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House of Commons Hansard
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Children’s Services
12 December 2017
Volume 633

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of children’s services by local authorities.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to debate the provision of children’s services by local authorities. My reason for introducing the debate is that I understand that the pressures facing children’s services are rapidly becoming unsustainable, with the combination of Government funding cuts and huge increases in demand leaving many areas struggling to cope.

More and more vulnerable children are in need of care. Children’s charities, including Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, Action for Children, and the National Children’s Bureau, have described a crisis facing children’s services, highlighting that central Government’s decision to deny councils funding is affecting the quality of vital children’s services. Councils have suffered a 40% cut in funding since 2010, leaving them unable to meet soaring demand and to provide safe, effective children’s services. Local authorities overspent on children’s services by £365 million in 2014-15, and by a further £605 million in 2015-16. That overspend shows how dire the situation is for them, and that the funding is insufficient.

Due to cuts, one in three Sure Start centres have closed since 2010. There are now more than 1,240 fewer designated Sure Start children’s centres. The Local Government Association has forecast that children’s services face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020. Serious child protection cases have doubled in the last seven years, and around 500 new cases are launched in England every day.

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The hon. Lady is to be congratulated on moving this important motion and I am grateful to her. I hope she will join me at a later stage in introducing a Backbench Business Committee debate so that this extremely important motion can be debated more fully. Does she agree that it is a stain on our society that we have so many children being taken into state care, and that the focus is on taking children from their families, rather than on preventative measures that would enable them to stay safely at home?

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I agree, but local authorities need to have funds to invest in resources to make prevention a possibility. We cannot keep cutting their funding and expect them to do more with less. I would be more than willing to join a Backbench Business Committee debate, but the issue that I am seeking to highlight is that the funding strategy is failing our local authorities.

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I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing today’s debate. Does she agree that the last seven years of cuts to children’s services have had a negative impact, leading to the closure of Sure Start centres and more children going into care, and that that impact has fallen disproportionately on poorer children?

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I absolutely agree. The fact that we are cutting vital funds to local authorities has a direct impact on the services that can be provided, and those whose families are from an impoverished background are disproportionately affected.

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I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. Does she agree that it is not just children who are in crisis, but families? The cuts to early intervention and prevention grants in my area of Leigh have led to a rise in drugs and alcohol abuse, homelessness and mental health issues, which affect both children and adults.

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I agree. When we talk about funding for children, we have to look at the whole family, or at the whole child, so to speak. A child is not there in and of themselves—they come from a family. When looking at prevention, we need to look at how the child got into that position in the first place and what steps can be taken to support families, to ensure that they can be the support network that the child so vitally needs.

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We have talked about this being a broad issue around the individual. Does my hon. Friend agree that social services have an impact not only on the child and the family, but in education? Not having support from social services for children with difficulties puts pressure on teachers, who are effectively having to pick up the challenge. Likewise, there is an effect on the NHS. Certainly in my part of the country in Devon, only one tenth of the overall mental health budget is spent on children. If there is no support in social services, the impact is inevitably on the NHS.

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I agree. My concern, however, is that if we shift the focus solely to either the NHS or education, we are missing something, because preventative services that local authorities provide need to get in early. If funding is not there at the outset, that has a knock-on effect and affects education. Teachers have to be the parent and the teacher—raising the children rather than just teaching them. I have seen that even in my constituency of Peterborough, but we need to scale it back and look at the cause. If we start at the beginning and say that prevention needs to involve looking at children’s services, we need to ask what services we are offering the whole child and what services we can offer to the whole family. If we give support to the whole family when the child is school-ready, that should have a beneficial effect. We want to look at prevention, rather than just dealing with the consequences of the lack of funding.

As I said, the Local Government Association has forecast that children’s services face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020, serious child protection cases have doubled in the last seven years, and around 500 new cases are launched in England each day, yet no new money was given in the Budget for struggling children’s services. In my constituency of Peterborough, the local authority is set to lose another £30 million over the next three years and, as of 23 October this year, the Government grant had been reduced by 80%. Between 2010 and 2015, expenditure on services for children and young people fell by £7.8 million in real terms—a fall of 21.9%. I received email correspondence from a constituent named Tracie, who said:

“Social Services are a nightmare”.

