Funding of local authorities’ children’s services Contents

3Sustainability of current system

52.Our third chapter considers how the factors identified in Chapters 1 and 2 are impacting the long-term sustainability of services and how they may be addressed. We focus on four main elements: understanding demand, variation in spend and practice, increasing care costs and the independent sector, and the children’s social care workforce.

Understanding demand

53.As this report highlighted in Chapter 2, the number of children looked after by local authorities in England has been increasing each year for over a decade and is currently at its highest level since the Children Act 1989.109 At the same time, there have been even more significant increases in other child protection activity. For example, the number of new Child Protection Plans (CPPs) each year per child in the population had increased by 86% between 2007–08 and 2017–18 and the number of child protection investigations (also known as Section 47 enquiries) had more than doubled, increasing by 139%, over the same ten year period (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Percentage increase between 2007–08 and 2017–18 in children’s services activity per child in population

Source: ADCS, Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6, November 2018; Scrutiny Unit analysis

Lack of analysis

54.Reasons for the increased demand pressures on children’s services were widely explored in the evidence we received to our inquiry yet a lack of clarity about what is driving demand remains. The NAO report on children’s social care which was published in January 2019 found that “the Department [for Education] does not fully understand what is causing increases in demand and activity in children’s social care”. It “had not seen it as a central part of its responsibilities to understand drivers in demand” and “as a result it had little quantified analysis of the drivers of demand”. However, the report did say that in “late 2017, the Department for Education, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and HM Treasury have commissioned external research which they hope will explain demand pressures and variation by summer 2019”.110 The NAO called for the DfE to build on the modelling it carried out as part of its report “ by commissioning research into the factors that drive demand for children’s social care, using the individual child-level data that it holds”.111

55.In response to the NAO findings, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families told us:

The National Audit Office’s report is an important one, and it is a challenging report for us. [ … ] If you look at the difference from 2013 to today, one-third is population growth, one-third is unaccompanied asylum seeking children, and one-third is domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental health—the toxic trio.112113

56.We asked whether or not these factors could “explain why the number of children with child protection investigations, or indeed the number of newborn babies taken into care, has doubled in the last 10 years”. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State considered that they did but his answer referred to “numbers of looked-after children” rather than other child protection activities.114 He said that the NAO’s “criticism was around whether we are moving fast enough, in our understanding… the work we are doing in preparation for the spending review will begin to address that issue”.115 The Government acknowledged that “the drivers of statutory demand are complex”.116

Multiple factors behind increased activity

57.The NSPCC said “there is no single definitive answer as to what [is] causing the increase in the number of children in contact with the social care system”.117 The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said that in her experience the increased pressures on children’s services were caused by three factors: “retrenchment from other agencies providing services to children or their parents”; “greater awareness of the harms experienced by teenagers”; and “children’s services are supporting more adolescents [ … ] with really complex needs”.118 Adam Pemberton, Corporate Director for Strategy and Performance at Barnardo’s, agreed that there were an increasing number of children and families with needs that were “more complex and harder to meet”.119 He explained that “we are seeing many more issues of neglect, poverty, homelessness and the toxic trio, as it is known: domestic abuse, parental mental ill health or parental substance abuse … which makes the needs more complex and harder to meet”.120

58.Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive Officer of the Family Rights Group, told us that there were a range of factors driving the increases including “people struggling with deprivation”, “some cuts to preventative services” and a “shift in the way the system responds to domestic violence and neglect”.121 However, she also explained that there was an “increasingly risk-averse blame culture that permeates both the child welfare system but also the family justice system”.122 She explained how this risk averse culture contributed to increasing pressure on the system:

Social workers are often concerned that if they make a wrong judgment, they will be blamed by their managers. Managers are worried that, if the case ends up subject to court proceedings, the judge will criticise them because it did not go through the process fast enough, et cetera. All the way through there is an element that people end up looking after their own back, in a very crude sense, and passing over the risk. In doing so, they end up escalating. This is even more the case if they are not reassured that there is some service on the ground to be able to pass that family over to.123

Reductions in other public services

59.Kathy Evans, Chief Executive Officer of Children England, also considered that “there are multiple factors at play” in the increased pressures children’s services were experiencing. She explained that one aspect was “failure demand: … as difficult decisions have been made about closing services of whatever kind, the people who would otherwise have gone there do not tend to do nothing. They tend to go looking for help from whoever they might tend to get it from”. She considered that families struggling with other challenges was a factor behind the pressure on children’s services:

Many of the factors driving families either feeling anxious or having really strong presenting needs that end up being a concern for children’s services are being driven by homelessness and the housing crisis, DWP reforms to benefits and income, the gig economy, insecure work and low pay. These all feed into the experience of a child in their family, in ways that generate concern and a need for help that was not there before.124

60.Professor Jones agreed that cuts in public services and financial support for families from 2010–11 meant that “more work is piling into children’s social services”.125 ADCS said that “we cannot overlook cumulative impact of austerity on the most vulnerable families and the links between deprivation, poverty and safeguarding activity in terms of less support being available earlier on combined with the stresses and strains of dealing with insecure work, poor quality housing and welfare reforms”.126 The Centre for Outcomes of Care agreed that “the austerity of the last 12 years has increased pressures on low income families”.127

61.Professor Jones also highlighted that the “focus on neglect has been increasing over recent years”. He noted that 48% of child protection plans are because of concerns about the neglect of children and 38% are due to concerns about emotional abuse. His evidence stated:

Concerns about poor parenting leading to neglect and emotional abuse which are the types of issues which would have been more likely–and often better–responded to by seeking to work with families to improve the care of children. These are the services which have been dramatically cut since 2010.128

Risk averse and anxious system

62.Another factor Professor Jones cited was the response of the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) and local authorities to high profile cases. “If we go back 10 years to 2008 and 2009, and the death of Peter Connelly, with the Baby P story breaking and the way it was shaped in the media, there was an instant response across local authorities, not just in England but across the UK, escalating more work to be defined as child protection”. He noted that in response to the case of Baby P and its rating of Haringey, Ofsted’s inspections and terminology became tougher so that “local authorities were always chasing after good Ofsted judgment, but unsuccessfully”.129 However, he acknowledged that “it is positive that Ofsted is now re-positioning itself as focussed more on development and improvement with councils rather than one-off inspections and gradings”.130

63.Others commented on the culture of children’s services. Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, told us “it is an anxious system. It focuses on immediate risk, and I would prefer it to look at outcomes”.131 The Minister for Local Government also commented on “risk aversion” noting that there was, in some local authorities, “a culture where people want to avoid being blamed”. He went on: “They are going to act in a more risk-averse manner, which is understandable but obviously has implications for the amount of activity around investigations”.132 He considered that this was less of a problem where there was “a strong culture of leadership and a more confident authority”.133

64.Professor Lauren Devine, Director of the Social Justice Research Group at the University of West of England, explained “based on my research findings and the data… demand at this point is equally driven by the system itself”. She went on to add:

There is no research evidence to tell us that we have more child abuse, although we do have undetected child abuse. What we have is a situation where, inevitably, at each stage, the system will claw more people in, keep them in and elevate them through the stages, rather than allowing them out again. That is the heart of the problem, in my view.134

65.Written evidence from the Social Justice Research Group provided further details: “The longitudinal data shows increasing numbers of children referred into the system, but a reduced child abuse detection ratio from 24.1% to 7.4%. This is deeply concerning against a backdrop of increasing number of children at each stage of the system and reports of a consequential CSC [children’s social care] budget crisis”.135 Professor Devine considered that “[there] is an increasing statutory guidance conflation of how children in need and children at risk of abuse are being progressed through the system” and “that, in a risk-averse climate, they are more likely to keep families in, even though the reason for the referral is not suspected child abuse”.136 She explained:

We have access to the Ministry of Justice files, giving us full clearance to see exactly why these cases are progressing. With the exception of very, very notable and very rare cases, mostly these are not parents abusing their children, but their children travel all the way through to the end stage. They cannot get out. You can almost see, palpably, the fear of the local authority in allowing them out and being criticised. That is probably the best example I can give.137

