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Children’s Social Care: Rotherham

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

I am grateful for the chance to hold this debate because I need the Minister to hear about and understand the unique situation facing Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council with regard to children’s services. The debate is also timely, as we have just debated the local government finance report.

I am sure the Minister agrees that there is no more important topic to be debated than the safeguarding of children and securing them a positive future. Local authorities up and down the country are struggling to fund their children’s social care services in the light of cuts since 2010, and Rotherham is no different. In real terms, the funding for Rotherham’s budget since 2013-14 has been reduced by 74%—a cut of more than £62 million. The Government have told councils such as Rotherham that they are making “significant additional resources” available to support children’s social care, but that funding is primarily for innovation and does not redress the shortfall in core funding affecting so many local authorities.

The depletion in available resources has been compounded by a rising demand for children’s social care services. Rotherham council has experienced a dramatic rise in demand since 2015. There has been a significant increase in the number of children in receipt of statutory social work intervention at all levels—children in need, child protection and children in care. Nationally, the number of child protection inquiries has increased by 158% in 10 years, from 77,000 in 2007-08 to 198,000 in 2017-18.

Like other authorities across the country, Rotherham has experienced a significant increase in demand. In Rotherham, as of December 2018, the number of children on a child protection plan was 562, and the number of children in need was 1,447. In Rotherham, the number of children in care has risen from 407 children in March 2015 to 634 in December 2018, well above the national average increase. Rotherham has experienced the third highest increase in numbers in 2017-18 out of 152 local authorities in England. Let us remember that the average annual cost of care, based on placement cost alone, for a looked-after child in Rotherham is £54,000 per child.

A significant contribution to this dramatic increase is the impact of Operation Stovewood, the National Crime Agency investigation into past child sexual exploitation in Rotherham by grooming gangs. The investigation is unique, and it is the largest operation the NCA has ever carried out.

My hon. Friend will remember that in May last year I stood up at Prime Minister’s Question Time and asked the Prime Minister about further funding bid for Fusion, which had only 30% of the original funding. This bid is to help to support the survivors of CSE and to pursue convictions against the perpetrators. Is it her understanding, as it is mine, that no further Fusion project money has gone into Rotherham?

Sadly, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This was a multi-agency hub for survivors, and the council argued in the strongest terms the need for such multi-agency working, as did the National Crime Agency, but no, the money has not been forthcoming.

Operation Stovewood has placed unprecedented and unbudgeted additional pressures on the authority. The council estimates the investigation is currently costing an additional £4.3 million per year, which is estimated to increase to £7 million next year, yet only £500,000 per annum of additional money has been forthcoming. The decades of sexual abuse in Rotherham and other towns have been a great shame on this nation. If there had been an earthquake affecting the lives of 1,400 children in Rotherham, we would have got emergency funding from the Government to help with their recovery. However, with no such money forthcoming for child abuse, we are largely leaving victims and survivors to get on with the recovery themselves.

May I first put on the record our thanks to the hon. Lady for all that she does in this sector? It is a very difficult sector to work in—it is very difficult to put forward the stories she puts forward—but she does it admirably well. I think this House is indebted to her, and in particular her constituents should be very proud to have her as their MP.

Does the hon. Lady not agree that social services throughout the United Kingdom are teetering on the brink of collapse? While we are debating this issue in this Chamber, there are children throughout the United Kingdom right now who are sitting in neglected homes, with no one to turn to and no hope as they slip through the net. Does she not believe that it is past time that we secured—we look to the Minister very gently and very honestly as we say this—the additional funding and training to enable the system to handle the vast volume of children who need someone to advocate for them as they scream in silence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I completely agree with the points he makes. We are storing up a national disaster if we do not support these children, ideally with early intervention, or with whatever help they need throughout their lives. I ask the Minister: please will he agree to invest additional resources in supporting looked-after children and care leavers—yes, in Rotherham, but also across the country—so that they can get the proper support they need to repair their lives?

Rotherham council is doing the very best it can. Ofsted gave Rotherham high praise in its 2018 inspection report, which I would like to quote. It said:

“Improved identification of risk and continued focus on uncovering and tackling complex abuse have led to increased demands on social care. A recent increase in the numbers of children looked after has placed additional demands on placements. Some of this increase is due to improvements in identifying risk, and to the local authority’s complex abuse work.”

