1.Variability in the quality and consistency of help and protection services is leaving children at risk of harm. Although annual spending per child in need ranges from £340 in one local authority to almost £5,000 in another, there is no relationship between the quality of services, as assessed by Ofsted, and the amount spent by local authorities. Locally, the thresholds to access services are not always well understood or applied and they can be set too high, or too low, leading to inappropriate referrals or leaving children at risk. A further indicator of the variability in local practice is the fact that the rates of re-referrals to children’s social care in 2014–15 ranged from 6% to 46% across England and children with repeat child protection plans varied from 3% to 44%. There are also particular concerns that children with disabilities are not getting the support they need as protecting, rather than helping, children can be a priority locally. The Department was funding work to look at the assessment process for disabled children. By 2020, the Department wants all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, to receive the same high quality care and support.
The Department should set out for the Committee, by March 2017, how it will ensure minimum standards so that local authorities clearly understand best practice in services and all children have equal access to high-quality services.
The Department should also examine whether children with disabilities should have a different pathway of support unless there is clear evidence that child protection is an issue.
2.The Department lacks a credible plan for improving the system by 2020. Despite its ambition to improve services by 2020, the Department has few plausible plans to achieve this and only a high level, but undefined, target to reduce the number of local authorities failing to protect children. The Department’s reform programme lacks detail on what will be achieved and by when. Indeed, the Department’s awareness of the scale of the challenge was also frustratingly vague, seeming to be more reliant on guesswork rather than informed quantification. Child protection is, according to the Department, its most important area of responsibility, yet the senior official in the Department responsible for children’s services does not work on the area full-time.
Recommendation: The Department should, year on year, set out detailed plans, including a timetable and resources, for how it will work with local authorities to transform services by 2020.
3.Ofsted inspections do not provide sufficient and up-to-date information on service quality. The Department relies solely on Ofsted inspections to measure the quality of local authority services. Ofsted had planned to complete its current inspection cycle of children’s services by the end of 2016. However, this goal has now slipped and it will not now complete its inspection of all local authorities until the end of 2017. The Department therefore only has partial information on the quality of services across the whole system, and some local authorities have not been inspected since 2011. The Department told us that Ofsted was under-resourced and faced challenges in recruiting inspectors. The Department was content not to challenge Ofsted on speeding up the inspection process. However, in 2015 Ofsted’s Chief Inspector told the previous Committee that he would be quite happy to inspect children’s services on a more regular basis, should he be asked to do so by the Department.
Recommendation: The Department should work with Ofsted and set out for the Committee by March 2017 what steps it will take to get more timely assurance on the quality of children’s services.
4.The Department allows problems with services to go too far before it intervenes. The Department only intervenes in a local authority when Ofsted judges that the authority’s services are Inadequate because the authority has failed to protect children or left them at risk. However, it is not good enough to wait for an Ofsted inspection (this will be too late for many of the vulnerable children who need support) and shows that the Department is far too complacent. Ofsted’s inspections are not data-led or risk-based, even though the Department holds information which might indicate difficulties in delivering local services. For example, since 2014 the Department has collected data on the number of agency staff and staff turnover. In 2014–15, over 5,000 of the staff working in children’s social care, 16% of all staff, were employed through agencies. The Department accepts there is some correlation between its data on children’s social workers and Ofsted’s judgements of local authority’s services ratings: in authorities judged Good, the average rate of agency staff was 7%, compared with 22% in authorities judged Inadequate. However, the Department does not use its workforce information, or other lead indicators it has been collecting, such as on re-referral rates and repeat child protection plans, to anticipate problems and intervene before services fail. The Department has, however, accepted the National Audit Office’s recommendation to develop its intervention regime so that it uses lead indicators more effectively.
Recommendation: The Department should speed up its use of leading indicators to intervene in local authorities before they fail. It should write to us by March 2017 explaining how it will monitor services in real time and what appropriate support and intervention it will provide before the stage where a local authority is found to be Inadequate by Ofsted.
5.Six years after the Munro review the Department still has no evidence on what works. The Department recognised services needed to improve back in 2010 and commissioned the Munro review of the child protection system. The Department has now announced that it plans to open a What Works centre but not until 2017 at the earliest. It told us that such a centre had not been set up before because “best practice has not been there to be mined and disseminated”. However, only 23% of local authorities are judged to provide Good services by Ofsted, which means there is limited evidence of good practice across the system. It also means there is still limited capacity for good authorities to support those that need to improve. The Department has also set up the Innovation Programme and the Partners in Practice initiative to help identify, evaluate and share good practice but the Department has not yet fully evaluated either Programme. We were staggered that the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services told us that he believed that the golden age of social work had been in the early 1980s when evidence of serious and systemic abuses from that era is evident.
Recommendation: The Department should set out for the Committee its plans for evaluation, dissemination and embedding good practice.
6.The Department has not done enough to attract sufficient people to the social work profession. Despite some excellent practice, there is a problem with the competency and capability of too many social workers and not enough good people to help improve services faster. The Department estimates that at least a third of local authorities need to improve their social workforce at all levels and is putting more resources into training and raising the skills of social workers. The Department has two training programmes to recruit new social workers and graduate social workers but has only recruited 770 so far to the new schemes. The Department has also developed new knowledge and skills statements for all levels of social worker and plans to assess and accredit each social worker against these statements by 2020. So far, only 1,000 of 30,000 social workers have been through this process. The Department also wants local authorities to have the best possible practice leaders in place to run the day-to-day operations of children’s social care. However, the Department estimates that about a third of these leaders need further help and support, while some might not be able to do the job at all. The Department told us that the fear of being blamed when things went wrong can make it hard to recruit social workers. Many authorities rely on agency workers but having high numbers of agency staff can lead to instability for children and families and be costly.
Recommendation: The Department should set out how it will attract more high calibre people to social work and how it will ensure that training and assessment is relevant to their work.
7.The Department mishandled a clear conflict of interest after appointing the Chief Social Worker. Immediately before being employed by the Department, the Chief Social Worker was a director and shareholder in a company called Morning Lane Associates. Prior to her appointment the company had no contracts with the Department but has since won contracts worth around £2.9 million. The Chief Social Worker made it quite clear that she had a conflict of interest with Morning Lane Associates so sold her shares and resigned as a Director of the company before taking up post at the Department in 2013. The Department accepts that its subsequent management of this conflict was not good enough and would need to be better next time. The Department is tightening up arrangements for recording conflicts of interest more fully in the future. However, at the time we took evidence, the Department could still not be sure that all its senior civil servants had completed their annual declarations. The Department accepts that it should have taken alternative approaches to manage better any perception of a conflict in the award of its contract to KPMG and Morning Lane Associates for the assessment and accreditation of social workers. Instead the Department paid around £100,000 to test the Chief Social Worker’s view that the original KPMG proposal was incomplete.
The Department should write to us by the end of March 2017 setting out how it has changed its procedures, what the agreed constraints are on the Chief Social Worker’s dealings with Morning Lane Associates and how it will manage future conflicts of interest.
The Department and Cabinet Office should require much clearer declarations of interest. “A close and personal relationship” can mean many things and it is not clear to the casual reader what this means. With billions of taxpayers’ money being spent each year on contracts with the private sector, it is vital that the taxpayer and Parliament are clear about potential conflicts of interest. The Cabinet Office should report back to us by March 2017 to outline plans to standardise and clarify such declarations.
In its letter to us in March 2017, the Department should clarify what it will do to set clear guidelines for officials about conflicts of interest as the Government moves ahead with plans to outsource children’s social services to private and voluntary sector partners.
15 December 2016