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Analysis: Children's social care overspends rival adult services

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Children’s social care is proportionally putting greater pressure on councils’ spending plans than adult services, analysis by LGC reveals.

In each of the past three years the sector recorded larger percentage overspends on children’s social care services than on adults’, with the size of overspends in both areas also increasing significantly year on year.

Councils typically budget to spend nearly twice as much on adult social care as children’s.

Yet the analysis revealed the £525m children’s service overspend last year was equivalent to four fifths of the £646m overspend on adult social care.

It also found the children’s overspend had quadrupled in the past few years, from £131m in 2014-15, while the overspend on adult social care increased less than twofold from £365m.

Over the same period planned spending in both areas increased by about £100m – to £7.8bn for children’s and £14.4bn for adults’ – suggesting demand is outstripping councils’ attempts to cut costs and make savings.

Richard Watts (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, told LGC: “Every senior councillor I talk to across the country … all say the same thing: it’s demand on children’s social care that is now keeping them awake at night and not adults.

“[Services] are notoriously hard to budget for because if there is an increase in demand then that demand has to be met – you can’t ration child protection work.”

LGC used data supplied by local authorities to the Department for Communities & Local Government and analysed what councils budgeted to spend in each service area at the beginning of the financial year. Those figures were then compared with the actual outturn figures.

Gloucestershire CC was one of the councils with the biggest proportional overspends in children’s social care in 2016-17. It spent 59% more than the £47.3m it had originally budgeted for.

In June, Ofsted issued a damning report of children’s services in the county.

A council spokeswoman said an extra £3.7m had been invested in social work posts for safeguarding children since 2016-17. She said the council was forecasting a £6m overspend on its £44.5m children’s social care budget for this year.

Richard Boyles (Con), cabinet member for children and families, said: “The budget does move during the year because it is based on a prediction of how many children will need our help, and what sort of help they will need – but we have been very clear, this is our top priority and we will always find necessary investment.”

Councils with large overspends did not pinpoint a single factor driving demand in children’s services. Rising costs associated with staffing, placements and accommodation were some of the key contributors to increases in spend highlighted, while the number of people with no recourse to public funds requiring support has also played a part.

Experts LGC spoke to admitted there was not the same level of knowledge about demand in children’s social care as there was in relation to adult social care.

Cllr Watts said: “There needs to be an urgent review between central and local government of why we are seeing this dramatic increase in demand for these most urgent child protection services.”

“People can speculate why but no-one really knows so therefore it’s critical we get a proper understanding of what’s driving this increase in demand.”

He said there was a consensus at the LGA that funding pressures on children’s social care had “become the priority now” although he admitted there was “not a universal” recognition of the problem in central government.

Sean Nolan, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy director of local government, said the introduction of the adult social care precept, combined with the fact an additional £2bn was secured in the spring Budget to spend on these services over the next three years, would have had an impact.

“Conversely there’s been no special help for children’s services,” he said. “If adult social care budgets are being protected more through the use of additional resources then by definition there is a bigger impact on every other service.”

Across England, two thirds (67%) of council children’s services are rated by Ofsted as either inadequate or requiring improvement.

Mr Nolan said receiving a critical Ofsted rating “almost inevitably drives up spending as well”.

While overspends in children’s services budgets are proportionally higher, spending on adult social care is much higher overall – about £14bn in 2016-17 compared with about £8bn for children’s social care.

Merton LBC had one of the biggest proportional overspends in adult social care in 2016-17. It spent 27% more than its proposed £40.9m budget.

Tobin Byers (Lab), Merton’s cabinet member for adult social care and health, said: “At a time when there is a national crisis in older people’s care, government cuts are putting enormous pressure on all local councils which have to provide an increasing number of care packages to meet the growing demand…

“Government cuts, growing demand for adult social care services, the cost and complexity of some care needs and market pressures in the sector have all contributed to the challenge of how we pay for care services.”

A number of councils told LGC they used reserves to help plug gaps in adult social care budgets.

Glen Garrod, vice president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said councils were “under increasing pressure”. He added: “Reserves are beginning to dry up.”

Mr Garrod, who is also Lincolnshire CC’s executive director of adult care and community wellbeing, said the increased demand in adult services is mainly being driven by people of a working age with profound disabilities – people who have passed through the children’s services system. As a result he said there was a “desire to understand the pressures” in both children’s and adult  services.

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