Pressure on children’s social care budgets is increasing drastically with spending outstripping budgets by close to £1bn over the past three years, LGC research suggests.
In each of the past three years at least four-fifths of LGC’s sample of just over half of top-tier councils overspent on their children’s social care budget, peaking at 90% of councils in 2015-16.
Though budgets set by the sample were £79m higher in 2016-17 than 2014-15, equivalent to a 2.6% increase, expenditure increased by 5%.
Senior local government figures warned cuts to non-statutory services such as early intervention were leading to children entering the care system later with more complex and expensive needs.
Of the 152 English councils with responsibility for children’s social care, 83 responded to LGC’s freedom of information request for budgeted and actual spend on services since 2014-15.
Between them, the councils, which serve 60% of England’s 11.7 million under-18 population, reported an overspend of £563m. If this pattern was replicated nationwide the figure would be £938m.
Overspends also appear to be getting larger year by year, rising from £145m in 2014-15 to £188m the following year and £230m last year. In 2016-17 a total of 29 councils overspent by 10% or more, compared with 21 the year before and 19 in 2014-15.
on the rise
Ian Thomas, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services resources and sustainability policy committee, told LGC financial pressures had led to an “erosion” of money targeted at non-statutory prevention and early intervention services.
He said this had resulted in more children entering the care system later and with more complex needs which require high-cost support.
Mr Thomas, who is director of children’s services at Rotherham MBC, said: “A lot of places now are struggling to keep pace with the statutory stuff and budgets have been set which are out of kilter with demand.”
Northamptonshire CC had the highest percentage overspend over the three years at 26% while London boroughs make up four of the top seven councils.
Guy Ware, director of finance, performance and procurement at London Councils, said financial pressures on children’s social care started earlier and had grown faster in the capital than elsewhere due to rapid population growth. Limited supply of services had pushed up unit costs, he said.
Mr Ware said some pressures were due to high numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children but the “bigger numbers” related to looked after children, safeguarding and children with disabilities.
He warned councils were no longer intervening in cases deemed to be at the lower end of the risk scale.
Mr Ware said: “My anxiety is that at that point the public discourse flips from not having noticed children’s services to the point when we have another major safeguarding failure, all of sudden the question is why were councils taking so much risk?”
Halton MBC registered the fourth highest percentage overspend in the country. Strategic director for people Milorad Vasic described the council’s children’s social care budgets as “extremely volatile”.
Mr Vasic said: “With the council facing a further round of cuts it is pushing a teetering system closer to the edge.”
The latest government figures show there were 70,440 looked after children in March 2016 – a 2.3% increase since 2014.
Blackpool Council, which recorded a 25% overspend last year, has the highest looked after children rate in the country. In 2016 there were 164 children in care per 10,000 of the child population compared with a national average of 60.
Council leader Simon Blackburn (Lab) said levels continued to rise as vulnerable families moved into the area to “hide away” from authorities elsewhere in the town’s cheap accommodation.
Cllr Blackburn, a former child social worker, added: “I am pretty resigned to the fact that the government isn’t listening. Our budget has halved since 2010 and inevitably there are consequences.
The Department for Education declined to comment.