1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department of Education (the Department) about pressures on children’s social care. We also took evidence from two local authorities - Oxfordshire County Council and Northumberland County Council - and a children’s charity, the Family Rights Group.
2.Since 2010–11, there has been growth in key types of local authority children’s social care activity. Between 2010–11 and 2017–18 there was a 77% increase in child protection assessments, and a 26% increase in the number of cases where local authorities considered actual harm or neglect to have been demonstrated, and had placed children on child protection plans as a result. Over the same period there was also an increase of 15% in the most serious and expensive cases, where children are taken into care.
3.The increase in cases where children are taken into care has significant financial consequences for individual local authorities. Oxfordshire, for example, has seen a 76% increase in its number of looked-after children over the last four years, and this has contributed to the increase in its spending on children’s social care, which has risen to £95 million compared with £46 million 10 years ago. Nationally, in 2017–18, local authorities spent £8.8 billion on children’s social care. Ninety-one per cent of local authorities overspent on their children’s social care in 2017–18, leading to a total national overspend of £872 million. Overspending by local authorities on children’s social care has an impact on their financial sustainability as well as on the funding available to other services which they provide.
4.As this Committee has previously reported, the amount of variation that exists between local authorities is wide and concerning. There is significant variation between local authorities both in the amount of work they do with children in need, and in how much they spend on it. In 2017–18 the rate of children in need episodes ranged from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 children between local authorities. The number of Section 47 enquiries, conducted where a local authority considers there to be reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their area is either suffering from, or likely to suffer from, serious harm, ranged from 59 to 482 per 10,000 children. There is also wide variation between local authorities in the amount that they spend on children’s social care: in 2017–18, the amount spent by local authorities per child in need episode ranged from £566 to £5,166. Such substantial variation in children’s social care is a topic that we have reported on previously: in 2014–15 average spending per child in need ranged between £340 and £4,970 between different local authorities.
5.The Department acknowledged that it does not yet fully understand variation between local authorities, and accepted that it has not in recent years been doing as much work in this area as it should have been. The Department suggested that this has been because its main effort has been on raising the quality of children’s social care. However, the Department also accepted that – with hindsight – since it last appeared before this Committee it should have followed a twin track approach in which it sought to both improve the quality of children’s social care and increase its knowledge of the causes of variation between different local authorities.
6.The Department was, however, able to offer some suggestions for the causes of variation between local authorities in their looked-after children populations. The Chief Social Worker shared with the Committee the finding that stronger local authorities - those assessed as “Outstanding” or “Good” by Ofsted - are bringing fewer children into the care system. According to the Chief Social Worker, local authorities with a “Good” or “Outstanding” Ofsted rating have a rate of looked-after children that is between 20% and 30% lower than those with lower Ofsted ratings.
7.To further its understanding of children’s social care demand pressures, in late 2017 the Department, together with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and HM Treasury, commissioned research to understand both pressures on and variations between local authorities. This work is due to be completed by summer 2019. The Department’s aim is that this research will inform the spending review.
8.The NAO’s analysis identified explanations for 75% of variations between local authorities, with by far the greatest cause of variation the characteristics of local authorities themselves and their areas. The NAO estimated that these local characteristics account for 44% of the variation, and include custom and practice in children’s social care, local market conditions and characteristics of children and their families. The Department noted that its further work with LG Futures should allow greater understanding of the factors behind variation.
9.Some local authorities have managed to reduce their rates of intervention for care and care proceedings. The Chief Social Worker suggested that the reduction of the rates of intervention depends on the risk appetite of local authorities and the risk appetite depended on the calibre of the workforce, confidence of the workforce, where the local authority is in the inspection cycle and general culture of the organisation and leadership of children’s social care.
10.The Department was clear that it regards the financial position of local authority children’s social care services as unsustainable. The proportion of local authorities that overspend on children’s social care increased from 63% in 2010–11 to 91% in 2017–18. In 2017–18, the total national overspend on children’s social care was £872 million. As a result of this overspending on children’s social care, some councils are drawing on their reserves, and drawing funding from other services – the Department commented: “You cannot carry on like that forever”.
11.The Department has only recently become more interested in value for money and sustainability of the sector. As we have previously reported, there is no relationship between spending on child in need and quality, as measured by Ofsted ratings. Indeed, Ofsted does not currently measure the value for money of local authority children’s social care services when it inspects them. This contrasts with the Care Quality Commission, for example, which publishes reports which include ratings on how well health bodies use their resources. The Department recognised that the financial situation that councils find themselves in needs to be addressed in the forthcoming spending review.