Professor Devine called for this to be addressed through a review of the statutory guidance, Working together to safeguard children. She said that “would bring costs down almost immediately and make the system leaner, more efficient and fit for purpose”.138 However, this was disputed by Stuart Gallimore of ADCS who said that revising the guidance would be a distraction and not “take us into a world of helping more families and saving money”.139

66.Concerns about social workers feeling unable to “de-escalate” cases was also made by Ruth Allen, Chief Executive Officer of BASW:

Enabling a working culture and a working context where social workers can make the best possible decisions to try to de-escalate is absolutely essential, at whatever stage you are working with a family and a young person. We hear a lot about the fact that social workers feel very constrained in that.140

She said that “we should be concerned that we have so many children coming into the care system” and should “think about whether we have a system that is able to support struggling families well enough, and whether that is driving the increase as well”.141

67.Professor Jones considered that local authorities were “trying to hold work off as much as I can now, because I just do not have the capacity to take it all on”. He did though agree that some child protection activity was increasing due to lack of resources in other areas:

The public at large think child protection is about children who have been beaten up and abused, or sexually assaulted. It is not. If you look at the figures, the growth in child protection work has been about children who have been neglected and children who have been emotionally abused. In the past, these are families that we would have worked with not as child protection concerns but as families that needed assisting. Because the assistance that might have been available has been cut back, there is nothing much you can do, apart from escalating it as a child protection concern.142

Cathy Ashley of the Family Rights Group agreed that the current system could encourage social workers to game the system as the only way of ensuring that families received help:

In order to be able to access a particular service, you have to show that a parent, for example, not only suffers from some elements of learning disability or mental health issues, but actually that they have reached this threshold. A whole sort of game gets played, because you have to prove it.143

Reductions in early help services

68.As well as the escalation of cases to child protection concerns, many commentators, including 83% of local authorities,144 have said that the reduction in non-statutory early help services, as considered in Chapter 1, is playing a role in increasing demand because it is “storing up problems for the future” and may be a “false economy”.145 ADCS said that “clear, preventive work to manage demand is the only way to secure a sustainable fiscal future of local government but most importantly, this investment is the best chance we have to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the most disadvantaged children”.146 A recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children supported this view, finding that social workers and teachers “were seeing a shift to later and more complex interventions” as a result of reductions in early intervention.147 A report by five children’s charities explained why early intervention services are important:

Statutory services are a vital function for any local authority. But they reflect the need to step in because problems have escalated to crisis point. In comparison to early intervention, these late intervention services, aren’t designed to try and spot problems early. In addition to being more costly, by the time a family has reached crisis point, they are likely to have experienced really difficult challenges that are detrimental to a child, young person or parent. This makes investing in early intervention services all the more valuable to local authorities and families alike.148

The Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills agreed stating:

Reductions in funding in other areas, such as preventative and wider children’s services, mean that LAs are less able to intervene early, before young people need statutory services. The evidence suggests that these cuts to youth and other services are a false economy, simply leading to greater pressures elsewhere.149

69.Nevertheless, the Government said that “there is no clear, conclusive evidence to prove that a greater spend on early help reduces the need for children to be looked after”.150 The Institute for Government (IfG) and the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) agreed, stating that “the overall quantitative evidence on effectiveness of preventative services is mixed, so we cannot be certain of their effects on demand for children’s social care”.151 NAO analysis supports this view. It found the closing of Sure Start Centres, thereby reducing preventative services, had “not had any consequential increases in child protection plans”.152 However, it should be noted that the NAO said that “this analysis addresses the narrow question of the impact of closures on child protection activity and does not comment on any wider value such centres may have”.153 Indeed, Kathy Evans of Children England described this assessment as “a very simplistic snapshot”.154

70.The Social Justice Research Group questioned the value of early intervention: “Evidence shows that despite a massive fiscal, policy and ideological drive towards early intervention, the result is the relentless creation of new clients (service users) who require services (privately provided) to apparently head off abuse. The data, however, does not support this approach as successful”.155 It added that “the challenge will be to ensure that funded non-statutory services prove they provide return on investment by an objectively robust measure, that they are demonstrably improving lives and not (as an unintended by-product) causing harm”.156

Societal expectations

71.Yvette Stanley, National Director for Children’s Social Care at Ofsted, also considered that society’s expectations had shifted over time and were a factor in increased demand:

How one would expect us to respond to child sexual exploitation, broader child exploitation or even something like domestic abuse is different now from how society and decision-makers expected local authorities to respond to those issues 15 or 20 years ago.157

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, agreed, saying that “they [children at risk of abuse or sexual exploitation] were ignored before, and now there is an expectation that they will be supported”.158 This point was also echoed by Stuart Gallimore of ADCS:

Sadly, and with some shame, I can reflect back on a time when my profession would talk about child prostitutes. We would talk about young people who were not old enough to give consent as in some way choosing to engage in a lifestyle that we now look back on with shame. We have seen that in terms of a number of significant inquiries as well. We are now intervening in the lives of some young people who do not particularly want our intervention, but we should always have been intervening.159

Online survey findings

72.As part of the inquiry, the Committee reached out to people working in children’s services through an online survey. Just over 100 people completed the survey - around half were frontline social workers and the rest were senior leaders or in “other” roles such as local government finance professionals. The group were self-selecting therefore the results may not be representative of the views of the sector as a whole. Nevertheless, the results do provide insight into the views of some of the staff who work in children’s services. Regarding the reason for increased pressure on statutory children’s services, the reason most often selected was reductions in wider public services closely followed by reductions in the non-statutory children’s services - over 90% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that these reductions had been a contributory factor. However, a majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with all of the reasons. This is consistent with other evidence we heard, referred to in our earlier section on ‘Multiple factors driving demand’, which cited multiple factors which have caused pressures on children’s services to increase (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Reasons for increased pressure on children’s services - survey responses

Source: Committee survey; Scrutiny Unit analysis

Box 1: Survey comments on why demand for children’s services is increasing

The survey also provided the opportunity for social workers to provide comments - some of them commented on the reasons for increasing demands on the service. Respondent explanations included:

  • “The pressure on CSC [Children’s Social Care] has increased due to a number of factors including, immigration, social housing, cuts to the welfare state, the cost of private proceedings and the complexity of gang related behaviours”;
  • “Austerity policies are creating more human need”;
  • “Children’s Social Care and, increasingly, specialist SEND [Special Educational Needs and Disability] services are developing into the local authority equivalents of Accident and Emergency departments. Services of ‘last resort’ are becoming viewed as the only available option for partners, families and communities. Not only is underfunding of non-statutory services and pressure on schools budgets leading to failure to intervene earlier, it is arguably acting to escalate the complexity of need, seeding long-term issues for children and the sustainability of services”;
  • “If we don’t invest in early help then more children end up at the statutory end of child protection and or becoming looked after children”; and
  • “Quite simply put there are too many children and families coming through the door - families that should (and would once upon a time) have been supported by non-statutory services or community groups, preventing a need for social care involvement”.

73.The Committee heard many factors were at play in accounting for the record numbers of children in care and the significant increases in other child protection activity. Without a better understanding of demand it is impossible for local authorities and the Government to anticipate care needs and budget effectively – the key to long-term sustainability.

74.While we welcome the Government’s efforts to understand demand by conducting research we are concerned that it has only recently started seriously looking into this issue. We are particularly concerned that the numbers of newborns taken into care has more than doubled in the last ten years. Understanding the reasons behind the record numbers of children in care is of utmost importance if the Government wants to bring these numbers down.

75.The Government should share its research data anonymously with local authorities in order that they can use it to inform their budget projections. By December 2019, the Government should report to the Committee whether there is scope to reduce demand nationally, and, if so, the Government should have assessed the merits of various methods to reduce demand by then as well. Where there isn’t scope to reduce demand, for example if increased need necessitates it, local government must be appropriately and flexibly resourced.

