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House of Commons
Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Reports (Nos. 102 and 104)

Ninth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 10 July 2002

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 102) (HC 943) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 2001–02 and 2002–03

4.30 pm

The Chairman: Is it the Committee's wish that Special Grant Report No. 102 be debated together with Special Grant Report No. 104? [Hon. Members: ''No.''] Then we shall debate them one after another. In view of the heat, I give hon. Members permission to remove their jackets.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 102) (HC 943), on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 2001–02 and 2002–03.

I am pleased today to have the opportunity to debate this special grant report—[Interruption.] Yes, I really am. The Government are committed to high-quality and well resourced services for vulnerable children so that they have the best possible life chances. The quality protects programme sets out clear objectives for children's services and has been a central plank in the wider strategy to tackle social exclusion. It focuses on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our society—those looked after by local authorities, those in the child protection system, and other children in need.

The children's special grant, which supports the quality protects programme, has grown from £75 million when the programme was launched in 1999–2000 to £230 million this year. The grant has also been supplemented by transfers from other Departments so that the total grant to support quality protects will be £462 million this year. That includes money for implementing the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. However, that money is being paid under section 93 of the Local Government Act 2000, rather than this special grant report, and so is not the subject of today's discussions.

The allocations to local authorities of their share of this grant were announced in December. I know that hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), will be interested in the allocation method. The allocation was as follows: 50 per cent. on the basis of the 1998–99 standard spending assessment formula for children's social services and 50 per cent. on the current formula. That formula has been in use since the start of quality protects in 1999–2000 and has proved—I hope that I do not come to regret this—uncontroversial. We will, of course, be looking at the formula for 2003–04 in the light of changes to the SSA system.

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Assuming that today's report is agreed, money will go out to authorities for the first quarter of this financial year in the next few weeks. As there are at least seven of us here today who were at the equivalent grant report debate last year it is worth noting that I apologised to the Committee for having brought forward the grant report in December and I promised that I would do better this year. We have done significantly better. The hard work of officials in the Department deserves praise. I know that the report will be welcomed by local authorities.

What has been achieved and where will we expect to see progress in respect of the payment of this grant? First, we have seen more and better corporate working across councils. We have seen more partnership working with voluntary organisations. Young people leaving care have been getting better support as a result of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which was implemented in October 2001. Moreover, the percentage of those leaving care who were aged 18 or over has risen dramatically from 33 per cent. in 1998–99 to 46 per cent. in 2000–01.

There has been a decrease in the number of placements experienced by children in care. We all understand the importance of stability for children who will already have had considerable instability in their lives. Only 16 per cent. of children now experience three or more placements in one year; 20 per cent. did so in 1997–98. More councils are listening to children and young people in their care; more councillors are asking the all-important question, ''Would this be good enough for my child?''

We have established a national young people's reference group to inform the policy and such groups influence policy throughout the country. There have been improvements in the collection and use of management information. This year, as last year, £15 million of grant is earmarked for services for disabled children and their families. That focus, and investment, has already led to a lot of good, innovative work. More family support services are being provided, particularly home-based respite care and sitting services. Every authority gave examples of additional services being provided to enable disabled children to undertake sport and arts activities. Our commitment is clear: in 2003–04, the amount of money earmarked for disabled children will rise from £15 million to £30 million.

We are also making progress in the education of children in care. That is crucial; if our own children need the life chances and choices that educational achievement provides, looked-after children need them even more. Care leavers too often continue to be significantly over-represented among the homeless and in the prison populations, which remains a great concern to the Government. Care leavers do not achieve the educational outcome that we would want for them. However, joint guidance was issued by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills to local councils in May 2000, and it has been backed up by implementation work setting down practical measures for schools and those responsible for care to take to improve the education of children in the looked-after system. As a result,

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there has been some improvement: the latest attainment data for the year ending 31 March 2001 shows that 37 per cent. of care leavers aged 16 plus achieved one or more GCSEs and GNVQs, up from 30 per cent. the previous year.