It went on to say that the council had plans in place to address the demand:

“They are not complacent in the approach they take in order to better understand, continue to identify, and address the large-scale serious abuse suffered by children and young people. Managers, leaders and partners are diligent in their ongoing efforts to expose both current and historic exploitation. This is seen in the number of successful prosecutions and ongoing court trials of perpetrators. Support to encourage children and young people who have suffered abuse helps them to feel safe enough to disclose their experiences and continues to develop. This includes services for those who are now adults. The stringent efforts of the local authority and partners to confront large-scale exploitation and abuse will continue to have its challenges, as victims continue to be identified.”

I agree with the Ofsted report.

The council has committed to implementing successful evidence-based programmes and has invested nearly £1 million of its own funding in innovative programmes alone. Recent analysis found that its expenditure on children’s social care has increased 90% between 2010 and 2016, compared with an average of 30% for other English local authorities. But the flip side of providing the level of care needed is the amount of extra funding for children’s social care services that the council has had to find to meet escalating demand. The council increased the children’s services budget by £20 million in 2016-17, but as demand continues to increase further, Rotherham borough council forecasts an overall £16 million overspend for children and young people’s services for the current financial year. That leaves the council yet again in the position of having to find even more funding from its own resources, and it is further increasing the children’s social care budget in 2019-20 by a net £7 million, making a total annual investment of £27 million over and above the 2015-16 budget.

I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on this debate but on the enormous amount of work that she has done in this area. Does she agree that the most expensive thing is getting it wrong? That has been borne out in Rotherham and in other high-profile cases. The fear is that the money now going in to mop up the problems after getting it wrong—the intensive care for sexual-predator victims historically—is now taking up all the resources, so that there is a shortage of resources for the preventive work needed to make sure that children do not get into such dangers in the future. It is a false economy to take our eye off that ball while mopping up the problems of the past.

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is short-term and does not address the underlying problems that the early intervention of good social work can do to prevent such escalation and the costs associated with it—not only the financial costs, but the costs to the individual.

With the exception of £3.4 million of one-off support from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in 2015-16 and the £500,000 of annual funding provided for Stovewood, the council has had to fund these increased costs by making savings on other services and prioritising resources for children’s services. The additional funding announced for social care in the autumn Budget and earlier today is insufficient to support the extraordinary levels of demand on councils across the country.

The Chancellor’s recent announcement of an £85 million fund to assist councils with rising numbers of children in care is welcome, but the Department for Education has indicated that this money is likely to go to local authorities that Ofsted deems to be requiring improvement. Rotherham, which has worked so hard to improve itself, now has a service deemed good. Because of its success, it is being punished and is unlikely to get Government support. That simply is not fair. The current funding system rewards failure, not levels of need. Will the Minister clarify if any of the £85 million will go to councils which have good or outstanding Ofsted ratings? If not, will he justify the rationale for denying support to those councils, regardless of the number of children they have in care?

Rotherham council has worked so hard to make its service a success, even in the light of drastic cuts, but how long can it and other councils be expected to maintain standards in such a difficult climate? Rotherham council has studied the reasons behind the rise in numbers of children in receipt of social work services, and in particular the numbers of children in care. It has found that when early intervention is not available or not properly co-ordinated, children do not receive the right intervention at the right time. Consequently, concerns have then escalated to the point where children have been taken into care, which is costly to the state and devastating to the child.

As funding has dried up, councils have found themselves in a double bind. Required under statute to deliver services to children most at risk of harm and children in care, resources have been concentrated to the extent that the Local Government Association finds that 73% of children’s social care funding is now spent in just those areas. Of course, providing funding for the most vulnerable is the right thing to do. However, the reduction has driven a reduction in council spending on universal services such as Sure Start and early help, which so often provide the light-touch early intervention that can identify concerns and support families before crisis point is reached. I therefore beseech the Minister to recognise the value in children’s care services and recognise that every child in this country deserves an opportunity to thrive, and that that takes persistent sustained and ambitious intervention from Government to achieve. Councils will be £3 billion short by 2025 if they maintain current service levels. Will the Minister agree today to ask the Chancellor to meet this shortfall in the spending review?

I am also concerned that there is insufficient support for teenagers and young adults as they transition out of social care, often without the support of parents or carers. In Rotherham, girls who were sexually abused as children have previously fallen through the gaps as they reach the age of maturity and statutory support falls away. Despite exploitation continuing beyond their 18th birthday, society turns its back and instead blames the victim and accuses them of making damaging lifestyle choices, rather than seeing them as vulnerable people in need of support.