Variation in spend and practice

Variation in spending

76.The varied practices and spending levels in children’s services were raised by a number of witnesses during our inquiry. The Minister for Local Government told us “the variation in spend is very significant in children’s services, more so than you find in other areas of local government spend”.160 The Minister referred to the NAO report which said that “the amount spent by local authority per child in need episode ranged between £566 and £5,166 per year across different local authorities” and that “there is no link between spending per child in need and quality of services as assessed by Ofsted”. The report did caveat its findings by noting “some of this variation [in spending] could be attributable to differences in the way that individual local authorities define each episode”.161 The Minister agreed that variation in spending was “an extraordinarily wide range” and said that “there are some people who are able to use that money better… we should be figuring out how to spread that to everybody”.162 The NAO criticised the DfE for having “little quantified analysis” regarding the “reasons for variation between authorities” and noted that “it still does not fully understand… why there is such wide variation between local authorities in their children’s social care activity and costs”. PAC agreed that the DfE “cannot explain why there is so much variation” and went on to remark that the Department “has not set out the level of variation between local authorities that it considers to be acceptable”.163 Nonetheless, the NAO also noted that the DfE, MHCLG and HM Treasury had commissioned external research to look in more depth into the reasons for variations.164

77.A number of contributors to our inquiry expressed caution about reading too much into the variation in spending. Phil Harding, an independent expert, noted that house prices varied significantly across the country: “before I came here I was just looking at house prices. I got a range from £140,000 to £3.365 million. Your costs do vary across the country for a whole variety of reasons”.165 He said that he had had done some analysis into “looked-after children costs and safeguarding costs”. He explained that, after excluding atypical outliers such as Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, he “was left with a range of costs for looked-after children between £190,000 and £383,000, which is about double. It was much the same in terms of safeguarding. It was between £112,000 and £218,000”. He considered that “if you probe a bit more … you will find that the variation is not that great”.166

78.The LGA highlighted a report from Newton Europe which they had commissioned to look into this issue.167 This report found that “approximately 50 per cent of the variation in spend per head of 0–25 population seen nationally across all authorities can be explained by just five demographic, economic and geographic factors all largely outside of the control of councils, and certainly outside the control of children’s services”.168 The most significant single factor was levels of deprivation which explained 31% of the variation.169 The LGA also noted that the research had “highlighted the impact of inconsistencies in financial reporting” and “found that reported spend changed by up to 12 per cent in either direction”.170 The LGA said that “variation in what authorities spend on children’s services (per head of 0–25 population) is inevitable, it is not logical to expect authorities to converge on a single ‘right’ value of spend”.171 It considered that the “scope to reduce spending variation through practice changes in relation to looked after children’s services … is small, accounting for just 13 per cent of variation, and concluded that even those changes that could be made would often require investment to achieve”.172 The submission from the LGA also noted that the differing approaches taken by local authorities would affect levels of spend:

Some consistently high performing authorities may feel more confident in the ability of their workforce to manage risk outside the formal child protection system, for example, while areas which have recently undergone a difficult Ofsted inspection may adopt a more risk averse attitude as they focus on driving immediate service improvements. This will impact upon cost, yet both are valid approaches to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children.173

79.Children England also expressed concerns about comparing average costs which it considered were often beyond a local authority’s control:

National policy debate has recently focussed on the apparent disparity between how much a local authority spends on children’s services, and the outcomes for local children… Costs vary beyond a council’s control, especially according to levels of deprivation, and the interaction of children’s needs with other local factors like health, housing, and immigration status make linking spending on children’s services to overall outcomes for children challenging at best and a dangerous distraction at worst.174

This point was echoed by Hampshire County Council who described the “suggestion… that higher spenders should be able to reduce their budgets to match those of lower spending authorities” as “misguided”.175

80.PAC called for DfE to address and consider the variation in spending by setting out by December 2019 the following:

The Committee also called for the Department to “set out by December 2019 the thresholds it deems acceptable for (i) rate of children in need episodes, and (ii) amount spent per child in need episode”.177

Variation in practice

81.We also heard that as well as the differing levels of spending across the country the practices of children’s services departments were also highly variable. Cathy Ashley of the Family Rights Group told us “there is significant variation across the country”. She provided examples:

In the north-west you often get care orders at home made. You just do not have that down in London. There is a certain sort of culture in relation to pre-proceedings work. Again, you see some very significant variations. In some local authorities, exploration about how to support a child to stay with parents or, if not with parents, with wider family is done before you get to the pre-proceedings stage. In other local authorities, none of that work has been done until you get to that point. If that work has not been done until you get to that point, the danger is that you end up having very fast decisions and no proper exploration about the support. We see that particularly with, for example, care leavers who have had babies where no or very little work has been done whilst those young parents-to-be are pregnant, and then you end up with fast removal.178

She added that the differences between local authorities meant describing “what the system [as a whole] is like is difficult, because of the fact that it is extremely variable”.179

82.Professor Devine also highlighted the wide variation in practice across local authorities, noting that “there are 150 local authorities that are pretty much all, at this point in time, free to innovate and do things in the way that they see fit, as long as they follow the statutory guidance”.180 She considered that “there needs to be more targeted thinking at the central level about how funds are being spent at a local level”,181 and that “there is a lot of control left to each local authority and very little central understanding”.182

83.Other witnesses had a slightly different take on the variations in practice across the country. Yvette Stanley of Ofsted told us “we have to be really careful not to endorse a particular methodology. There are all sorts of practice models out there”.183 Councillor Perry, representing the LGA, explained:

The LGA’s position, which I would support, is that local authorities will know their area. They will work out what they think is the appropriate mix in their area. Clearly, each child is different and a care package has to be devised that is in the best interests of that child. I am not so sure a national prescriptive standard and service would work. What might be quite effective in the north-west may not be quite so effective in London or in other parts of the country.184

84.Data published by the DfE shows regional variations between the numbers of children being looked after as at 31 March 2018 and how this has changed since 2014 (Table 2).185 The North East and North West have the highest numbers of children in care and these are also the regions where the numbers of children have increased most. In contrast London and the East of England have much lower rates of children in care per 10,000 children and the numbers have reduced between 2014 and 2018.

Table 2: Regional variation in numbers of children looked after and changes between 2014 and 2018

Number of children looked in 2018 after per 10,000 children

Change since 2014




North East




North West




Yorkshire and the Humber




East Midlands




West Midlands




East of England








South East




South West




Source: DfE, Local authority tables: children looked after in England including adoption 2017 to 2018, November 2018; Scrutiny Unit analysis

85.Research from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory on the numbers of newborns taken into care also highlighted regional variations.186 The report said that “care proceedings at birth has been described as a severe form of intervention in family life by some judges”. It went on to note that the incidence rate of newborns being taken into care had more than doubled in less than 10 years and also said that “marked differences in incidence rates for newborns across regions and over time were found”. The report also found that “the North West and Yorkshire and Humber recorded the highest incidence rates” of babies taken into care and that “the greatest proportional increases were in the North East, North West and South West”. The report also considered variation at a local authority level. It noted that:

A minority of local authorities departed significantly from the national average of 35 newborns per 10,000 live births. The range in rates for the outliers (local authorities significantly above the expected average) in 2016 was 55 newborns per 10,000 live births in the general population to 159, per 10,000.

The report concluded that “further analysis is needed in order to better understand the reasons for this variation”.187

86.There is very limited public information available surrounding the circumstances under which children and newborns are taken into care. This makes it hard to scrutinise decisions made by councils and therefore very difficult to assess whether regional variations in activity and practice are appropriate. In one recent case a journalist had to crowdfund a campaign to overturn a reporting restriction order. The order had sought to prevent the media reporting on a council’s application (later overturned by the Court of Appeal) to have an infant taken into care and then adopted.188 This case highlights the risk of inappropriate care and adoption orders.189 However, the lack of transparency means that it is very difficult to assess how widespread these problems are.190

87.Limited variation in spend on children’s social care and differences in the numbers of children taken into care may be expected but the high level of divergence is concerning and suggests the practice of local authorities is very different, although the reasons why are unclear. While we acknowledge that an over simplistic comparison of spend per child is unhelpful, there must be lessons to be learnt for the sector as a whole from understanding such variation further. We welcome the Government’s efforts to better understand what is happening in individual local authorities but it could be doing more.

