22.In 2016, in Putting Children First, the Department committed to deliver a programme of reform in children’s social care. The policy goal was originally stated as that: “By 2020 our ambition is that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support, and the best outcome for every child is at the heart of every decision made.” However, the Department has subsequently put back the delivery date for this programme to 2022. The Department told us that it took the decision to defer the target date because, following the Committee’s report in 2016, it acknowledged that it did not have a detailed plan and trajectory in place.
23.Similarly, the Department has made only limited progress in improving the quality of children’s social care services. In 2013, Ofsted assessed 65% of local authority children’s services as either “Inadequate” or “Requires improvement to be good.” In 2018, this figure fell only marginally, with 58% of local authorities rated as “Inadequate” or “Requires improvement to be good”. The Department accepted that having nearly 60% of local authorities rated lower than “Good” by Ofsted for children’s social care is “Terrible”. It did, however, point out that the number of local authorities rated as “Inadequate” had fallen from 30 to 19.
24.The Department said that it is now confident that it has put the actions in place that mean it will achieve its target by 2022. Despite this, the Department was not able to set out either the overall level of quality it is seeking to achieve in children’s social care, or how it will measure this. The Department would not, for example, commit to how many local authorities it would be comfortable with failing their Ofsted inspections for children’s social services by 2022.
25.The complex needs of vulnerable children mean that, at a local level, a number of different agencies are often involved in their care. We heard from our witnesses that these can include the police, housing, courts, the Department for Work & Pensions and local health services. These agencies can work together effectively or can also be at odds with one another – often this is dependent on the level of risk that different agencies feel comfortable taking on with relation to vulnerable children. Changes in risk appetite between local authorities and courts are exemplified in the large rise in the number of care order applications, with a rise of 56% from 2010–11 to 2017–18.
26.At the national level, there is some evidence of cross-Departmental co-operation ahead of the spending review. The Department told us how it has commissioned, with MHCLG and HM Treasury, analysis on what drives demand pressures for children’s social care. MHCLG is involved as it oversees the Government’s overall relationship with local government. HM Treasury is involved as the Department considers there is no point in doing work to support the expected spending review that Treasury does not know about. Another example of co-operation has been in cross-governmental work to counter the risk of cost-shunting. There are also conversations with local authority chief executives, the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care to understand pressures, such as those on courts which prompted the Care Crisis Review. One witness also told us of ‘huge variation’ in the co-operation from partner agencies in relation to local collaboration. We also heard about the welfare reforms, led by the Department of Work & Pensions, where the impact on demand for children’s social care is not well understood. Yet, despite the inherently cross-governmental nature of children’s social care, the Department has sole departmental policy responsibility for children’s social care.
37 Q 122
38 Q 104, Q119; C&AG’s Report, para 2.17
39 Q 122
40 Qq 9, 10, 19, 38
41 Q 107; C&AG’s Report, Figure 5
42 Q 86
43 Q 68
44 Qq 6, 26, 45, 52
Published: 22 March 2019