Support for 16 and 17-year-olds and care leavers must be improved. Children’s Society research has unsurprisingly found that vulnerabilities in childhood can intensify into early adulthood if left unchecked. The Department for Education’s own research shows that children receiving statutory support from children’s services do less well at school and are the most likely group to end up NEET—not in education, employment or training—in early adulthood. Will the Minister therefore commit to reviewing the support available for 16 and 17-year-old children in need as they make the difficult move into adulthood?

The Minister knows that excellent social work practice occurs in local authorities across the country on a daily basis. Families receive a service that helps them to get their lives back on the right track: dads get support to quit drinking, mums get the mental health treatment required, parents re-enter work, and children get to school on time. If MPs query what the extra money I am requesting is actually needed for, then I beg them to visit their local children’s social care teams and listen to what social workers say.

More resources result in a less stretched service and more time for professionals to spend with families providing the support they need at the earliest possible moment. More resources result in that little bit extra in the social worker’s budget: a pram for the destitute mum; a burger for a teenager running away from home; or a taxi to get dad across town for his mental health assessment. Why is that important? Because social workers want and need to give every opportunity they can to keep children at home with their families.

In November last year, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights concluded that poverty in the UK has been a political choice. Well, the Government have before them another political choice: whether to fund services that protect vulnerable children from harm and provide high-quality care for children in the state system, or to choose to ignore the crisis and pretend that their funding for innovation and transformation is anything more than a drop in the ocean. Let us not be in any doubt: this is also a political choice. Will the Minister please make the right choice tonight and commit to provide the core funding that Rotherham so desperately needs?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. We have heard interventions from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about her work in this area. I whole-heartedly agree that nothing is more important than the work we do to ensure that vulnerable children are able to live safe and happy lives and achieve their potential wherever they live and whatever their background or circumstance.

I congratulate Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council on how hard it has worked to turn around its children’s services, with the instrumental support of our commissioners, including Mary Ney and Patricia Bradwell. I was delighted when Rotherham’s children’s services were rated “good” by Ofsted last March, following three years of intervention by my Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to address systemic failings. That is a real credit to Ian Thomas and Sharon Kemp, and to the local politicians who have worked so closely with them. It is good to see the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on the Opposition Front Bench. He, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley and the hon. Member for Rotherham have spent many hours working with their local politicians and leaders to deliver that turnaround. They have shown that when there is buy-in from leaders locally, both politically and at officer class, real change can be achieved. This was not intervention for intervention’s sake, but to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and families in our society.

As I hope we all agree, we welcome the further £410 million in 2019-20 for local authorities to invest in adult and children’s social care services, which was announced in the autumn Budget. That is on top of the more than £200 billion until 2020 that was made available in the 2015 spending review for councils to deliver local services, including children’s services. Of that, Rotherham is currently forecast to have a core spending power of £206 million in 2019-20—an increase of 1.6% on last year.

I recognise that Rotherham and other local authorities are delivering in a very challenging environment—it would be foolish to claim otherwise—and that they have had to make difficult choices as they work to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. I assure the House that my Department is continuing to work closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding as part of the spending review. We are also working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to inform a review of relative needs and resources to make sure that at future Government funding settlements, the money gets to where it is needed most.

On top of that core funding, my Department has agreed to provide an additional £2 million to Rotherham over the four years to 2021, recognising the additional pressures from the increase in children’s social care referrals from Operation Stovewood. That is in addition to the nearly £750,000 that we gave in 2015-16 to 2016-17 to alleviate the immediate pressures on services. My Department also remains committed, along with the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and NHS England, to continuing to work with Rotherham and South Yorkshire police to assess the demand on local services as a result of Operation Stovewood. As set out in the Government’s victims strategy, we want to support even more victims to speak up by giving them the certainty that they will be understood, protected and supported through their journey, regardless of their circumstances or background and whether or not they report the crime.

We all agree that the failings that led to the child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham must never, never happen again, either in Rotherham or elsewhere. The Secretary of State and I are united in making it our priority to do everything that we can to prevent that. That is why my Department is funding the child sexual exploitation response unit to provide independent support to local areas and will be funding a new £2 million child exploitation service, which is launching later this year. That is on top of over £2 million of funding for two innovation programme projects. The hon. Member for Rotherham referred to them as drops in the ocean, but they are innovative programmes to test new models of safeguarding children. That includes the Lighthouse project, based in Camden, which is providing a complete range of services for victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation and their families, under one roof.