88.We therefore urge the Government to implement the first recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee’s 88th Report of Session 2017–19, which calls for the Department for Education to publish information concerning variation by December 2019. The National Audit Office should also independently continue to look into the reasons behind variation in spending and activity. While reducing spend per child must not be a goal in itself, we believe best practice that emerges from this analysis should be disseminated nationally. The Government should also consider standardising financial reporting to make comparisons easier and provide greater transparency on cases of children being taken into care.

Increasing care costs and the independent sector


89.Around half of spending on children’s services is for looked after children (see Figure 1 in Chapter 1) and a large amount of this spending is now with private providers. Figure 5 shows that in 2017–18 local authorities spent around £0.9 billion on privately run residential children’s homes (65% of their spending on residential homes) and around £0.7 billion on independent fostering agencies (44% of their spending on foster care).

Figure 5: Spending on provision of services for “looked after children” in 2017–18 (£ billions)

Source: DfE, LA and school expenditure 2017 to 2018: Main tables; Scrutiny Unit analysis

90.Concerns were raised about local authorities’ reliance on private providers and the cost and quality of some of this care. Professor Jones told the Committee: “at the moment, 40 local authorities do not provide any residential childcare themselves; they buy it all in the market”. He considered that the overdependence on the private sector meant “the market is now escalating the price [of residential care] because they can afford to, because they have local authorities over a barrel”. He also considered that “the same is true of independent foster care agencies”.191

91.Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said that there was a shortage of places for children in care and explained that “when there is a shortage of places and an increase in demand, there is an escalation of costs”.192 Highlighting the issue of high cost residential care, she relayed the comments of a director of children’s services who told her “that they are now quite used to paying £4,000 a week for a place [in residential care]”.193

She went on to provide an example of some of the challenges that directors of children’s services can face in finding places for children:

One director of children’s services told me that they needed to pay for a place a month in advance. The placement broke down on day one and they had to get another one and pay a month in advance. By day three they were on to their third one and clearly two months out of budget. This is at a position where it needs national intervention. There needs to be a rebalancing in the costs of residential care, because every one of the councils I have spoken to has raised that as an issue. There will be others where there is variance in independent foster care and local in house provision. There will be all sorts of reasons why a council does not have that in-house provision and needs to pay, sometimes, three times as much for independent provision.194

92.Newcastle City Council conducted a benchmarking exercise on behalf of Core Cities UK, an organisation which brings together ten of the largest cities in the UK, excluding London. This found that the average cost per looked after child was £37,824 in 2017–18, ranging from £50,719 to £32,986.195 Devon County Council reported an estimated cost per looked after child of £52,000 for 2018–19, representing a 30% increase on the average cost of two years previously.196 This was consistent with comments from the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who said that “several councils have reported to us that spend on placements for children in care has increased by 30% over the past 2 years”.197 We note that the costs quoted above may include both in-house and independent provision.

93.We also received evidence which clearly set out the increasing costs of independent provision. The written submission from the Liverpool City Region local authorities highlighted “service price escalation, much of which far exceeds reasonable inflationary cost growth”. This evidence submission provided details of the prices on a framework contract for local authorities in the North West region for 2018 to 2020. Contract price increases for residential care were particularly stark. The average annual price for a child in standard residential care from April 2018 was £173,212 - an increase of £48,516 or 39% compared with the price on the previous framework contract which ran from 2014 to 2018. Specialist residential care costs on the contract were now £214,000 - an increase of £47,892 or 29% compared with the price of the old contract.198

94.Phil Harding referred to an independent review of foster care in England for the DfE that had been published in February 2018.199 He noted that the review had found that that costs of independent foster agencies (IFAs) were generally higher than in-house provision and that “the difference is about £300 a week, which is significant”.200 One of Phil Harding’s written submissions provided further detail. This noted that the cost of an IFA was £798 a week, £323 or 68% higher than in-house local authority foster care. The submission noted that “there can be a lot of reasons for the difference–for example the children may have higher needs, both the NAO and the Foster Care review supported a review and improvement in existing commissioning practice”.201

95.The Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) acknowledged that costs had increased but argued that they have risen in line with growing costs for providers, citing rising utility costs and additional Government requirements such as automatic pension involvement and a higher national minimum wage.202 CSDG, which represents private providers, stated that it was a misconception that independent care placements are more expensive than in-house services:

There is a prevailing, inaccurate, belief among local authorities and sector commentators that in-house services are cheaper than independent sector provision. Direct comparisons are difficult as in-house foster carer fees are just one element of the real cost of a placement while an independent sector overall fee is a total, all-inclusive cost including return on investment, risk, and training costs.

These inaccurate cost perceptions are also due to the specialist care offered by the independent sector, particularly for children with the most complex needs, which local authorities are often unable to provide directly and naturally comes with associated cost implications…

All our members’ allowance rates are set at least at the national minimum fostering allowance, and often allowances are increased to reflect the specialist care required to meet the complex needs of many of the young people we care for. This is similarly reflected in pay for care and education staff.203

Lack of supply and choice

96.A number of witnesses highlighted how the lack of supply in the sector also affects the placement of children. Yvette Stanley of Ofsted told us “the issue for local authorities is that, more often than they would like, it is about the thing that is available rather than the best provision for that child”.204 Allan Madeley, Commissioning Co-ordinator for Liverpool City Region local authorities (LCR), told the Committee:

In just over two years, they [authorities on Merseyside] have increased the use of independent residential care across the six by 41%. That is another 101 children in independent residential care. The average that has been paid within that region—about £3,300 a week, give or take—has added an extra £17 million on to placement commissioned budget there.205

97.Allan Madeley of LCR further considered that the principal reason that these authorities had placed 101 more children in residential care was due to “stagnation within the foster care market”. He noted that in the independent sector the number of foster carers was down by 239 since 2016. He went on to argue that:

I guarantee, without any hesitation today, that if that market had at least broken even in number, there would not be another 101 children placed in residential care. What we are talking about here is unnecessary escalation. It is four times as expensive to place a child in residential as it is with an independent provider, and six or seven times as much as it is to place a child within a local authority’s fostering service.206

98.Allan Madeley also told us that the incentives for independent providers of children’s services were not always aligned with those of local authorities. For example, independent foster agency acquisition of smaller rivals made commercial sense for providers but could lead to fewer options for local authorities and allow providers to dictate terms.207 He also noted that there was potential for a conflict of interest from private providers of residential care when a decision is made to take a child out of residential care. He said that the “efficacy is challenging on the provider side” and explained that he had experienced “what are probably perceived to be unnecessary delays in supporting a young person transitioning from residential care back into a family-based placement” which made him “question the motives of a provider”.208


99.Some of the witnesses also said that the lack of choice meant the quality of provision was not always considered. Dr Miriam Silver, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and an Associate Research Fellow at University College London, told us that “a lot of the placing decision is not about quality; it is about supply and demand, unfortunately”.209 She also considered that it was “a real challenge for Ofsted in trying to inspect provision and make judgments about the degree to which this placement really understands this child’s needs and is trying to meet and address them versus the degree to which they are just providing a roof, transport and some food” as well as noting that “when certain private providers get homes that are not doing well, they close, rebrand and reopen them”.210 Professor Devine also considered that “if you are a head of commissioning for a local authority and you are looking at tenders, you are not necessarily in the best position to understand the quality of the service”.211

100.According to Ofsted, the overall difference in quality in services run by local authorities and by private providers “is not materially different”. Yvette Stanley of Ofsted told us that it had found that:

The profile for the private sector is no different from the charitable sector or the local-authority sector. The quality is similar but, as we mentioned in our annual report, we see cases where smaller chains go through the instability that a local authority has, and then we have to take enforcement action and sadly close a home or a number of homes.212