Appointments are repeatedly cancelled and social workers do not reply to emails, because our local authorities are overstretched and underfunded. As I said, we cannot keep expecting them to do more for less.

On 31 March 2015, 1,860 children in Peterborough had been identified through assessment as being formally in need of a specialist children’s service. Furthermore, 354 children in Peterborough are being looked after by the local authority and 23% of those are living in poverty. We need sustainable forms of funding, based on the cost of delivering current and future services, and not regressively focused on past spending.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) on securing this important debate. I was pleased to meet her briefly yesterday for the first time to discuss today’s topic, and I appreciated the passion and eloquence with which she argued her points, but although we may agree on the analysis of the problem, the solutions may not be as simple as she thinks.

I am sure we both agree that local authorities are tasked with providing some of our most important public services. Very clearly, we also agree that some of the most critical are the services that they provide to protect and support our most vulnerable children. That is a varied and complex responsibility, ranging from proactive and preventive early help to support children and families who are struggling to manage, to the critical end of the spectrum, as we have heard, where there is a real risk—a live risk—to young people, and where social workers are tasked with making tough decisions that protect lives and transform outcomes.

Right now, two thirds of our most vulnerable children live in local authorities where service provision is less than good. Although 89% of our schools are good or outstanding, only 36% of children’s services received the same rating. My Department works tenaciously to address that, but it is not an acceptable state of affairs. We are engaging with our colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government on the questions that the hon. Lady raises about funding, but we must be realistic. Quality is not only dependent on money. High-quality services need excellent leadership, a skilled and experienced workforce, and rigorous, evidence-based practice. Since I started this job six months ago, I have been impressed by how much of that good work is already out there and how much my Department has already done to spread it more widely.

Our reform agenda was set in 2016 and put into legislation earlier this year. The far-reaching suite of reforms set out a deeply ambitious approach to tackling the challenges within the system. It was intended not only to implement short-term interventions that would create better outcomes for children within the system now, but to lay the foundations for the future, ensuring that in years to come local authorities were equipped to deliver high-quality provision to future generations of vulnerable young people.

As part of that, over the past few years we have launched a major programme of reform to expand the numbers and quality of those entering social work. Frontline and Step Up are now well established entry-level schemes attracting high-performing graduates and older career changers into the profession, to bolster some of the excellent teams already out there. Meanwhile, the national assessment and accreditation system, due to launch in July, will raise the professional status of child and family social workers, providing a clear career path, as well as ensuring that these critical public servants have the knowledge and skills they need to practise effectively.

Our ambition is to create a truly evidence-based learning system for the sector, and the work is already well under way. This autumn, I was pleased to announce the two organisations that would establish the world’s first What Works centre for children’s social care. That vital piece of the reform jigsaw puzzle has now begun its incubation and I am excited that, not long from now, that fabulous resource will be used daily by policy makers, commissioners and practitioners, supporting them to make informed decisions, based on a rigorous catalogue of evidence that lets them know in an easy and accessible manner what interventions work.

That will be bolstered by the developing evidence from the children’s social care innovation programme, which since 2013 has injected £200 million into the sector to support nearly 100 innovative projects designed to improve outcomes for children across the country. The hon. Lady will know that her own constituency has benefited greatly from two such initiatives. Peterborough has received funding of up to £1.2 million over three years to support the commissioning of its fostering, adoption and permanency services to the Adolescent and Children’s Trust, a non-profit organisation committed to securing better and more permanent outcomes for all children and young people in care. Peterborough is also one of the four local authorities that is replicating the successful Hertfordshire innovation project. With funding from the first bidding round of the innovation programme, Hertfordshire has seen great results for children and their families with their family safeguarding model of social work. We are excited to see how the scale and spread of that model to Peterborough, Luton, Bracknell Forest and West Berkshire will replicate similar results for families in those areas.