We know that many of the children and young people who were victims of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham are now facing, or have already faced, the difficult transition to adulthood, about which the hon. Lady is rightly concerned. The Government are committed to ensuring that they and all other vulnerable children are ready for adult life, avoiding cliff edges in support. That is why we have extended the offer of support from local authorities to all care leavers up to the age of 25, and why our reforms to support special educational needs also now extend from nought to 25.

By revising it last year, we strengthened the statutory guidance, “Working together to safeguard children”, to make clear the importance of transitions, and it now states clearly the expectation that a local authority should plan for transitions in advance for children on child in need plans and child protection plans, including, specifically, where children are likely to move between children’s and adult services.

I turn to the hon. Lady’s comments about early help, which we know plays an important role in promoting safe and stable families. Early help is about intervening early with the right families at the right time and in the right way. The statutory guidance is clear that in doing that, local areas should have in place a comprehensive range of effective and evidence-based services to address assessed needs early.

Across Government, we are doing that by tackling the problems that cause children to be in need. That includes better supporting those with alcohol-dependent parents, landmark legislation for those affected by domestic abuse, investment in early years education and support for children and young people’s mental health. The Government have also committed £920 million to the troubled families programme to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple, high-cost problems by 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the cost of non-intervention and failure is much higher. Rotherham has been allocated £5.5 million from 2015 to 2020 and has already received over £3 million of that funding.

In making sure that the right families receive the right support at the right time, investment in innovation is key and must not be underestimated. The hon. Member for Rotherham is critical of that investment, but I would argue that it is right that core social care funding be supplemented by that support for local authorities to manage rising demand and costs through adopting and adapting the best new practices.

To be clear, I am not critical of innovation—it is great—but it should come on top of core funding, not instead of it. The Minister mentioned the £500,000 a year for four years. That will fund 10 looked-after children placements. We have over 600 in Rotherham. Will he please just tell me whether he is going to give us additional funding? We are on our knees in Rotherham and begging him for support.

I attempted earlier to explain our plan for the spending review, but I hope the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot pre-empt a spending review from the Dispatch Box.

The sector, my Department, the Ministry of Justice and the new What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, funded by my Department, are all looking to understand better what makes a difference in supporting children to stay with their families safely and preventing them from reaching this crisis point. Strong decision making is critical to ensuring that children are removed from their families only as a last resort.

As I highlighted earlier, promising signs are emerging from our £270 million investment in the children’s social care innovation, partners in practice and improvement programmes. For example, an integrated edge-of-care service, No Wrong Door, in north Yorkshire, has delivered extraordinary results, with 86% of young people staying out of care and getting greater stability and improved educational and employment outcomes. All of this is strengthening families and protecting children.

We continue to learn from what achieves the best outcomes for children and families and to support local authorities to adopt and adapt the programmes that successfully intervene to prevent problems from escalating. The hon. Lady mentioned the £84 million investment over the next five years to build on learning from the most promising innovation programmes and projects, such as that in north Yorkshire, and to improve social work practice and decision making. In up to 20 local authorities, this new strengthening families and protecting children programme will support more children to stay safe at home with their families, where that is in their best interests. The hon. Lady asked how the funds would be allocated. We are working with the sector to determine how best to do that, looking particularly at authorities that are struggling to meet challenges caused by rising pressures.

The practice of staff locally—from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers—is also paramount in ensuring that the right children are given the right support at the right time. We are undertaking a programme of reforms to ensure that there is a highly capable, highly skilled workforce making good decisions about what is best for children and families. That includes a significant investment in training and development to meet clear professional standards for social workers. We have also established a new specialist social work regulator, Social Work England, and we are rolling out a national assessment and accreditation system. I am pleased that we are discussing Rotherham’s participation in the second phase of our voluntary roll-out of the programme.

Alongside our existing programme for aspiring practice leaders and new practice supervisors, we are working with the sector to establish a strategy to support current and future leaders. As I have said before, this is about realising our aim to establish a consistently stronger, more confident profession, making better assessments of children’s safety and welfare and equipped with the skills to deliver lasting change for families.

Let me end by echoing the hon. Lady’s thanks to social workers and all those who work so hard to support vulnerable families and children every day. I have seen their passion and dedication at first hand. For example, last year, during my visit to Brighton, I spent the day with two social workers, Ruth and Jen, who were an absolute credit to the profession. As I said at the beginning of my speech, we have a shared ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable children have the safety and stability that they need in order to achieve their potential.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.