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PAC slams DfE's approach to children's social care reform

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Children deserve better than the government’s “painfully slow” reform of “financially unsustainable” children’s social care services, according to the chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

A PAC report published today calls on the DfE to make significant improvements to children’s social care “in measurable ways” by its own deadline of 2022.

This will need a “step-change” in the DfE’s understanding of pressures on services and “unnecessary” variation in performance and costs, as well as working at “greater pace” with struggling councils, the PAC said.

The committee highlighted that 91% of councils overspent on their children’s social care budgets in 2017-18 and called on the DfE to “get to grips” with the reasons for this to make a compelling case for resources ahead of the spending review.

The report also said there was a “disconnect” between the DfE’s policy making and the allocation of funding by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government which was a “hindrance” to service improvement and “needs resolving”.

The PAC adds: “As a committee, we see all too often that decisions in one area of government can increase spending elsewhere or in the future.

“High quality, effective, early support for children is not only vital for them and their families, but beneficial for the taxpayer as well.”

The report calls for the DfE to publish data on the costs and quality of children’s social care for each council and outline the main factors driving variation in performance and costs by 2019.

It also said DfE should commit to regular reporting on councils’ cost effectiveness and publish ratings within the same timeframe.

The PAC said the DfE should write to the committee to clarify what quality of children’s social care it is aiming to achieve by 2022 and how this will be measured, including what percentage of councils are expected to achieve a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted.

PAC chair Meg Hillier (Lab) said: “Government’s progress with reforming children’s services has been painfully slow and it has still not made clear what sustainable improvements it hopes to achieve. Children, many of them in desperate circumstances, deserve better.

“[The DfE] regards children’s social care as its most important responsibility. If it is to live up to that responsibility, it must first address what are persistent shortcomings in its understanding of the sector.”

“Woolly ambitions are not enough to deliver lasting change. The DfE must drive cross-departmental work that will enable the government to properly meet the needs of vulnerable children.”

The DfE has been approached for comment.

PAC’s last report on children’s social care services in 2016 accused the DfE of being “worryingly complacent” that nothing could be done to improve services more quickly.

A National Audit Office report in January said the DfE did not until recently consider the assessment of demand on children’s social care as a “fundamental part of its responsibilities” and therefore does not fully understand pressures on children’s social care services.

Responding to the report, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said: ”Together with local authorities and dedicated social workers, this government is driving up standards in children’s social care.

”The number of children’s services rated outstanding is rising and the number rated as inadequate has fallen by a third since 2017. But, of course, we want to improve services across the board so our £200 million Innovation Programme is backing the sector to put new and even more effective measures in place to help vulnerable families.

“We know there are financial pressures in the system and in the last year we have given local authorities an extra £410 million for adult and children’s social care. We will continue to work with sector better understand what is driving demand and how we can work together to respond to those challenges.”

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