101.Andrew Isaac of CSDG, which represents independent providers, told us that “97% of CSDG members’ [fostering] facilities are all “good” or “outstanding”. On any framework that you have to be on, you have to have a minimum Ofsted of ‘good’”.213 Jonathan Stanley, Chief Executive Officer of ICHA, added that “unless a provider is providing good outcomes, they will not survive. It is as bleak or as bald as that”.214

Making improvements

102.As evidenced above, many of the witnesses considered that the market for provision of care for looked after children was not working well. Improving supply in the market was often presented as key to addressing concerns and making funding more sustainable.215 Dr Silver told the Committee:

One of the biggest areas of scope for changing spend is in being able to generate more placement options. If we could make fostering a really attractive option to people, if we could encourage more providers to provide a greater variety of children’s homes, there would be less supply and demand decision-making in situations where we need a placement for this child from today and the only options are X, Y and Z.216

103.In order to improve supply in the market, Allan Madeley of LCR explained that the Liverpool City Region had been doing work looking at how to “incubate and grow a new, localised micro market of providers, particularly ethical-based providers... community interest companies, social enterprises, trusts, mutuals and charitable incorporated organisations”.217 He said “it is important for authorities to really get to grips with and shape their local market, to get a provider set and mix that works for them”.218 ICHA suggested that local authorities could be doing more to shape the market in saying “despite the highest levels of demand and placement searching by local authorities reported in any survey to date, there was almost no strategic procurement activity in the year targeting the establishment of new capacity for identified needs”.219 Jonathan Stanley of ICHA elaborated that “what we need to improve it is a strategy. We have no national, regional or local strategy. We need a plan on all three levels”.220 He called for local authorities to undertake need assessments using national defined criteria, to aggregate the data and share with private providers so that they have evidence for a business case.221 PAC called for DfE to set out by December 2019 “how it will work with local authorities to manage the supply of high quality and cost-effective residential care and match this to demand”.222

104.In regard to increasing supply of foster carers, Allan Madeley of LCR said that we “need to create a shared, national environment that supports the growth of carers”. He suggested that local authorities could learn from the independent sector, saying that “local authorities certainly can work perhaps more extensively on the process side of recruitment. That is where you see a slick approach on the commercial independent side that perhaps some of the local authorities have not always been able to replicate themselves”.223 Stuart Gallimore of ADCS said that “the best advocates for your local authority fostering service will be your foster carers” so they should be used in recruitment. He also said that foster carers need to be supported throughout the process and feel valued.224 The Minister for Local Government agreed that there is a role for involving foster families in the recruitment of more foster carers. He also said that local authorities should consider working regionally and creating a culture of appreciation.225

105.We heard from Kathy Evans of Children England that a national care bank should be established to conduct procurement on behalf of local authorities nationally.226 She suggested that it could do so “on an open book basis [as] that would enable the proper scrutiny of their pricing, of their shareholder fee withdrawal, and of whether or not their private equity financing arrangements are actually an acceptable risk for the public”.227 ADCS said exploring whether such a model could work would be a “worthwhile endeavour” if “the government and indeed wider society remains comfortable with the extraction of ever larger profit margins from the care of children and providers of vital care services being bought and sold on the open market”.228 While not commenting directly on the value of the proposal, Ofsted noted that such a proposal would mean “needs assessments would be located locally with the funding and associated financial risks held centrally … it might cause substantial turbulence for all the parties affected and any destabilising of social care would be a concern”.229

106.We also heard a variety of other potential improvements. Adam Pemberton of Barnardo’s called for “those responsible for commissioning to think about how they are joining up children’s services, health services and adult services”, arguing that councils should approach commissioning creatively and holistically.230 This view was partly shared by Yvette Stanley of Ofsted who said health was a “really important partner” in commissioning.231 Allan Madeley of LCR endorsed “a greater level of accountability, visibility and regulation into the commercial aspects of providers in the children’s sector”.232 CSDG called for “a commissioning approach that is needs not cost-based, via the development of a National Outcomes Framework that benchmarks all providers (local authority and independent) on value, quality, cost and outcomes to support effective outcomes-based commissioning”.233

Private profit from children’s services

107.ADCS’s comment above in paragraph 105 regarding the appropriateness of profit-making from children’s social care was also raised by other stakeholders in the course of our inquiry, with some witnesses expressing significant concerns.234 Professor Jones told us that “the privatisation of children’s social services has become sizeable and significant … hundreds of millions of pounds are now being taken out of children’s social services as profits by private companies and distant venture capitalists”.235 An article in the Financial Times in January 2019 explained why this may be the case for independent fostering agencies: “fostering businesses are resilient to political change and financial squeezes, so a current popular choice with investors”.236 Professor Jones elaborated that while there is a place for specialist providers, there is no advantage in the current process, whereby “the motivation of people in terms of providing that service is to keep the costs as low as they can to generate as much of a profit as they can”.237 ADCS advocated for a “review of the ability of organisations and individuals to generate significant profits from the care of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in the country, particularly when set against a decade of year-on-year budget reductions for local authorities”.238

108.The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, described a non-profit making clause, which could prohibit or limit profits, as “very enticing” but told us that “the main drawback with it is that we are where we are and we already have a shortage of places. We would fall over if we did not have that private sector within it”.239 Kathy Evans of Children England agreed:

The reality is that for thousands of children in foster care and in residential care, they are currently cared for in a private sector establishment. We are nowhere near having the capacity with which to say we will drive out the private sector tomorrow …

In the immediate term, we cannot afford to just decide on principle no profit and then wonder what happens to the children. Many private companies are providing essential care for children right now.240

109.Jonathan Stanley of ICHA agreed that there is a “scarcity of supply in residential care”.241 He said that “anything we do has to be increasing supply rather than decreasing it. If it is the case that we have overseas investment, it is coming in for a purpose; it is coming in to deliver care. Yes, there may well be a repayment going out beyond these shores, but if we want to do it ourselves, let us think of an internal British way of being able to finance social care sustainably”.242 A report by ICHA disputed the level of profit-making in the sector, stating that “providers find it difficult to make returns on investment in this sector because of its volatility and the rigid price control of councils”.243 Stanley also said that while overall 41% of children’s home providers recorded a lower profit last year, 51% of smaller providers recorded a lower profit. He explained that “that is really important, because most of our provision is small providers that only have one or two homes”. He added that reserves were either “static or in decline”.244

110.Councillor Perry, representing the LGA, drew attention to the fact that just because a care provider is not-for-profit does not meant that it is necessarily high-performing:

From a personal point of view, I have always said, “Be very careful of saying you will only deal with a non-profit-making organisation”. I can run any organisation that does not make a profit. That does not necessarily mean it is a good organisation delivering good-value services. One wants to be on the lookout there. Above all, to the point I made earlier, flexibility and a mixed economy are important. There will be a case for private providers, and definitely a case for the local authority to be providing itself.245

111.The Government shared the pragmatism described above, saying that “if we attack the private sector, then the unintended consequences of that could be far worse”.246 The Minister for Local Government went on to say that “if you were going to move to a system where that [profit-making] was not possible, you would have to have a very safe view about what would happen to supply in what is, as you have already talked about, a supply-constrained environment. We are starting from where we are at this point”.247 Both the Minister for Local Government and the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Children and Families were unable to explain why the approach to profit-making in children’s social care and academy schools was so different because “the decision as to why there are different treatments of those two sectors predates our time as Ministers”.248

112.Local authorities are highly reliant on the independent sector, particularly for children’s residential care. Both local authorities and independent providers recognise that costs for care placements in the independent sector are increasing but there is some disagreement on why this is the case. More must be done by local government and central government to facilitate an increase in the supply of such placements.

113.The Government should consider the barriers to creating more residential care placements from the perspectives of both local authorities and private providers, and of people applying to become foster carers. In doing so, it should consider the role of greater central government investment in this sector. There may also be a role for greater regulation of the market to ensure that costs do not rise disproportionally and that there is appropriate competition. The Competition and Markets Authority should investigate this market. We encourage the NAO to analyse and compare the cost and value for money of private and in-house children’s residential care provision when it next revisits this topic.