However, the attainment gap between looked-after children and their peers is still too wide. That is why the social exclusion unit was asked to conduct a study, looking at how the attainment of looked-after children can be raised further.

This year, there is a new capital element to the children's services grants, specifically designed to increase access to information technology for looked-after children and care leavers. Increasing numbers of children have access to computers at home to help them with their homework and to develop the IT skills that are so important for modern life. The new grant of £9.5 million this year and next will help to ensure that looked-after children are not left behind in this important respect.

Through the quality protects programme, we continue to identify areas for action, such as placement choice. Although our statistics show that placement stability is improving, councils still struggle to meet children's needs, with insufficient foster carers and insufficient specialist support to help when placements are at risk. Early this year, therefore, we embarked on a major review of placement choice and fostering services called choice protects. The review is focusing on helping councils to improve commissioning and to deliver effective placements and services for their looked-after children, with a special emphasis on fostering services.

The review is also looking closely at the issues that put pressure on foster carers, at the support, training and reward of those carers, at the contribution of independent foster agencies, at the role of care by family and friends, and at the effectiveness and need for various types of therapeutic provision.

The report also covers the payment to authorities for regional development workers; 8.5 full-time equivalent experienced social services managers have been appointed to drive forward progress in the quality protects programme, working with individual authorities, developing training and sharing good practice. The payment to authorities for their services is included in this report. Last year, we had some discussion about planning and management action plans. This year, we have continued to ask authorities to submit their quality protects management action plans to the Department of Health.

The MAPs set out councils' plans to address the quality protects objectives. The MAPs were evaluated and, if they were found wanting, they were resubmitted after discussions with the social services inspectorate. Subsequently, all 150 MAPs were approved. As we near the end of the quality protects programme—it ends in March 2004—we have begun the mainstreaming process.

The MAPs that councils submitted in January will be the last that they send to the Department. Although MAPs have been a catalyst for improved planning at a

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local level—it is important that local planning on a multi-agency basis and the involvement of children and young people continue—as part of our drive both to embed quality protects into mainstream practice and to reduce centrally imposed planning requirements on councils, we will not require the submission of MAPs in relation to next year's allocations.

In conclusion, I am pleased to bring forward the special grant report in order to enable local authorities to go forward in developing the important work that the quality protects programme has enabled them to do for some of the most vulnerable children in our communities.

4.41 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): We welcome money to provide extra support for children's services, on which the special grant report concentrates. The recent survey of directors of social services up and down the country conducted by the Association of Directors of Social Services found that 69 per cent. of the £1 billion shortfall in social services funding from which departments in local authorities say that they are suffering is in children's services. Although all the headlines and many of the debates that we have had in the House have been about the pressure on services for the elderly such as care homes, not enough attention is paid to the pressure on children's services, which are often robbed to pay for shortcomings in care for the elderly. Many aspects of the special grant report are therefore welcome.

I particularly welcome both the additional money that is being concentrated on services for the disabled and the Minister's point about providing £9.5 million to provide technology at homes for looked-after children. Hon. Members who have been round schools in their constituencies or elsewhere will be well aware of the gap that is opening up in educational attainment between children who have access to computers not only in school but at home and those who do not. Technology is such an important tool, and it is absolutely right that children in the care of local authorities and children who are looked after by other organisations should have equal access to it to give them a fair start in life.

Having said that, the Minister has referred to quality protects many times in the past, and each time she mentions it the amount of money seems to double. It is only right that we should draw attention to and ask questions about the details of the report rather than taking headline figures at face value. As with the last special grant report on which she and I met, will she comment on the influence of the new star rating system for social services on the calculations that have been made as part of the special grant report? Has there been bias in the figures apart from in the calculations for the previous and current standing spending assessments?

I should like to ask the Minister specifically about provisions that may have been built into the grants to deal with asylum-seeking children. In 1996, 631 unaccompanied children applied for the asylum in the UK. In the last year, that figure has risen tenfold to

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6,000 of whom 1,400, who mostly entered through the port of Dover, applied in Kent alone. An awful lot of them were also in my own county, West Sussex, coming in through Gatwick airport. They have given much additional work to West Sussex social services, which I must say has coped with that exceedingly well and been commended by some of the Minister's inspectors.