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Does the Minister agree that what he is talking about is the higher end and most costly element of children’s services, which is our looked-after children and our children in care? What we need to do is to put that resource in at the earlier stages with children, before they go into crisis.

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I visited the Pause programme in south London, which works with women who may become pregnant and have their children taken into care regularly, to break the cycle that makes life so difficult for them and, of course, for the children who have to be taken into care. It is an innovation that saves money. I was told that for every £1 invested in the programme in Greenwich, they save £5 in other interventions. Life is much better for those women. I met a number of women who had been involved in the project.

That is not to say that the system is delivering across the board or that we have achieved success in achieving our vision of a country where all children are protected from harm. There are still too many examples of young people and their families being let down by poor-quality services. My Department continues to take action to intervene where performance is not good enough.

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Is the Minister aware of the comment from the chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that there are children in care unnecessarily—children who would not be in care if they had the help that is available in some parts of the country? The inference is that the service is very patchy and that a child might end up in the care system, when elsewhere in the country there would be sufficient investment to help protect them and keep them safely at home.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have authorities that have dramatically reduced the number of children being taken into care by making early interventions. That saves money, makes the local authority more cost effective and is the sort of innovation that we want to spread around the country, from the good or outstanding authorities to the other authorities that are, unfortunately, letting down too many children and not spending the hard-earned taxpayers’ money deployed for their use as effectively as they might. We need to improve the standard of children’s social care in so many authorities where they are not delivering as well as elsewhere.

We have strengthened our approach to intervention in cases where councils are failing to provide adequate services for children in need of help and protection, looked-after children or care leavers. That programme of intervention is yielding real results. Some 36 local authorities have been lifted out of failure since 2010 and we are seeing a positive impact from the independent children’s social care trusts that we have set up in Doncaster and Slough. We also have great examples of local authorities, such as Leicester City and West Berkshire, that have turned their services around at an impressive pace, underlining what can be achieved with a relentless focus on improvement along with the right help and support. I am of course pleased with such results, but I am not complacent—we will continue to act swiftly in cases of failure and to act decisively to ensure improvement is happening everywhere in the system.

We have identified £20 million to be invested in improvement support to help create a system of sector-led improvement, founded on systematic and effective self-assessment and peer challenge. We have enjoyed real success in working with sector partners on that. Together, we are testing a system of regional improvement alliances that will, in time, spread to the whole country and enable a robust system of support and challenge between local authorities, supported by key partners such as Ofsted and my Department.

We are expanding our partners in practice programme. Our PiPs, as they are familiarly referred to, are excellent local authorities whose children’s services are secure and whose leadership is strong. For a few years now, the partners have been pioneering excellent practice and working systematically to spread it across the system. They are a model of good practice, not seen from a distance but working hand-in-hand alongside teams in other authorities that want to learn and improve their own practice. For example, North Yorkshire, my own excellent Conservative-controlled local authority, is working with other councils to diagnose problems and agree on what support is needed, extending practical help to nine areas across the country. We aim at least to double the number of partners in practice in the current expansion application process. That will ensure we have dedicated teams of excellent practitioners, with additional capacity built into their council, which enables them to get into struggling authorities and offer practical, on-the-ground support to help them to improve their service provision.

It is clear that much has already been done to ensure that every penny spent on children’s services is being spent effectively on delivering good outcomes for vulnerable children.

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The spend on agency staff has nearly doubled across the UK, not just in Scotland or England and Wales. Does the Minister agree that spending huge sums of money on agencies drains funding, which leads to a poorer quality of services across the board, so something needs to be done to attract more people to that career path?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the typical problems that I come across when I visit failing authorities is that they have trouble retaining and recruiting staff, and therefore tend to rely on agency staff to do that work. I do not want to detract from the work done by agency staff, but the cost of using them can sometimes be twice as much as the cost of employing people in-house. It is a frustrating side effect of failure, and it means that other factors come into play that make it even more difficult to get those authorities back where they need to be. That is why partners in practice and other innovations are working so well to improve the quality of children’s social care. Getting decisions right first time is the best way of ensuring that children who may be in danger and are certainly in need get what they need.

