Children in Care - Public Accounts Contents

1  Meeting objectives

1. On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education (the Department) and Ofsted about services for children in foster and residential care in England.[1] We also took evidence from the Association of Directors of Children's Services, Barnardo's and the Care Leavers Association. On 31 March 2013, 68,110 children were in care, of whom 75% were fostered and 9% were in residential care.[2]

2. The Department sets policy for children in care and its objectives are to improve the quality of care and stability of placements. With a staff of 70, the Department works with other organisations to meet these objectives. Local authorities in England have a statutory duty to provide care for children who need to be protected from further harm. Their social workers judge when to take children into care, assess their needs and the type of placement required. [3] Ofsted regulates and inspects care services provided by both local authorities and private and voluntary sector organisations.[4] The Department can intervene if local authorities do not deliver services to an acceptable standard.[5]

3. Local authorities look after children in their own foster and residential homes, or pay private or voluntary organisations to do so.[6] In recent years, local authorities have protected spending on foster and residential care, despite wider cuts to council spending. Local authorities spent £2.5 billion in 2012-13 on foster and residential care, an increase of 3% in real terms since 2010-11 despite an overall fall in spending, while the number of children in care rose by 4% over the same period.[7] But the Association of Directors of Children's Services warned that local authorities were now at the point when they would no longer be able to commit to prioritising children's services.[8]

4. The Association of Directors of Children's Services told us that local authorities were clearly responsible for the delivery and quality of foster and residential care services.[9] But The Care Leavers' Association was concerned that the quality of care varied by authority and it considered that this was an issue the Department was reluctant to address.[10] Ofsted also told us that around 55% of local authorities' children's services that it had inspected required improvement, and that no councils had been rated as outstanding.[11] Given the Department has national oversight, and it is the only body that collects data on the care of all children in care, the Association of Directors of Children's Services and Barnardo's suggested that the Department was best placed to carry out a number of functions. These included providing advice and guidance, identifying common themes and developments relating to particular groups of children or types of need, sharing innovation and identifying better ways of delivering services.[12]

5. We challenged the Department on its roles and responsibilities for children in care, particularly those referred to in its Accountability System Statement dated September 2012. The Department accepted that its role was to set out statutory duties for local authorities; and to intervene where authorities fail.[13] However, only following strong challenge from the Committee did the Department accept that it was the best placed nationally to analyse and collect data to help authorities improve. It also reluctantly accepted that it had a role to play in setting out the expectations for service performance; and taking an overview on the way that services are provided and how the market functions.[14]

6. At the time of our evidence session on 12 January 2015, the Department's current Accountability System Statement was that published in September 2012. It stated that the Department "has a responsibility for holding local authorities to account for their performance in delivering children's services". In evidence the Department did not agree this was its role, however, and told us that local authorities were instead accountable to their own councillors and electorates for their performance, although we consider these accountabilities can co-exist.[15] On 20 January 2015 the Department published a revised Accountability System Statement which included changes to its roles and responsibilities for children in care. In particular the Department removed any reference to it holding local authorities to account for their performance, and significantly downplayed its role in leading the sector to improve.[16]

7. The Department had not told us on 12 January that it intended to revise its Accountability Statement, it did not provide us with a draft in advance of publication, and it did not tell us that it had published a revised statement on 20 January. We took the opportunity to challenge the Department at a separate evidence session on 26 January, when it told us that it did not normally consult with Parliament on its accountability statements.[17] However, in Managing Public Money, HM Treasury refers to the Department for Communities and Local Government's publication Adapting to decentralisation. This makes it clear that "Where major changes are being proposed Parliament is likely to want an explanation of how the accountability systems will work and a draft statement may fulfil that role".[18] As we had discussed the Department's accountability system with them only a few days earlier, and clearly had concerns that the Department was not adequately holding local authorities to account for their performance, our interest in any revised statement should have been clear to the Department. The Department then wrote to us and explained that it had not shared its revised statement with us as it judged that "the updated version did not contain major changes". It did not therefore believe that Parliament would want a full explanation of changes. We are puzzled by this judgement, given that the revised statement removed reference to the Department holding local authorities to account for performance; a matter clearly of current concern to us. The Department did, however, invite us to comment on the updated statement, and said it would carefully consider our comments for its next version.[19]

