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Trauma, crisis and demand shape conference mood

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Commentary on the National Children and Adult Services conference

In increasingly complex and testing times, it was perhaps appropriate that the start of the National Children and Adult Services conference was rather awkward.

Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) – who has a tendency to go off script to deliver an improvised dose of straight-talking honesty – stuttered and sighed as he attempted to stick to a speech that had already been briefed by his press team to national media.

After abandoning his efforts following a series of pauses, Lord Porter soon got back into his stride to lament the logic of central government’s attitude to some of its most important responsibilities.

He vented his frustration at what he clearly believes is a dereliction of duty, as he called on the government to look long term and provide councils with the resources required to prevent people going into hospital, rather than maintain a heavy-handed and clumsy approach to short-term delayed transfers of care.

Councils have now received warning letters from health secretary Jeremy Hunt and communities secretary Sajid Javid over their perceived performance on meeting their delayed transfer targets, which Suffolk CC leader Colin Noble (Con) described as containing “varying degrees of naughty step”.

Lord Porter said the LGA had played a role in persuading the Department of Health not to withdraw vital funding this financial year from councils judged not to be reducing delayed transfers of care at a sufficient rate, as had previously been the plan.

His disdain for the government’s approach to this issue – and many others affecting local government – was clear when he advised councils to throw any letter from Whitehall which “does not contain a threat” in the bin. This led to much laughter among delegates.

But as president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services Margaret Willcox had earlier made clear with her own dark humour (at one point referring to a new dance, “the DTOC tick”, as she gently mocked the government’s current approach), the current challenges facing an increasingly fragile social care system are deadly serious.

Ms Willcox said she was troubled by the friction between councils and local NHS organisations that had been generated by the DTOC targets and “unilateral” changes to guidance “that have undermined the collective effort we need to make”.

Further issues with the government’s approach were highlighted during a presentation on the results of the first local system review by the Care Quality Commission in Halton.

The CQC’s chief inspector of social care Andrea Sutcliffe apologised for some errors in communication after an email notifying Halton of the review was sent to the council’s chief executive, with leaders of health organisations simply CC’d in.

This contributed to the inital impression that, as Halton BC director of adult social care Sue Wallace-Bonner pointed out, the review was too focused on council performance rather than the wider health and social care system.

Ms Sutcliffe admitted the process was “pressurised”, with Halton now left with a matter of weeks to submit an improvement plan in response to the CQC’s recommendations.

Association of Directors of Childen’s Services president Alison Michalska told LGC that the children’s social care sector must urgently follow adult social care’s lead in pressing the government for action over mounting funding pressures, which in many areas now outstrip those in adult social care.

But she welcomed the announcement by the children’s minister yesterday of £20m in funding for the development of a sector-led improvement programme, a case which has long been argued by local government.

Ms Michalska told LGC it was her expectation that the bulk of the money would be invested in increasing capacity in well-performing councils to reduce risk that their own services may suffer as they invest time and money supporting partner authorities.

She admitted that it was unclear whether the funding was new money or would be redirected from the government’s innovation programme and said she was in the dark over whether further investment would be made in the future in order to maintain the programme.

Ms Michalska also said that it is unlikely that there will be much flexibility on how the money could be spent.

With uncertainty and trepidation rife across the entire social care system, the mood among conference delegates was understandably low key.

When directors of adult social care spoke to LGC, it was often a case of what next? Many directors of children’s services admitted rising anxiety over the impact of a growing funding gap on the ability of councils to maintain vital early intervention work that buffers against suffering.

Introducing a plenary session this morning the chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board Izzi Seccombe (Con) captured the pervading tone when she said conference had examined the role of local government leadership at a time of “trauma, crisis and demand”.

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