1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education (the Department) and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services about children in need of help or protection.
2.Local authorities have statutory duties for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in their area and work with the police and health services, among others, to meet these duties. Children may need help or protection to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development; to prevent significant or further harm or because they are disabled. In 2014–15, local authorities reported spending £1.8 billion on children’s social work in England, an 11% increase on 2012–13. The Department is responsible for the legal and policy frameworks within which authorities operate.
3.In 2010, the Department recognised that child protection services were not good enough and commissioned the Munro review. In 2014–15, local authorities accepted 635,600 requests for services to be provided by children’s social care because of concerns about a child’s welfare. The total number of children counted as in need across the year (taking into account existing, closed and new cases) rose 13% between 2009–10 and 2014–15, from just under 695,000 to over 780,000. If an authority suspects a child is at risk of significant harm, it may need to put in place a child protection plan. In 2014–15, 62,200 children became the subject of a plan and, over the past ten years, the rate of children starting on plans has risen by 94%. By 2016, the Department recognised that the quality of work with children and families was still too inconsistent and set out further plans to improve services.
4.For assurance on the quality of services to help and protect children, the Department sets the standards against which Ofsted inspects services. Ofsted began inspecting services under a new framework in November 2013 and makes a specific judgement on the experiences and progress of children who need help or protection. In August 2016, five years after the Munro review, only 23% of local authorities reviewed by Ofsted had services for children in need which were considered to be Good. The National Audit Office reported that average spending on children’s social work in 2014–15 varied widely across England from an estimated spend of £340 per child in need in one authority to £4,970 per child in need in another. The Department told us that there was no correlation between local authorities’ spending on children in need and the quality of local authority services.
5.By 2020, the Department wants all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, to receive the same high quality care and support. However, in 2014–15 there was wide variability in local practice. In that year, the percentage of children re-referred to social services, having already been referred in the previous 12 months, varied across England from 6% in Havering to 46% in Wakefield. In the same year, the percentage of children on a child protection plan who became the subject of a plan for a second or subsequent time varied from 3% in Havering to 44% in Rutland.
6.Thresholds for access to help and protection services are not always well understood or applied consistently in different local authority areas. If thresholds are set too high, or too low, this could lead to inappropriate referrals or leave children at risk. We asked the Department what action it was taking to address inconsistent practice to ensure all local authorities provided at least a basic level of service. The Department told us that it relied on Ofsted to inspect the extent to which local authorities and Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards were setting appropriate thresholds for assessment and then intervening in line with thresholds. The Department highlighted the example of Ofsted’s inspection of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council in 2015. Ofsted had assessed the council was not applying thresholds properly in 20% to 25% of cases and the Department had intervened based on this and other evidence.
7.There is a risk that local authorities seek to protect children at the expense of helping them, particularly children with a disability. This could mean children with disabilities do not meet the threshold for help. The Chief Social Worker recognised that the Department needs to address the risk that when families just want help they are getting dragged into the child protection system. The Department told us that it was funding the Council for Disabled Children’s work with five local authorities to look at the assessment process for disabled children in need of social care services to improve the experience for these young people.
8.Child protection is, according to the Department, its most important area of responsibility. As the senior official responsible for children’s services has many responsibilities, he does not spend all of his time working on it; the official also oversees the Government’s Equalities Office and the Department’s communications. He told us that he spends about two thirds of his time on children’s services.
1 C&AG’s Report, , Session 2016–17, HC 723, 12 October 2016
2 , paras 1, 4, 5
3 , paras 2, 3, 6, 1.10
4 ; , paras 1.6, 2.2, para 2.6, Figure 9
5 , paras 1.15, 2.24, 3.10
6 ; , para 2.23
7 ; Ev Sue Gerrard Note dated 24 October 2016
15 December 2016