In the allocation of funds to local authorities, do the criteria take any account of the pressures on certain authorities from asylum seeking children who, obviously, often need specialist care and help? In my local authority, we have had a problem with unaccompanied girls arriving from west Africa, particularly Nigeria and Sierra Leone, who, after being taken into care by social services, have then ended up in prostitution in northern Italy, as part of a child-trafficking ring. The needs of those children have brought some £1 million additional expense to West Sussex.

The figures show that West Sussex fairs averagely well, with a total children's services grant of £1.486 million compared with Kent, which has the very special problems that we have mentioned, and which has a £3.193 million budget. Many local authorities that do not have the entry points that I have mentioned receive varying amounts, such as Essex, which received £2.7 million, Hampshire, which received £2.3 million, Lancashire, which received £2.9 million and Norfolk, which received £1.5 million. Can the Minister comment on what provisions have been made for services for asylum seeking children in particular?

Under the way in which the SSA allocation is made, the London boroughs of Newham and Haringey, for example, have been awarded substantial grants because they are classified as outer-London boroughs. However, in being defined as outer-London boroughs, they miss out in the SSA allocation, despite their considerable inner-city social problems. Can the Minister comment on what compensations have been made through the grants for that situation?

On joined-up action with other schemes, can the Minister tell us how the quality protects programme interacts with other child-based schemes and initiatives such as the sure start programme? Is there an overlapping of work or funding between different schemes with the same objective? It has often been observed that a plethora of ''regeneration schemes'' frequently overlap and compete for the same resources and local personnel. Can she assure us that there is not repetition in the work that the grants are funding?

On the management action plans to which the Minister referred, were there any authorities that were initially refused approval by the Secretary of State for their MAPs—for the progress and implementation of their previous plans and for future MAPs—which had to resubmit to receive funding for this year? Can she comment on how well the MAPs that are now coming to an end were received previously?

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Can the Minister elaborate a little on how the regional development worker grants are working? Of the special grant of £120 million for 2000–01, I can calculate that £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. Can she tell us how many regional development workers are currently employed, what plans she has to increase that number further, and the likely cost of that? Touching on the relationship with the adoption and performance taskforce, can the Minister comment on the role of regional development workers in connection with that taskforce?

Recent media reports, which I think are well-founded, and various missives from the Department responsible, stated that the Government are planning to reform the current SSA formula substantially. Consultation is taking place on that plan, which will see a number of councils likely to lose out financially, not least those in the south. How will that impact on local councils and their plans to implement children's services after the end of quality protects?

On that score, can the Minister say at this stage what will happen after the quality protects programme ends in 2004? It was, quite rightly, extended from three to five years, but the events that quality protects is there to fund are not one-offs, but part of an ongoing, long-term process. Perhaps the Minister will explain what will happen after 2004 if local authorities do not reach the 11 key objectives that they are tasked to reach as part of the quality protects scheme.

The Minister is as aware as I am, from my service on the Special Standing Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill, that the number of looked-after children has increased by around 17 per cent. during the past four years and stands at around 58,000. Can she give an indication of trends during the current year and whether the number of looked-after children is falling or increasing at the same rate, in which case the money will have to be spread among a much greater constituency of young people?

I want to touch on the subject of social workers coming into the profession. The Government are committed to increasing the number of people applying for social work training by 2004 by around 5,000. Can the Minister assure us that the quality and professionalism that is needed in dealing with sensitive cases is not being compromised to meet those targets? I gather that the figures to 2001 show a small rise in the number of students studying social work at university and in higher education from 13,400 to 13,700. Can she tell us the current intake figures and the number of students who are, more importantly, going into social work training and becoming key social workers, particularly in child support services and child care, which have the biggest gaps of all social services departments?

As usual, I have given the Minister quite a long list of detailed questions, but I am sure that she will have no problem dealing with them in her response.

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4.51 pm


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