12.The Department’s What Works Centre for children’s social care was recently established and is designed to act as an evidence base for how to best work with families. Similarly, the Department is seeking to encourage local authorities to share good practice in children’s social care with its Partners in Practice programme. However, the Department acknowledged that it is only at the beginning of understanding the evidence base for how to most effectively work with families and vulnerable children.
13.As noted above, the analysis which the Department commissioned in 2017 in partnership with other government departments is designed to enable it to be ready for a bid for children’s social care funding in the next spending review. The Department stated that this analysis will be necessary to help it bid for the resources that will be necessary for local authorities to cope with forecast increased demand for children’s social care.
14.There has been an increase in the number of children in care who need to be placed in residential homes. Notably, the number of children over 16 taken into care increased by 78% between 2010–11 and 2017–18, from 3,210 to 5,710. According to local authorities, these children often have more complex needs and as a result are harder to place into foster care and are more likely to go into residential care, which is more costly.
15.We heard from the directors of children’s services of Oxfordshire and Northumberland local authorities that there is not enough capacity in the residential market to meet demand for children with very complex needs. Only 32% of local authorities report that they have access to enough residential homes for children aged 14 to 15 years, and 41% for those aged 16 to 17. Reflecting this lack of capacity, in 2016 an independent review found that an absence of successful commissioning was resulting in different local authorities paying widely different prices for the same standard of residential care. The scarcity of places means that different local authorities have to fight a “bidding war” against one another for the same placements, with prices increasing as a result. This can have extreme financial consequences in individual cases where there is an urgent need to find a placement for a child: Oxfordshire County Council, for example, spent £21,000 housing one child over Christmas 2018. In Northumberland, the cost of placements beyond the county’s boundaries has increased by 116% over the past 3 years.
16.Limited residential care home capacity has contributed to a significant national increase in the cost of children in care. Although the number of children placed in residential care by local authorities increased by 9.2% between 2013–14 and 2017–18, the cost of residential care increased by 22.5% over the same period, from £1.02 billion to £1.25 billion in real terms.
17.The Department informed us that it is conducting work to more fully understand local authority commissioning in areas such as fostering and residential care: it was advised on this by Sir Martin Narey, and it is implementing his recommendations. However, the Department also acknowledged that this was an area in which it could potentially take faster action. The Department told us that the most cost-effective commissioning is done when councils collaborate with each other; it is helping and funding three local authorities to drive up the quality of their commissioning.
18.We heard that early help or intervention can be of great value to vulnerable children, as well as to local authorities in providing them with more options than simply placing children in care. The Family Rights Group told us that in some local authorities, for example, significant work is done with parents before they enter formal court proceedings to assess whether it is possible to place children in wider kinship settings. However, they noted that there is significant variation between authorities: some areas focus on supporting parents to keep the child safe and avoid proceedings being taken, whereas others use the period primarily for gathering evidence to support the local authority’s case in court.
19.The Department accepted that the “industry” of early intervention has not always led to the commissioning of the right sorts of services and with the right sort of skill level. The Chief Social Worker stated that the early intervention programmes traditionally commissioned by local authorities do not have much of a chance of ever stopping the trajectory of children from families with entrenched difficulties, often across generations, into the high-risk part of the system.
20.The NAO’s analysis showed that local authorities which have closed children’s centres have not had any consequential increases in child protection plans. Indeed, for those local authorities which had closed centres there was a slight fall in the number of child protection plans in future years. Local authorities have reduced spending on preventative children’s services.
21.To expand the evidence base for what works in all aspects of children’s social care, the Department has launched the What Works Centre. This is designed to be a national institution holding intelligence on all good practice in children’s social care, including early intervention. The Department is only beginning to understand this evidence base through the What Works Centre, as it has not previously made a concerted, continual effort to understand what families need.
2 C&AG’s Report, para 1.17
3 Q 1
4 C&AG’s Report, Key Facts, para 2.19
6 C&AG’s Report, para 13, 2.11, 2.14
8 Qq 57–58
9 Q 76
10 Qq 53, 86
11 Qq 58–59; C&AG’s Report, para 16
12 Qq 72, 77
13 Q 124
14 C&AG’s Report, para 15
15 Q 124
16 C&AG’s Report, para 1.4,
18 Qq 99–102
20 Q 82
21 Q 94
22 Q 86
23 C&AG’s Report, para 9
24 Q 1
27 Q 4
28 Qq 1, 3
29 C&AG’s Report, para 1.27
30 Q 102
31 Q 104
32 Q 38
33 Family Rights Group ()
34 Q 114
35 C&AG’s Report, paras 17, 3.21
36 Q 94
Published: 22 March 2019