Birmingham has not had an unblemished recent record. Is the award in line with the policy of earned autonomy, and if so, will it continue to be? I do not support that policy, but the Minister and Government do. Are social service awards in line with that policy or will they simply respond to need? I press the Minister principally on equity. As she will recognise, children's services budgets are extremely volatile, so we should fund need and not on the basis of a preconceived pattern that even the Government, in a White Paper, have acknowledged is inadequate.

5.1 pm

Mrs. Calton: I shall try not to go over ground that has been already covered, more than adequately, by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

I would like to tease out the criteria that have been used for determining the sums involved. I understand that SSA is important, but annex B says:

    ''In each case satisfactory progress and plans were essential for receipt of the Quality Protects grant in the following financial year.''

Someone, somewhere, has had to decide that progress was satisfactory, and for that, I hope, criteria must have been used. I do not want to decry the work that social services departments have done throughout the country—I was a social services chair myself until comparatively recently, and I know how hard they work. In the interests of transparency, we must know how the grants are decided, and at the moment we do not. I am concerned about the wide difference between the sums that were allocated to different authorities, and I find it difficult to believe that they were based on the SSA.

Sir Paul Beresford: In the light of the comment made by the hon. Member for Crosby, would the hon. Lady, as an ex-social services chairman, agree that although there always were—as there always will be—difficulties with local government finance, it was nice for elected local members to use their own criteria to decide how they would allocate money from a top grant? It is also worth noting that local authorities had worked on adoption, fostering and many other actions for many years prior to the special grant.

Mrs. Calton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I must say that to agree would pre-suppose that everything was fine until a couple of years ago. Everything was not fine, including the social services department in which I was involved. I am trying to be even-handed. I am asking for complete transparency, which we do not have.

Column Number: 12

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport asked why we are here, as did the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. If the funds have already been allocated or decided on SSA, what is the purpose of today's Committee? I do not understand what would happen if we turned the report down, although I think that we would have to have a further sitting, and we would have to agree the report at some point. It worries me that, eight months into the financial year, we are being asked to agree a report when eight out of 12 parts of the money will have been spent.

Why are we considering a grant for Westminster city council for the last financial year? Has it not already closed its books for that financial year? How can we allocate money in such circumstances? According to the documentation, it is a requirement that the money be spent in the financial year to which it applies. How can the money be spent in the year to which it applies if we are only now agreeing that it should be retrospectively applied?

I am a new Member, and I do not know how these things are done. Why have all the signatures in the report been written by the same person?

5.5 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I join my colleagues on the Opposition Benches in using the short duration of the Committee to examine the distribution of the Government's grant to the relevant authorities. I share the wonderment of the hon. Member for Southport at the figure for Birmingham, which is £5,677,025 for this financial year. That is way above—almost double—that for any other authority, with the exception of Manchester and Lambeth, each of which receive more than £3 million.

I wonder what kind of scrutiny the Government have applied to the figures. Birmingham is my neighbour, so I have some experience of the gross maladministration of Birmingham in providing services, especially in relation to the social services budget. Like mine, the Minister's constituency is on the border of the Birmingham conurbation, and various nursing homes, for example, share referrals from Birmingham and Worcestershire.

What is happening in Birmingham is truly disgraceful, and the Government seem to be collaborating and co-operating by awarding a grant that seems so utterly out of kilter with other relevant and comparable authorities. I hope that the Minister will justify Birmingham's position. Whenever I discuss with Ministers the circumstances in Birmingham, especially in relation to nursing homes—residents of homes owned by Birmingham council pay double the amount that residents pay elsewhere—they seem to take seriously the authority's gross financial incompetence. The award for children's social services beggars belief, and we shall listen with interest to the Minister's comments.

In comparison with other authorities, my authority, Worcestershire, does reasonably well. I wonder whether that has something to do with the state in which the last Labour administration in Worcestershire left the financial circumstances in

Column Number: 13

relation to children's social services. I understand that there was an overspend of some £4 million when the Lib-Lab administration was thrown out of county hall in Worcester. I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to learn that that figure has been cut by half under the new Conservative administration, but it still needs improvement, because the Labour-controlled council left great problems. We do tolerably well in terms of the supplement that we have been given, which will certainly help our financial problems and to put matters right. However, the Minister will share my disappointment—

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Would the hon. Lady be kind enough to let me know how many people live in Worcestershire and, given that she knows Birmingham so well, let me know—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) should keep to the report before the Committee.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My remarks were in direct response to those of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove. I was merely seeking some illumination.

The Chairman: We must stick to the report before the Committee and not stray on to what is happening in various areas.

Miss Kirkbride: One would have thought that the hon. Member for Crosby had been here long enough to know the rules by now.

As I was saying before I was interrupted, although Worcestershire does tolerably well—as I expect the Minister would agree—we still do not do very well compared with local authorities in the south-east. One would have thought that, in introducing the special grant, it would be helpful to introduce some new rules, so that Worcestershire could be dealt with fairly in respect of social services provision. If some new rules had been introduced, perhaps the in-built unfairness in grants allocation towards the south-east—especially towards Hertfordshire, which has managed to land more than £2.3 million—would not have been allowed to continue in these grants. Will the Minister say whether, when the Government introduce their local government finance reforms, those figures will be changed to eradicate those disparities, which are difficult to understand, although I appreciate that they are part of the local government settlement, which the report unfairly mirrors?

We look forward to the Minister's response to the specific point that I raised earlier, which was amplified by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who quoted figures on adoption. There is a pressing need for more foster parents and for more people who are willing and able to adopt. Although it is relevant to set targets for the educational achievements of children in care, it seems to me from my casework that so many children in care are damaged emotionally that, until some stability can be brought into their lives by a parent or person acting in loco parentis, who can establish a relationship with them and make them believe that they are cared for

Column Number: 14

and wanted, all other targets will not help in achieving what society requires to be done. That is, somehow to scoop up children who are not wanted or whose parents cannot look after them and find alternative parents for them.

5.13 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 17 December 2001