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Interview: 'Children's directors forced to do profoundly silly things'

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The absence of an improved funding settlement for local government by 2020 will have dire consequences for vulnerable families, with councils already being forced to do “profoundly silly things” which will result in more children entering care, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has warned.

In an interview with LGC, Stuart Gallimore said the government had not adequately considered the impact of policies such as universal credit on children, with “adverse consequences” particularly felt in areas where there has been an early roll-out of welfare reform.

He called for a more “considered and thought-through” approach across government departments to supporting children currently without “much of a voice” in poorer communities, which are often stigmatised in the media.

Mr Gallimore, who is also East Sussex CC’s director of children’s services and took over as ADCS president from Alison Michalska last month, said the “mood music” had changed on children’s social care.

He added “considerable progress” had been made with Department for Education officials and the previous ministerial team on the issue of funding.

But Mr Gallimore said the Treasury must be convinced by 2020, when the Local Government Association expects a children’s services funding gap of £2bn, to prevent system failure.

“It feels that close. That is essentially one more run around the budget cycle,” he said. “If you get to 2020 and if we have not got local authorities and their children’s services on a more sustainable footing, then I really do worry for the nature and the type of service that we are providing to the most vulnerable in our society.”

Mr Gallimore said variations in councils’ spending and outcomes has left some Treasury officials convinced that more efficiencies can be found.

But he added struggling councils, and particularly those in intervention, must invest heavily to stabilise their workforce and improve processes.

Mr Gallimore said the government should look “more deeply and thoughtfully” at what drives improvement and the vital role of non-statutory early intervention services which are being stripped back to ensure children at the highest risk can be protected.

He said: “Through working closely with the DfE, we have got to show we are getting to a place where people can see we are having to do some profoundly silly things that will have an impact further down the line on costs because of the increased numbers of children being brought into the top end of the system.

“I am worried for myself, I am worried for my colleagues around the country who to differing degrees will have to make more savings in these areas of work.

“If we do not get the right settlement and we don’t get that money coming in to local authorities and into children’s services more widely the consequences are dire.”

Mr Gallimore said a combination of changes to the benefits system, the impact of the so-called bedroom tax, low wages and zero-hours contracts had created instability and resulted in increasing numbers of families struggling with rising debt.

He added the government had not adequately considered the impact its approach would have on children.

Mr Gallimore said: “Political decisions and the government positions for some children and families are having an adverse consequence.

“What we are not seeing is for children that holistic approach across government – all government departments – looking at what contribution they are making to and for children.

“Too often because we are too focused with one particular policy area we lose sight of the whole.”

When asked why children are not seen as a political priority, Mr Gallimore said a contributing factor is that vulnerable children in poorer communities “do not have much of a voice”.

He added: “They are growing up in communities or families that are more likely to be on the receiving end of media criticism than they are on the receiving end of a media story saying we should be doing more about this.

“The numbers we are talking about are also relatively small when you compare them with the numbers [receiving adult social care] and the health service.”

Mr Gallimore admitted it would be a challenge to shift the government’s focus away from Brexit to children’s social care services.

But he said he remains “optimistic on the strength of the case and that people are doing the right thing around the modelling”.

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