Underfunded safeguarding services leaves unidentified children at risk, writes, Jolyon Jones of SWAN West Midlands.
A shortfall of resources has been identified as a critical issue in the Le Grand Review of children’s social care services in Birmingham which was published last week.
The independent review was appointed by the Government in November to report on the ability of the Council to make improvements to it’s safeguarding services after being rated as inadequate by repeated OFSTED inspections since 2009.
The underfunding of child social care in the city is identified as a likely factor affecting the relatively low rate of child protection referrals into the Department.
The report raises a current concern that there are a significant number of young people in need of protection who have not been referred to the council, what the report calls at ‘unidentified risk’.
The Reviewer’s compared the rates of referral and safeguarding activity between different council’s and found that there are a lower number of active child protection cases in Birmingham than should be expected.
In Birmingham the rate of child protection enquiries per 10,000 children for 2013 was 107.5 compared to the national average of 111.5. This rate of referral would also be expected to be higher in Birmingham due to the higher proportion of local children living in poverty and in low income families in the city.
The review authors raise the possibility that Birmingham has developed a high threshold criteria to cope with the under resourcing of safeguarding service.
Thresholds refer to the known level of risk or actual harm experienced by children which would trigger a child protection enquiry or would require a child to be placed on a child protection plan.
‘A hypothesis that can be drawn from this analysis is that there has been a long term under-investment in children’s social care services, which has led to the development of services that manage demand only by maintaining very high thresholds.’ (1)
The Council has been asked to provide plans and to identify the additional resources needed to meet an increase in referrals which would include those currently at ‘unidentified risk’’.
The report calculated the underspend by dividing the gross spend in children’s social care by the number of children living in deprived households. ‘The average spend among the 20 local authorities with the highest proportion of deprived children is £779 per child while Birmingham’s is £640 per head, the 6th lowest.’
The report considers the historic underspend on children’s social care service to have been the result of a lack of consistent political interest by past and present Council leaderships in children’s social care.
Cllr Brigid Jones, Cabinet member for Children and Young people, has confirmed that the level of spend recommended by District Auditors reports was disregarded ‘year on year’ by Council leaders and that she only looked to increase the spend on Children’s social care following the appointment of Peter Hay in the summer of 2013. She came into office in May 2012. (2)
Jones was interviewed by Adrian Goldberg on Radio WM on Friday morning following the publication of the Le Grand report.
During the interview Councillor Jones admitted that she was responsible for submitting a budget to the Labour Group and the Council for 2013-14 which had contributed to the continued underfunding of safeguarding services.
She placed responsibility onto her senior officers and said that in setting the budget that she was acting on the ‘best professional advice at the time’ and that they had failed to flag the issue of the underspend.
Cllr Jones, as a Cabinet member, will have been aware of the Annual Audit letter which was received by Cabinet on 10th December 2012. The Audit letter recommended increasing the spend on safeguarding services in response to the failed OFSTED inspection.
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 Council budget for 2013-14, for which Cllr Jones claims responsibility, cut £22.5m from Children’s services including over £9m direct cuts from social care services. This cut to children’s social care services will probably have increased the level of relative underspend.
The Council Cabinet in December 2013 did agree to find an additional £9.6m spend as part of its latest Improvement plan for safeguarding services.
In a report to that Cabinet meeting there was an acknowledgment that the impact of direct cuts together with the historic underfunding had contributed to the continued failure of services to improve and despite being the subject of a Government improvement notice.
‘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.’(4)
A question to Cllr Jones
The Annual Auditors letter is a statutory requirement. There is a duty upon the Council to take into account all relevant information when making decisions about their budgets including the Annual Audit letter.
Cllr Jones has admitted that recommendations of previous Annual Audit letters in regard to underfunding were disregarded. This raises the question as to whether in ignoring the Audit letters recommendation to ‘consider the level of resources alongside its response to the OFSTED report’ Cllr Jones and the Council was acting lawfully?
In addition to there being a possible matter of law, there is also an issue of the fundamental political and moral judgment involved in the decision to cut Children’s social care services by £9m for 2013-14 in the knowledge of the underfund and the parlous state of services to safeguard Birmingham’s children in the fourth year of an Improvement notice.
The lost year – Safeguarding Birmingham’s children
(1) Para 5.10 p12. Report to the Secretary of state for Education and the Minister for Children and Families on ways forward for Children’s social care services in Birmingham February 2014
(2). p13 Grant Thornton – Birmingham City Council Annual Audit Letter 2011/12. October 2012.
(3). Cllr Brigid Jones interviewed by Adrian Goldberg on the Pete Morgan at Breakfast Show on Radio WM on Friday 28th March 2014. At 1hr 39m http://bbc.in/P1XFna
(4). p10 BCC – Integrated Transformation: Our Strategy for Improving Services for Children and Young People in Birmingham 12 December 2013