114.Given local authorities’ high reliance on the independent sector, particularly for residential care, it is imperative that commissioning and procurement are improved to ensure no child is placed in unsuitable care settings. There should be more monitoring of the impact of different placements and the quality of care on children’s outcomes. A variety of improvements were suggested to us including the introduction of a national care bank, central government investment, and a local government procurement strategy.

115.Local authorities and the independent sector must work pragmatically together to ensure the needs of children are met; independent care providers constitute a significant proportion of the market. By December 2019, the Government should take the lead in conducting a review of the whole commissioning and procurement system and assess the merits of the various improvements that have been suggested to us in the course of our inquiry. We urge the Government and local authorities to introduce greater oversight of how different care placements affect outcomes for children to ensure that every child receives the support they require. Local authorities should also better monitor the value for money of placements; as supply increases and commissioning improves, understanding the value for money will become more and more important.


Social workers

116.According to the IfG and CIPFA, children’s services have been able to broadly maintain performance levels at a time of increasing pressures “mainly by increasing productivity–asking social workers to do more”.249 A respondent to our survey said that “the system would collapse if it wasn’t for the goodwill of practitioners going above & beyond because of their values and not wanting to let kids down”. We heard that this was leading to difficulties in recruiting children’s social workers.250 As at 30 September 2018, there were 5,810 vacancies, resulting in a vacancy rate of 16% in England.251 Between 2013–14 and 2017–18, the number of full time equivalent vacancies rose by 61%.252 There are also challenges in retaining staff with the turnover rate for the year ending September 2018 being 16% in England.253 68% of people leaving a children’s social worker role in a local authority254 had been in service for less than five years while 54% were aged between 30 and 49;255 West Sussex County Council stated that the average professional life of a social worker was eight years.256 Professor Jones told us that the turnover rate for Directors of Children’s Services was even higher at 40%.257

117.We heard a number of explanations of why local authorities were struggling to recruit and retain children’s social workers. Ruth Allen of BASW highlighted challenging working conditions: “Many social workers are reporting working in very poor working conditions and having very high caseloads, a lack of time to think, a lack of access to resources to provide for children and families early and a lack of ability to support vulnerable parents”.258 This view was reflected in our survey of social work professionals with one participant saying that “children’s social services are overburdened, overwhelmed, overstretched. It’s simply not possible to deliver a quality, helpful and meaningful service to children and families when we have so many cases and lack the (financial and time) resources to help”. Another participant said: “There are no services resources to support what we are doing. Most of my colleagues are done with working long hours for free and are looking to leave the profession. We need more help!”. Time pressures were also reflected in the results of our survey: 65% of respondents said that they always or often had unrealistic time pressures and 68% always or often neglected some tasks because they had too much to do.

118.Yvette Stanley of Ofsted said working culture was partly to blame:

As the host for multiagency safeguarding hubs, social care holds that anxiety and risk. If you ask frontline social workers to take too much risk, they will leave… They want to work somewhere where they think the risk balance is appropriate and they are going to be supported in taking those very difficult decisions.259

The Care Crisis Review found that “a strong sense of unease about a culture of blame, shame and fear affecting those working within the child welfare… was resulting in a growing sense of mistrust between those working at all levels, and between families and professionals”.260 Councillor Perry told us that “a good local authority will give its officers the administrative support that they need, and will give them the political and moral support they need when they have taken difficult decisions”.261

119.Concerns were also raised about the administrative burden on social workers and its impact on time spent directly with families. Ruth Allen of BASW said that they had found “children’s social workers were saying that they were spending 80% of their time on paperwork or non-professional activities, and only 20% of their time on what they considered to be either direct work or work that was directly about their professional practice”.262 A survey conducted by BASW published in September 2018 (see Figure 6) found that “on average, social workers worked 45 hours a week, of which 11 hours were spent face-to-face with children, young people, parents and carers. This equates to just over 20%. 29 hours a week were spent on a computer or doing paperwork which accounts for 65% of the average working week”.263 BASW in partnership with the Children’s Commissioner for England made eight recommendations for how social workers could spend more time on direct social work practice including investing in better IT systems and employing more administrators.264 The Parliamentary Under Secretary for Children and Families agreed that there was value in employing more support staff to reduce administrative tasks for social workers.265

Figure 6: BASW survey - proportion of working week spent by social workers on different activities

Source: British Association of Social Workers, 80–20 Campaign Final Report 2018, 17 September 2018; Scrutiny Unit analysis

120.One response to our survey said that Ofsted was partly to blame for a difficult working environment, explaining that:

Ofsted itself has driven much of the risk averse approaches in many LAs [local authorities]. Fear of a poor Ofsted score adds to professional anxiety and greater intervention; Ofsted insist on lots of recording because that is how they inspect; and Ofsted do not fully understand the concept of working with families systemically.

Ofsted has recognised that its work can have “unintended consequences” and its 2017–22 strategy highlights that it is making changes to reduce the burdens on local authorities.266 Yvette Stanley of Ofsted elaborated that:

We have done our best, as have local authorities, to make the systems, processes and procedures less bureaucratic over the last decade …

We need to check that children are visited and social workers have had their supervision, but that should be their business as usual. It is not about filling in another form for us on our arrival; it should be easily extractable from their information system. We have worked very hard to have a more proportionate, risk-based, child-focused inspection regime. The feedback from local authorities is that it is as robust, but it focuses on the important frontline work, not on checking that meetings have happened and forms have been filled in within a certain time.267

121.Sharon Chappell, Assistant Ombudsman at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, told the Committee how high staff turnover can lead to poorer outcomes for children:

In the cases that we are upholding, there are often numerous reallocations of social workers. There was a case this week that has just been referred to me for some advice where there were 10 different social workers involved since July 2018, eight in a three-month period. That young person just has no opportunity to build any relationship in those circumstances. In cases we are not upholding, where we are seeing good practice, those relationships are firmly established with both the young person and the family, so the impact is quite clear.268

The British Psychological Society said that “research indicates that staff changes are a key indicator in the breakdown of placements and the ability to protect children”.269 Professor Jones reiterated the importance of maintaining relationships between social workers and families, telling us:

The local authorities that are doing well in terms of Ofsted judgments are the local authorities with stable leadership and a stable workforce. They stay close to their children, they know the children and they know the families. That is a big help in terms of families and children trusting the workers they work with but also in terms of dealing with some of the stress and chaos in those children’s lives. Creating that stability and continuity is one of the ways we can improve outcomes.270

122.Poor recruitment and retention also has a financial impact as local authorities fill vacancies with more costly agency staff.271 DfE data for September 2018 found that there were 5,360 full-time agency workers employed as children and family social workers in England, equivalent to 15% of children and family social workers.272 Of these agency workers, 78% were covering vacancies.273 Based on freedom of information requests, the BBC estimated that spending across the UK on agency social workers increased from £180 million in 2012–13 to £356 million in 2016–17.274 The Guardian reported that local authorities in England spent at least £335 million in 2017–18 on agency workers.275 Stuart Gallimore of ADCS clarified that agency workers can be paid more than council-employed social workers but “they [agency workers] are not paid that much more when compared to the fee that the local authority is paying that agency for that worker. There is a significant top-up”.276 Devon County Council explained that it has had to increase the agency rates paid by £600,000 per annum in order to attract applications.277 Yvette Stanley of Ofsted suggested that agency rates can be exacerbated by poor Ofsted ratings.278 We also heard from BASW that local authorities compete “for social workers by offering higher salaries than neighbouring areas”.279 It said that “this creates a bidding war that no authority wins”.280

123.Several strategies to overcome the challenge of recruiting and retaining children’s social workers were presented to us in the course of our inquiry. West Sussex County Council explained how supporting newly qualified social workers had been somewhat successful while acknowledging that there was no quick fix:

We have had a social work academy running for 5 years and through this we have retained 77% of our newly qualified social workers, which has partially mitigated the lack of availability. However, for the last 12 months we have had on average 15.7% of posts not filled with permanent staff meaning we are heavily reliant on agency staff (at higher cost) to maintain safe levels of service. The County Council has identified £1.2m of additional resource to implement a competitive salary range and career progression pathway, along with a number of other innovative ideas to recruit and retain permanent experienced social workers. Due to the national shortage of children’s social workers (the average professional life of a children’s social worker is 8 years), coupled with rising demand and complexity in children’s services, and the continuing negative public perception of children’s social work means that we anticipate this will be an ongoing challenge.281

Stuart Gallimore of ADCS told us that councils have to put the “ingredients of success in place”. He says that East Sussex County Council is trying to be the “authority of choice for people wanting to do social work”, explaining that “an environment where people feel confident, protected and safe, and are encouraged to do great work” has to be created.282 The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families agreed that building a “successful, well-motivated workforce, whether through the offer of support and supervision, opportunities for development, management, manageable workloads or positive organisational culture” is vital and “will ensure that social workers want to work and stay”.283

124.Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, called on the Government to introduce a “national marketing and advertising campaign… to bring people into the profession”.284 She also called for the sector to learn from the NHS 10-year plan: “It is looking at the staffing implications over a 10-year period and looking at workforce recruitment and how workforce development on a national basis can take place”.285

125.Stuart Gallimore, ADCS President, explained how some local authorities are trying to mitigate the financial burden of agency staff:

In many regions, such as the south-east, which I am part of, authorities have banded together to try to regulate the cost of agency workers, because in the situations that Ruth [Allen of BASW] described, where authorities are desperate for social workers, the cost that they can be charged can be quite eyewatering.286

126.Hampshire County Council has gone a step further and set up its own agency in conjunction with Kent County Council after finding that some social workers prefer to be employed by an agency. Councillor Perry explained:

My own authority has decided to set up its own agency. We are doing that in conjunction with Kent County Council. We are being told that a number of social workers, for all sorts of reasons—personal family reasons or whatever—prefer to have agency working so that they can pick the times and periods of the year when they work. I posed the question, “Will that not mean that we are possibly going to stand accused of not offering them full-time professional positions?”, to which the director said, “If they want to come and work for us as a full-time worker, we will welcome them with open arms”. It is the fact that, in the present climate, a number of social workers prefer that greater flexibility—not all, but some do. That is why we are going down the line of setting up our own agency. I will let you know in a few years’ time if it works.287

127.The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families recognised the importance of the children’s social care workforce, telling us that when he has seen “local authorities go from failure to success, it is the workforce … it is really worthwhile that we invest in the workforce”.288 He said good leadership was vital to building “a successful, well-motivated workforce, whether through the offer of support and supervision, opportunities for development, management, manageable workloads or positive organisational culture”.289 The Government has introduced reforms to the social work workforce such as the National Assessment and Accreditation Scheme and Social Work England in order to “improve social work and reduce reliance on agency staff, leading to more sustainable services”.290 The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families added that the Government was working with the LGA on the development of leadership talent.291

128.He addressed concerns about caseloads by saying that Ofsted considers caseloads and the support that is available as part of their inspection regime.292 However, as noted in the IfG and CIPFA’s Performance Tracker 2018, the average social worker’s caseload–17.8 cases–is now greater than the average caseload in local authorities that Ofsted judged ‘good’–typically between 10 and 14 cases.293 Also, a 2018 survey of members of the Social Workers’ Union and BASW found that working conditions for social workers continue to be poor:

Concurrent with 2017 findings, we demonstrated that working conditions (irrespective of job role within social work) are still chronically poor–worse than the UK national average. The only slight exception to this is the amount of support received from peers, which was relatively positive. However, in comparison to 2017 figures, 2018 working conditions are even worse–it would appear that over the past 12 months, working conditions have consistently worsened. Similarly, we found that levels of job dissatisfaction were high, as well turnover intentions (although migration was much higher than attrition), presenteeism, and stress. In fact, each of these measures were higher than the 2017 figures, again demonstrating that each are progressively worsening. Once again, the demands associated in social work was the one consistent working condition which had the biggest influence on the outcome measures included in the study (stress, job satisfaction, presenteeism, and turnover intentions).294

129.Efforts have been made to increase recruitment: the Government supports Frontline, a two-year leadership programme for graduates and career changers, and Step Up to Social Work, an intensive, 14-month, full-time programme for trainee social workers.295 The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families told us that the number of full-time equivalent children’s and family social workers has increased since last year and “1,700 more talented individuals who would not necessarily have considered social work as a career path” have entered the sector.296 While welcome, this has led to a relatively inexperienced workforce. Analysis by the IfG and CIPFA found:

Overall workforce experience declined over the past two years, which is likely to be the consequence of recruiting more people. Between September 2015/16 and 2017/18 there was a 30% increase in the number of staff with less than five years’ local authority experience, and a 11% decrease in staff with more than five years’ experience.297

BASW suggested that this could lead to lead to the inappropriate escalation of care: “The frontline is now largely staffed by newly qualified social workers with little experience in managing and dealing with risk and complex cases. This cycle can result in cases escalating into care proceedings too quickly”.298

130.High turnover and low retention of the children’s social care workforce point to a system that isn’t working well. Children pay the price as professional relationships break down. It has a cost for local authorities who resort to filling vacancies with agency staff and may, if financially viable, have to spend money on attracting staff. Social workers are suffering from a range of pressures such as increased workload and administrative burdens.

131.While some workforce reforms have been introduced, it is clear that more needs to be done nationally to retain good professionals and build long-term professional relationships in the sector; there is no point recruiting more staff if they will not stay. The Government should increase core funding in order to enable local authorities to ease the pressure facing social workers. We suggest that the implementation of the recommendations of the British Association of Social Workers and the Children’s Commissioner for England, detailed in their 80–20 Campaign report such as increasing the number of support staff and upgrading IT equipment, would be a good place to start.

132.The Government must also conduct a consultation with social workers, local authorities and representative professional organisations across the country to gain a better understanding of the pressures facing social workers and why social workers are leaving their roles, whether to go to another local authority, take another job at the same council or to leave the profession altogether. Based on the consultation, the Government should assess the merits of options (e.g. limiting caseloads, reducing the administrative burdens, and nurturing supportive cultures) to lessen the burden on children’s social workers as a matter of urgency. We expect the Government to report back to the Committee by December 2019.

133.We believe that the Government should fund the creation and implementation of a national recruitment strategy to encourage people into the sector. As part of this work, the Government should consider whether additional recruitment incentives or support are required, particularly to attract staff to local authorities with poor Ofsted ratings. We consider that this work could be conducted by Social Work England.

Wider workforce

134.Dr Silver told us that quality and remuneration of the wider workforce should also be of concern, saying that “there are challenges in terms of how we provide really good-quality services for the most needy looked-after children with the most complex needs and the most challenge”.299 She expanded:

What we want is a workforce that is psychologically available to these children and that sticks with these children over a long period of time. If you pay minimum wage, if you do not train and support those staff and if you do not provide sick pay and the terms and conditions that public sector organisations used to, your workforce are more depleted, turn over faster and are less qualified. They do a less good job of that important primary care relationship with that child…

The most complicated kids we have are effectively being looked after by the least trained and least supported workforce… The difficulty is that, at the moment, for a lot of people, it is a slightly more interesting job paid on a par with working in the supermarket.300

Dr Silver went onto say that “skilling up that workforce, and recognising and supporting the contribution of the front-line carers, whether they are in residential care or foster carers, is super important. Otherwise those people get traumatised and burnt out and leave. That is not good for anybody”.301Some of these concerns were reflected in UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter which was developed in response to concerns among the homecare workforce, suggesting that this is of concern across both the adult and child care market.302 A report by a previous iteration of this Committee called on the Government, in partnership with the LGA to “publish a care workers’ charter, drawing upon UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, which sets out what care workers can expect from their employer. Employers should be expected to demonstrate their commitment to supporting and developing care workers”.303 The Government responded by saying that “Skills for Care have published a Code of Conduct for employees and employers. This sets out employers’ responsibilities in supporting and developing their staff, and what care workers can expect from their employers”.304

