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Interview: Shadow children's minister in 'tragedy' warning

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Funding pressures in children’s social care services caused by austerity have left a “tragedy waiting to happen”, the shadow children’s minister has warned.

In an interview with LGC, Emma Lewell-Buck said the government’s unwillingness to address an estimated funding gap of £2bn by 2020 is putting vulnerable children at increasing risk.

Ms Lewell-Buck, who was a social worker before entering Parliament in 2013, also said she is concerned rising poverty and cuts to early intervention services could cause long-term damage to children’s lives.

She added: “Colleagues still in the [social work] profession are terrified. There is a tragedy waiting to happen.

“Under this government, you have seen an erosion of the social safety net and things just spiral out of control for some people. Children are then being pushed into vulnerability.”

Ms Lewell-Buck said cuts to non-statutory support services are resulting in children being “unnecessarily” taken into care, with a “knock on effect in later life”.

She also described the government’s approach to funding, with extra money available through bids to the Department for Education’s innovation fund programme, as “piecemeal” and said giving resources to certain councils is “not an equitable model”.

A recent report by market analysts Laing Buisson said children’s social care services are becoming “increasingly attractive” to private investors as councils look to outsource services in a bid to avoid “reputational risk” over the quality of provision.

Ms Lewell-Buck said the notion that private companies could make money as a result of cuts to services for vulnerable families is “sickening”, adding that outsourcing had not worked as it “increased bureaucracy” and left councils vulnerable to potential provider failure.

She said that, although it is not official Labour policy, she would like to see “streamlining and standardisation” in practice and process across the sector, and a reduction in the administrative burden on social workers.

Ms Lewell-Buck added: “When you are in [the job] you get so buried in it all and you are just going through the motions.

“You very rarely have the time to lift your head up and ask ‘why are we doing this, how does this benefit a family, how is this helping this child?

“Writing a report never saved a child from harm, a social worker doing their job does.”

Ms Lewell-Buck said that Labour was still considering its position on alternative delivery models for children’s social care, such as trusts.

She added that she has “a bit of an issue” with sector-led improvement after the government pledged £20m to bolster capacity in well-performing councils to help them support councils that are struggling.

“There is an opportunity for cosiness and not calling each other out,” Ms Lewell-Buck said.

“When you are talking about the most vulnerable people, you need a high level of checks and balances.”

But she added Labour would give councils a central role in identifying potential areas for reform.

“I am not saying I have all the answers but I’m not confident this government has a handle on the issues.

“We have a different approach, with more investment behind it and we would talk to people in the sector to make the changes they want to see.”

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