Local authorities increased spending on children and young people’s services to more than £9 billion last year. In some areas, demand for services is rising and local budgets are under pressure. We recognise that councils are delivering children’s services in a challenging environment, and they need to make tough choices about their priorities to achieve efficiencies. The Government have already done much to support local government spend. We are in the second year of an unprecedented four-year finance settlement for local government, which was accepted by 97% of councils. It gives authorities greater funding certainty over the medium term and enables them to be more proactive in planning for the long term. It also better equips them to prepare for the upcoming reforms under which local government will be funded through local taxes.

It is indeed critical to get funding right, and we do not rest on our laurels. We recognise that funding pressures on local authorities may be greater in some parts of the country than in others, and we are aware of concerns about the fairness of the current funding distributions. The Government have therefore reaffirmed our commitment to the DCLG-led fair funding review, which aims to address concerns about the fairness of the current funding distributions. We will carry out an evidence-based review of the funding formulae to ensure they reflect the shifting factors that impact on the cost of providing services, such as changing populations and demographic pressures. Department for Education officials are working closely with colleagues at DCLG and with the sector, and are determined to get this right for children’s social care services.

The hon. Member for Peterborough briefly mentioned Sure Start centres. There are 3,130 children’s centres still open, and they deliver excellent care in many cases. That is a fall of only 14%. I think the mistake is often made of not including children’s centres that have additional sites that have been amalgamated from a management point of view. There are still a lot of children’s centres opening.

It is also interesting that more family hubs are opening. Many local authorities see a family hub as a better way of delivering services to local people. I visited the children’s centre in my constituency—I mentioned this last week in the House—where some excellent work was being done on engaging with families, who were being shown how to produce cheap, nutritious meals with simple ingredients. The lady in charge looked out the window and said, “The children we really need in this centre aren’t here in the children’s centre. They are at home looking for a dry crust of bread in the kitchen because their mother hasn’t recovered from the hangover she inflicted upon herself the night before, or maybe the family is so dysfunctional that they are not able to get them here.” The workers at family hubs have been effective in getting into homes. It frustrates me that more than a quarter of parents do not take up the 15-hour free childcare availability for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, but I have heard that in Warrington the take-up is approaching 100% because of the way Warrington Borough Council has engaged with families and got them into the provision. There is a lot that can be done to improve the way the service works.

There are 30,000 children and families social workers employed in England, which is an increase of 4.7% on last year. Although there are 5,540 vacancies on the books, 71% of them are taken up by agency staff. Local authorities can be successful in getting their workers back on to the payroll, rather than employing them through agencies.

The hon. Member for Peterborough said that too many children are going into care. In some cases, local authorities can safely bring down rates of looked-after children. The innovation programme is part of the answer to that problem, and it enables good practice to be shared. In other cases, it is a sad but necessary intervention. It may be down to better identification of issues relating to child sexual exploitation and gang risk. Overall, the decision is for the local authority. The best interests of the child and the protection of the child have to be paramount.

Providing support for preventive services and preventing cases from escalating must be at the centre of the work of every single director of children’s services and social worker around the country. The DCLG provides funding through the troubled families grant, which supports struggling children and families. We have funded a number of programmes that focus on getting help right early in the innovation programme.

I am enormously grateful for the attention that the hon. Lady has given to this issue. It fills me with confidence to know that there are people on both sides of the House advocating for the most vulnerable in our society. As I hope she can see from the reforms I outlined, we are committed to making a real change to the system that is as deep and long-lasting as it is wide-ranging. I also hope that she acknowledges the work we have already begun, which will ensure that this crucial service has the right amount of money and that it is being spent on the right things and in the right places. Collaboration across Whitehall and across the sector will ensure that my Department builds a system that weathers challenges both now and in the future and ensures that this country continues to lead the way in its provision for the most vulnerable children.

Question put and agreed to.