135.Yvette Stanley of Ofsted agreed that “work in the care end of the industry is not the best paid or the best qualified” and told us that “the problems we see are churn in terms of the home manager, churn in terms of staff and not enough staff with the level of qualifications”.305 She added that improving quality has a cost to local authorities and that “quality versus cost in relation to that is a really dynamic issue, which local authorities, as commissioners, are struggling with on a day-to-day basis”.306

136.Professor Jones suggested that there were also challenges in getting to know staff in the independent sector:

It is a real concern that we are placing children with people when we do not know who they are. They may be at some distance from where the child lives and where the social worker is based, so they are not seen that often. When I used to run children’s homes, I would be dropping in and out when I was going past. I would know the staff; I would know the children who were there …

If you are doing this with the private sector, first, you have no right of access apart from going in and seeing the children you have placed there and, secondly, it is not your business in one sense. You are not responsible for it. You may be responsible for the child, but you are not responsible for the service.307

137.The Government responded to concerns about quality in the wider children’s care workforce by saying that “there are mandatory qualifications for those working in care roles. Registered managers must keep a record of training completed by employees and their ongoing training needs. Children’s homes must ensure their staff are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to provide that quality care”.308 Ofsted was cited as having a role in ensuring that the registered managers of care homes are being held to account.309 The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families said the Government wanted to go further and was considering introducing a professional registration for people in care roles in children’s homes as recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.310

138.In terms of wages in the wider workforce, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families said that “it is important that we get the funding right, which is why we are working together to make sure that we understand where the pressures are and to put our best foot forward at the spending review”.311 While he would not commit to increasing remuneration,312 the Minister for Local Government said that this is “one piece of a broader funding question” and that the Government is conscious that when it mandates higher wages (e.g. increasing national minimum wages) that this has a cost.313

139.Some of the challenges facing social workers are reflected in the wider children’s social care workforce, where retention of staff is also proving problematic. Nevertheless, the wider workforce also has challenges of its own, particularly regarding remuneration, which we were told is on a par with working in a supermarket, and the level of training. It is highly questionable that some of the most vulnerable children are being cared for by a workforce that may not always be as well qualified as might be expected. The Government should invest in the workforce to ensure that it is appropriately remunerated, skilled and supported to deliver the best outcomes for children. There is value in considering what lessons from UNISON’s ethical care charter may also apply to children’s care; we reiterate a recommendation by our predecessor committee which called for the Government, in partnership with the LGA to publish a care workers’ charter, drawing upon UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, which sets out what care workers can expect from their employer.

140.More should be done to understand the wider children’s care workforce. The Government should collect data about the profile of this workforce to better understand who is supporting some of the most vulnerable children in society. We believe that professional registration, as recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, may be a vehicle for greater transparency.

109 Family Rights Group, Care Crisis Review: options for change, June 2018

116 MHCLG and DfE (ACS0065)

117 NSPCC (ACS0053)

118 Children’s Commissioner (ACS0076)

126 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ACS0038). See also Q2, Q14, Q17 and Q123.

127 Centre for Outcomes of Care (ACS0070)

128 Professor Ray Jones (ACS0005)

130 Professor Ray Jones (ACS0005)

135 Social Justice Research Group, University of West of England (ACS0028)

145 British Psychological Society (ACS0064); Kent County Council (ACS0011). Among others, see also Bi-borough educational psychology and consultation service (ACS0017), County Councils Network (ACS0035) and Newcastle City Council (ACS0045).

146 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ACS0038)

147 All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, Storing Up Trouble: A postcode lottery of children’s social care, July 2018

148 Action for Children, National Children’s Bureau, NSPCC, The Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, Children and young people’s services: Funding and spending 2010/11 to 2017/18, February 2019

150 MHCLG and DfE (ACS0065)

151 Institute for Government and Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, Performance Tracker 2018, October 2018

154 Q43. See also Professor Paul Bywaters (ACS0069).

155 The Social Justice Research Group, University of the West of England, Bristol (ACS0028)

156 The Social Justice Research Group, University of the West of England, Bristol (ACS0028)

163 Public Accounts Committee, Eighty-eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Transforming children’s services, HC 1741.

169 Local Government Association (ACS0037)

170 Local Government Association (ACS0037)

171 Local Government Association (ACS0037)

172 Local Government Association (ACS0037)

173 Local Government Association (ACS0037)

174 Children England (ACS0013)

175 Hampshire County Council (ACS0033)

176 Public Accounts Committee, Eighty-eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Transforming children’s services, HC 1741

177 Public Accounts Committee, Eighty-eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Transforming children’s services, HC 1741

185 See also All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, Storing Up Trouble: A postcode lottery of children’s social care, July 2018

186 Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, Born into care, October 2018

187 Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, Born into care, October 2018.

195 Newcastle City Council (ACS0045)

196 Devon County Council (ACS0003)

197 Children’s Commissioner for England (ACS0058)

198 Liverpool City Region Local Authorities (ACS0043)

199 DfE, Foster Care in England: A Review for the Department for Education by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, February 2018

201 Phil Harding (ACS0066)

202 Independent Children’s Homes Association (ACS0073)

215 See Liverpool City Region (LCR) Local Authorities (ACS0043), Royal Borough of Greenwich (ACS0059) and Independent Children’s Homes Association (ACS0073).

219 Independent Children’s Homes Association (ACS0073)

221 Q153. See also Q159.

222 Public Accounts Committee, Eighty-eighth Report of Session 2017–19, Transforming children’s services, HC 1741

226 Q54 and Q56

228 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ACS0072)

229 Ofsted (ACS0074)

234 See Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ACS0072), Q134, and The Social Justice Research Group, University of the West of England, Bristol (ACS0028).

235 Professor Ray Jones (ACS0005)

236 Foster care agencies join forces in £100m tie-up, Financial Times, 20 January 2019

238 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ACS0072)

239 Q76 and Q83

243 State of the Market survey, Independent Children’s Homes Association, February 2018

249 Performance Tracker 2018, Institute for Government and Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, October 2018

250 See among others Devon County Council (ACS0003) and West Sussex County Council (ACS0022), British Association of Social Workers (ACS0026) and Children, Families and Education, Essex County Council (ACS0042).

252 Performance Tracker 2018, Institute for Government and Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, October 2018

254 We note that “these are leavers from a child and family social worker role in the local authority, rather than leaving the social work profession altogether: for example, leavers may be moving to a different local authority, to a non child and family social work role within the same LA [local authority], or leaving the profession. In addition, there is the potential for the 2017 figures to be out of line, as this was the first year of the individual level collection”. See Experimental statistics: Children and family social work workforce in England, year ending 30 September 2018, Department for Education, February 2019, for further information.

256 West Sussex County Council (ACS0022)

258 Q117. See also The Children’s Society (ACS0068) and Bath Spa University (ACS0012).

259 Q65 and Q106

260 Care Crisis Review: Options for change, Family Rights Group, June 2018

266 Ofsted strategy 2017–22, Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, September 2017.

269 British Psychological Society (ACS0064)

270 Q33. See also Q42.

271 See Devon County Council (ACS0003), West Sussex County Council (ACS0022) and British Association of Social Workers (ACS0026).

277 Devon County Council (ACS0003)

279 British Association of Social Workers (ACS0026)

280 British Association of Social Workers (ACS0026)

281 West Sussex County Council (ACS0022)

290 MHCLG and DfE (ACS0065)

293 Performance Tracker 2018, Institute for Government and Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, October 2018

294 UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing, Bath Spa University, August 2018

297 Performance Tracker 2018, Institute for Government and Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, October 2018

298 British Association of Social Workers (ACS0026)

300 Q30 and Q37

303 Communities and Local Government Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2016–17, Adult social care, HC 1103

Published: 1 May 2019