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A tale of two worlds at NCASC 2016

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A commentary on the mood at this week’s National Conference of Children and Adult Services 

It did not take long for a sense of impending doom to descend on the adult social care events at the National Conference of Children and Adult Services in Manchester this week.

As Richard Humphries, assistant director, policy at the King’s Fund flicked the switch on his introductory first slide during a session on the state of adult social care, delegates were greeted with images of the Grim Reaper and the four horses of the apocalypse.

“Sorry”, said Mr Humphries, “this still was intended for a presentation on STPs”.

The faint laughter in the room was appreciative rather than generous.

But Mr Humphries’ message was clear: the current crisis in social care is deadly serious and without swift and decisive action, the end of what we understand to be appropriate protection for the vulnerable is nigh.

Momentum had been building in the weeks running up to conference.

The King’s Fund, The Nuffield Trust, The National Audit Office, the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and, strikingly, the Care Quality Commission had all released stark evidence of the precarious situation of the care system and the genuine threat to the wellbeing of people who rely on support to maintain a basic quality of life. New figures from Adass show councils are forecasting a £441m overspend this year. 

Following a moving tribute to the “wisdom, humility and integrity” of Adass president Harold Bodmer, who died suddenly in July, Enfield LBC director of adult social care Ray James cut to the chase, warning that if money was not forthcoming the consequences would be “deeply distressing”.

He added that one million people who currently require state-funded care were “at risk”.

Mr James later expressed concern that the culture change required on the part of the NHS to begin to look upstream to ease demand pressures would “take some time”.

Izzi Seccombe, chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, was combative when challenging social care minister David Mowat during a session yesterday.

Mr Mowat looked rattled, or perhaps frustrated that he could offer no assurances on the autumn statement.

However, he then made a surprising assertion that STPs would not go ahead without council approval.

One director speculated to LGC that the mnister had either stumbled off message, or had offered a “glimmer of light among the gloom”.

Meanwhile, directors of children’s services appeared generally buoyed by the government’s focus on the sector, reflected in a flying visit by education minister Justine Greening yesterday.

There was a sense that recent government concessions on forced academisation, the planned removal of councils’ role in school improvement and the proposed executive model for a new social work regulator had boosted confidence.

Ms Greening’s speech, which included an announcement of the expansion of the innovation programme and new funding for social work training, was met with warm applause.

However, there would be a slight sting in the tale with the announcement of a government amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill.

The amendment would mean any professional standards for social workers developed by the new social work regulator would have to be approved by the education secretary, who could also appoint the body’s first chief executive.

But as one prominent director pointed out: “It could be worse.”

The pervading sense of optimism, however, was tempered by the immediate and pressing concern over the sharp rise in unaccompanied child migrants following the closure of “The Jungle” in Calais.

A survey by the Association of Children Services Directors found councils were struggling to find suitable placements and cover the costs of care.

However, there was relief among some councillors that their local authorities now had the opportunity to help children who they believed had left by the government in treacherous conditions for too long.

ADCS president Dave Hill made clear where he believed the main blame lay, telling conference that he and LGA colleagues had taken part in “gold calls” with the Home Office and DfE and were “taken aback” by how little the French government knew about the number of unaccompanied children in Calais.

He praised local government’s “amazing response” to the emergency and paid tribute to frontline council staff, describing social workers, foster carers and residential staff as “heroes”.

He added: “Thank you, you are a credit to public service and utterly child-focused in the face of an unprecedented and at times chaotic situation.”

Both sectors represented at conference face their own challenges, but the difference in mood between the two was stark.

While many children’s services directors appeared generally optimistic about perceived government support, their social care colleagues seemingly feel abandoned by Whitehall to simply fight fire.

Will the autumn statement later this month bring some relief? Don’t bet on it.  

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