8. In recent years there has been little improvement in placement stability for children in foster and residential care and how well they are looked after. We were concerned that, in 2012-13, 34% of children in care had more than 1 placement during the year and 11%, or 7,000 children, had been in more than 3 placements. These proportions have not improved since 2009 and the Department agreed that this was a "very stubborn" indicator that had not changed in the last few years.[20] Similarly, there has been no improvement in the proportion of children being placed close to home. Since 2009 the proportion being placed more than 20 miles from home has remained at 14% for children in foster care and over 30% for children in residential care.[21]

9. Social workers make the key decisions about placing children in care, and Barnardo's commented that there were few other occasions in a child's life that were more significant and important than reception into care. The chance of a child receiving a good diagnosis of his or her needs and finding an appropriate and good quality placement are a product of high-quality social work.[22] The Department told us that its biggest single objective was to improve the quality of social work, and the Association of Directors of Children's Services pointed to shortcomings in the preparation of new entrants to social work. The Department told us that it was seeking to improve the quality of social work and it has appointed a Chief Social Worker to drive practice among the existing work force, and creating an elite entry scheme for highly talented graduates to the profession.[23]

10. The cost of foster care can range from £15,000 to £57,000 for councils' own foster care provision; and from £18,000 to £73,000 for other providers' foster care. The Department acknowledged that there was a lack of understanding on what influences the cost of care and more work needed to be done. It told us that it had been unable to find a correlation between what a local authority spent on foster or residential care, and the quality of the service offered by the local authority as assessed by Ofsted. We were concerned that the wide variation in costs of foster care may conceal large variations in care quality. Such variation in spending is unsatisfactory if it does not represent different standards of care. The Department said that, as it did not provide the money spent on foster and residential care, it did not take a specific view on what the cost of care should be.[24]

11. Barnardo's told us that local authorities' placement decisions may be driven by cost rather than the individual needs of the child. It told us that instead of prioritising finding the most appropriate placement for the child from the full range of services available, local authorities choose to place children in their own residential or foster care because they think it is cheaper than those offered by other providers. However, we were concerned that price should not be considered over a child's needs and, given the wide range of cost estimates, it is not clear that local authority care is always cheaper.[25]

12. The Care Leavers' Association reported that local authorities and individual social workers do not always know where the best placements are locally, or where the specialist placements are available further afield. Finding placements close to home is complicated by the geographical mismatch between the supply of and demand for places, particularly for residential care. For example, many children's homes are located in the North West and the West Midlands, which poses a problem for authorities in the south.[26] The Association of Directors of Children's Services told us that local authorities look to the Department to encourage new providers to come into the market where appropriate and the Department accepts that it has a role to play here. It said that in recent years it had published data on the residential care market for local authorities to use.[27]

1   C&AG's Report, Children in Care, Session 2014-15, HC 787, 27 November 2014 Back

2   C&AG's Report, Children in Care, paras 1.5, 1.27  Back

3   Q 71, 81, 93; C&AG's Report, Children in Care, paras 3, 1.4, 1.14 Back

4   Q 75; C&AG's Report, Children in Care, para 1.4, 2.33 Back

5   Q 78 80-81; C&AG's Report, Children in Care, paras 2.37-2.38 Back

6   C&AG's Report, Children in Care, para 3 Back

7   C&AG's Report, Children in Care, para 3.3 Back

8   Q 29 Back

9   Q1 Back

10   Q4  Back

11   Q 176 Back

12   Qq 2, 4, 7-9 Back

13   Qq 69, 81 Back

14   Qq 70, 82-85 Back

15   Q 79-81; Department for Education, Accountability System Statement for Education and Children's Services, September 2012, para 114 Back

16   Qq 70, 88; Department for Education, Accountability System Statement for Education and Children's Services, January 2015 Back

17   Committee of Public Accounts, Oral evidence: Recall on EFA and DfE financial statements/Durand Academy investigation Monday 26 January 2015, HC 924, Qq 222-228 Back

18   Managing public money, HM Treasury, July 2013; Accountability: adapting to decentralisation, Department for Local Communities and Local Government, September 2011 Back

19   Written evidence submitted for the Committee's inquiry on Education Funding Agency and Department for Education financial statements - recall from the Department for Education, 19 February 2015 Back

20   Q 197; C&AG's Report, para 2.18 Back

21   C&AG's Report, para 2.22 Back

22   Qq 17, 158, 197 Back

23   Qq 25, 140-141 Back

24   Qq 129-130; C&AG's Report, paras 3.13, 3.15, 3.17  Back

25   Qq 17, 27, 46; C&AG's Report, paras 12, 3.14  Back

26   Qq 14, 18; C&AG's Report, para 2.25 and Figure 11 Back

27   Qq 15, 84, 135 Back

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Prepared 11 March 2015