Jolyon Jones of West Midlands SWAN writes on Birmingham City Council's serious underspend in Children's services.
Birmingham Council's cabinet this week agreed a Transformation plan for the social work services charged with safeguarding children in the city. The plan proposes that an additional £9.2m is allocated which will be a 'permanent increase to the safeguarding revenue' and will be carried forward into the budget for 2014-15.
This is an important move by the Council which will help stabilise safeguarding services, and in particular the staffing of social work teams, and most importantly it will hopefully lead to improvements in the protection of children in the city.
The background to this move is that in the financial year’s 2011-12 and 2012-13 Birmingham council's spend on children’s social care reduced from £617 to £607 per young person. (1) (This does not include the budget cuts of 2013-14 which will likely see a further drop in per head spend this year).
There are however some critical issues regarding the timing and the significant delay in the Council finding this additional funding.
Back to December 2012
Each Council is legally required to be audited and to be issued with an Annual Audit letter. The letter is a statutory report and provides a statement of the Council's financial position and includes recommendations for action by the Council. (2)
Twelve months ago Birmingham Council was told by independent auditors in a statutory letter that it was underspending by around 10% on Children’s social care compared to other local authorities.
This advice was not acted upon by Councillors in the full knowledge that Birmingham’s safeguarding service had been in a period of sustained crisis. The Council received an improvement notice in 2009 and more recently had been rated as inadequate following an unannounced OFSTED inspection in September 2012.
The Council was advised by the Auditor's of the massive underspend in late 2012 and the Annual Audit letter for 2011-12 recommended that the Council ‘consider the level of resources alongside its response to the OFSTED report.’
Auditor’s Grant Thornton noted that ‘the planned spend on children's social care for 2011-12 was £617 per young person. This is below the comparator group average of £678.’(3)
The Cabinet discussed the audit letter on 10th December 2012 and recommended that ‘there are no financial commitments arising from this report’ (4) and that the Council should ensure appropriate action is taken to respond to Grant Thornton’s findings.
There remains a critical question as to what consideration was given to the Auditors findings and why none of the Council bodies that considered the Audit letter did not address the identified social care underspend.
The evidence of the Council’s actions are the Budget decisions it made for 2013-14.
The Council went on to set a budget for 2013-14 consisting of cuts of £22.5m to children’s services including some social care provision.
The Budget 2013+ proposed to reallocate some resources within the Children’s services budget by shifting 'its profile of spend'. In regard to safeguarding services the Council committed only to protecting the spending for the frontline:
'In light of the ongoing Council Improvement Notice with regard to safeguarding and the recent Ofsted inspection findings, including the need to keep focused on improvements, front-line social work, child protection and fostering teams will be the primary areas for protection from further spending reductions.' (5)
The Council's commitment to protect spend was made although it was aware of its relative underspend on these critical services to protect young people.
Forward twelve months - December 2013
Twelve months on the crisis in Birmingham’s social care has deepened and Michael Gove has in the last month ordered an independent review of the Council’s capability to improve its safeguarding services and to make recommendations on future arrangements for the running of these children’s services in the city.
A key difficulty has been an intensification of a recruitment and retention crisis of frontline social workers. There has been an exodus of experienced social workers from Birmingham following a departmental re-organisation over the summer of 2013.
The Annual Audit letter for 2012-13, published in October 2013, was presented to the December Council cabinet meeting and raises the question as to whether this continuing underspend may have contributed to the ongoing crisis in safeguarding services:
Given the issues highlighted with regard to the protection of vulnerable children the Council should consider whether its inadequate arrangements are the result of insufficient resources or are the result of other management, staffing or governance failures. (6)
The letter confirmed that the gap between between Birmingham’s spend on social care for and that of the comparator cities for 2012-13 remained wide, being respectively £607.59 and £661.38 per young person.
Impact of the underspend
The recent Safeguarding Green Paper signaled a change of position by the Council. Finally in November 2013, a full twelve months after the 2011-12 Audit letter, the Council acknowledged the significance of the underspend. According the Green Paper ‘the review has revealed that current funding to children’s social care is significantly less than comparator core cities’. (7)
The Cabinet has recently agreed an Improvement Plan for Safeguarding services, to be presented to the Independent Review Team when it comes to Birmingham next month, which acknowledged the combined impact upon safeguarding services of both historic under resourcing as well as cuts.
The service has been historically underfunded yet it has continued to face budget reductions whilst trying to improve. This has included a severe lack of effective support services or infrastructure, thus undermining its ability to deliver or sustain improvement. (8)
This final strangled and obtuse sentence is the closest that we will get to an admission that under resourcing has adversely impacted on safeguarding children in the city. The wider implication of this statement is that Birmingham City Council wasted a full twelve months before seeking to invest in frontline services and contributed to a deepening of the organisational crisis of safeguarding services during 2013.
If a Social Worker failed to act to on information to protect a child they would lose their registration. The present Council leadership knowingly chose not to act on the recommendations of the 2011-12 Audit letter they should answer for their political decisions.
(1) p13 Grant Thornton - Birmingham City Council Annual Audit Letter 2011/12. October 2012.
p14 Grant Thornton - The Annual Audit Letter for Birmingham City Council Year ended 31 March 2013. November 2013
(2). Audit Commission - Code of Audit Practice 2010
(3) p13 Grant Thornton - Birmingham City Council Annual Audit Letter 2011/12. October 2012.
(4) p2 BCC Report of Director of Finance on Annual Audit Letter. 10th December 2012
(5) p136 BCC - Council Business Plan and Budget 2013+
(6) p14 Grant Thornton - The Annual Audit Letter for Birmingham City Council Year ended 31 March 2013. November 2013
(7) p4 BCC - Safeguarding,supporting and educating young people Green Paper
(8) p10 BCC - Integrated Transformation: Our Strategy for Improving Services for Children and Young People in Birmingham 12 December 2013