LGC commentary on the National Children and Adults Services Conference.
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The National Conference of Adult and Children’s Services 2018 kicked off as Theresa May was preparing to persuade ministers to swallow her Brexit transition deal ahead of a crunch cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
However, as the government was about to lurch from alarming disarray to the cusp of collapse, the firm focus of both speakers and delegates was immediately on another aspect of the government’s shortcomings: it’s unwillingness, despite some recent welcome (yet inadequate) injections of cash, to acknowledge services protecting the desperately vulnerable will remain in clear and present danger, with potentially dire consequences for those who count on support.
A fired-up Association of Directors of Adult Services president Glen Garrod warned austerity had “gone too far” and said his colleagues across the country were no longer confident of meeting their statutory duties.
Stuart Gallimore, Mr Garrod’s counterpart at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, continued on a similar theme by passionately slamming recent government funding pledges as “wholly inadequate”. He then declared a hope the pledges offered “a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel rather than an oncoming express train”.
In a significant shift in tone, the very jovial care minister Caroline Dinenage yesterday referred to the conference as “the Glastonbury of care”. This not only raised doubts that the care minister had ever actually been to the festival but also posed questions over her judgement as many of her audience are struggling with stifling pressures in their high-stakes profession of providing care and protection for those who need it the most.
Ms Dinenage’s relaxed, cheerful approach at times bordered on stand-up. During her introduction she referenced the political tumult in Westminster declaring, with self-deprecation and admirable comic timing, “as far as I know I am still the minister of state for care”.
Ms Dinenage even invited some pantomime-style audience participation as she read out the councils that had been chosen as beneficiaries of the social care digital innovation fund.
She checked behind her to make sure letters were not falling off the set after joking of “doing a Theresa May” during a mild coughing fit, then encouraged delegates to “whoop” if their council’s name was read out, admitting the daringly unministerial move could badly backfire.
But her audience, in what was a surprising and pleasingly bizarre spectacle, duly obliged - and with increasing enthusiasm. Perhaps she had witnessed at first hand a Pyramid Stage performer expertly working a crowd after all.
Many delegates understandably appeared to enjoy the opportunity to let off some steam, but Ms Dinenage’s appearance was not simply style over substance.
She spoke with conviction about her brief and admitted with a common touch that she was “fed up with adult social care being described through the lense of the NHS”. Ms Dinenage boldly insisted there must be parity between the two - a brave political statement considering the reverence in which the beloved NHS is held. Cue the first of a flurry of warm applauses.
After health and social care secretary Matt Hancock this week had said increasing the share of the NHS budget spent on primary and community care “can’t wait”, Ms Dinenage added it was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to use the NHS’s £20bn ‘birthday present’ for prevention.
As tends to happen as the sun goes down and the cumulative impact of regular refreshments takes hold at Glastonbury, spirits were duly lifted.
Ms Dinenage announced the carer innovations funding, which supports heroic unpaid carers, would rise from £0.5m to £5m. A pervading sense of pleasant surprise, as if Beyonce had been announced as a last-minute replacement for Cliff Richard on the Pyramid Stage, was palpable.
Her admission that the funding elements of the forthcoming social care green paper would be “extremely green” did not appear to bring delegates down as they applauded enthusiastically at the end of her set, with LGC half expecting calls for an encore.
While the care minister, perhaps against expectations, had been a big hit and managed to create at least a partial sense of optimism, the appearance later of children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi felt more like a band having sound problems on a festival’s final day as the skies opened, the mud began to rise, and hangovers began to bite.
Irritation could be felt in the room at the government’s perceived apathy to children’s social care. But the animosity felt towards Mr Zahawi was perhaps surprising for two reasons.
He has generally been well-received by the sector for his willingness to engage – including, to his credit, a number of visits to the frontline – with what appears to be a sincere desire to improve the system.
Secondly, particularly as a junior minister, he is at the mercy of a Treasury which, as Mr Gallimore has pointed out, is applying a higher evidence test on the case for investment on children social care than other public services and is continuing a tradition of refusing to prioritise the vulnerable young.
The minister struggled with an awkward set of questions from the floor on finances and made an unconvincing and unpopular attempt to defend universal credit.
He also faced some robust chairing from Antoinette Bramble (Lab), the Local Government Association’s lead on children and young people, who, in a rarely-seen approach, pushed the minister to curtail his responses to allow more questions.
The usually assured Mr Zahawi stumbled towards the end of the session as delegates began to leave the auditorium.
If ministerial plenaries are considered the star turn at conferences in the absence of members of the cabinet, then delegates certainly appeared to give the two on the bill very different reviews.
But when the music is over and the lights go down, despite markedly different receptions, both ministers will ultimately remain slaves to the Treasury’s stubborn rhythm.
Jon Bunn, senior reporter