Birmingham City Council has grouped its Budget proposals for 2016+ around a number of key themes one of which is the laudable aim of ‘Preventing family breakdown’.
Under the heading Resilient families savings are to be made to the Children’s social care budget from 2017 onwards. The gross savings start at £2m in 2017-18 and rise to over £12m by 2019-20 but there is next to no narrative let alone analysis for the public to understand, let alone make informed comment, on these Budget proposals.
We are told in the proposal that the aims are the following:
Working with families to reduce need for children to come into care, improving and speeding up care planning for children in care so they move more quickly to a permanent family or are supported to independence. Providing more local foster placements for children in care and fewer expensive placements outside the City.
These aims should be supported but we should remind ourselves of the very difficult circumstances within which Children’s social care services have been operating in this city and question how this aim can be achieved while reducing available resources. We should also recall that similar proposals were made in 2013-14 and were subsequently abandoned.
The review of Children’s social care in the city undertaken by Prof Julian Le Grand drew attention to the longstanding underfunding of children’s social care in the city, largely as the result of it not being seen as a sufficient priority by different leaderships of the Council. This under-resourcing had important consequences for some young people in the city who did not receive services to meet their needs nor the protection they required.
Birmingham Against the Cuts is posing a number of questions to the responsible Cabinet member to seek clarification as to how these savings can be met against this context.
Our questions to Cllr Jones are as follows:
1. What are the proposed base budgets up to 2020 for Children’s social care from which these savings can be understood? Does the base budget from 2017-18 consolidate the £31m p.a. Improvement investment within it and if not why not?
Children’s social care services in the city have recently been bolstered by an additional £31.5m per annum to support the three year Improvement Plan which started in 2014-15. This was in recognition of the need to bring rapid change to frontline care services, particularly to support and stabilise the social work workforce, and to ultimately enable improvement in the care and protection offered to vulnerable children. The need for this investment was also in recognition of the failure of the City Council to resource its children’s care services over a long period of time.
What happens to this investment after the end of the improvement period? More particularly how can the Council know now what improvement will have been achieved and will continue to need to be achieved in 2017, but despite this gross savings of £2.145m are set to be made for 2017-18?
2. How will the Council ensure and demonstrate that Children’s social care is adequately resourced to address the problems of the historical underfunding of children’s social care and to ensure that it remains funded at a level on a par with its comparator Local Authorities?
In 2014 the DfE commissioned Prof Julian Le Grand to review Birmingham’s children’s care services and make proposals for their improvement. The Le Grand Review found:
An analysis of the available data indicates that the ‘client base’ for Birmingham children’s social care services is low relative to its size and the extent of deprivation in the city. (Para 5.7) …
A crude way of comparing spending by local authority is to divide the total gross spend on children’s social care by the number of children in deprived households. Undertaking such an exercise reveals that the average spend among the 20 local authorities with the highest proportion of deprived children is £779 per child, while Birmingham’s is £640 per head, the 6th lowest. (Para 5.9)
The consequence of this relative underspend was that the Council had managed its resources in a way that had left ‘unidentified children at risk’. Given this legacy of underspending on critical care services and the need to redress that legacy it is relevant and important to ask where the current budget and future budget plans are likely to leave Birmingham in relation to its near neighbours.
3. How will these proposed savings be made? There is no substantive explanation of the proposed configuration of services, levels of activity and intervention and the difference this will make to children’s lives that will allow these savings to be made. Why not?
Central to the Council’s approach to planning for the 2020 Council is the use of Demand Management to curtail and redirect citizens’ needs and consequently the demand they will make upon the local authority in years to come. The City Council is using the ImPower consultancy to advise them upon demand management approaches.
One way Local Authorities have managed demand upon Children’s social care in the past is through setting ‘high thresholds of intervention e.g. the point at which Social Workers act to protect or meet the needs of children. In Birmingham Le Grand suggested that high thresholds developed in the context of the under resourcing of children’s social care services in the city. (Para 5.10)
Current policy suggests that by providing effective early help services to families you can deal with problems and avert the need for a Children’s social care intervention, with the aim of keeping children safely within their families but with the added benefit of saving the huge costs of bringing children into care. This is an important objective. The development of the Early Help offer is a key part of the Council’s improvement plan for Children’s social care.
In 2013-14 similar types of budget proposals were brought forward about the re-alignment of services to make savings to the Children’s social care budget, with the Council then proposing to reduce the number of looked after children by shifting the balance of the Children and Young People’s Budget towards early intervention and preventative services. The Council failed to make these savings in 2013-14.
If these savings are based on the impact of Early Help and Edge of Care services then this needs to be clearly quantified, as does the level of investment to make these services effective. Further, as shown by the Council’s work on ‘unidentified children at risk’, children and families from different communities in the city receive different levels of service and intervention. These savings proposals should demonstrate how they will positively address these intersectional differences.
If these savings are overstated and cannot be realised the Council needs to demonstrate that it will not resort to ‘demand management’ through increasing thresholds of intervention in the future. Any savings should be ring-fenced to Children’s social care to prevent any pressures to restrict access to services if the savings aren’t met.
4. Will you ensure in the interests of transparency the disclosure of the activity and future need analyses and the financial modelling which are the basis of these savings proposals?
A major problem in the city has been the lack of effective local political and public scrutiny and oversight of the Council in its historic management of Children’s social care. With the move to greater openness and transparency within Birmingham City Council under the new Council leader there is an important opportunity to redress this problem. The disclosure of the data and modelling in support of these savings proposals should be a matter of course but is even more significant given the central issue of the under-resourcing of Children’s care services in the city over time.
Decisions by Birmingham City Council on how to adequately resource Children’s social care in the city must start from the needs of children in this city. Never again must the availability of resources dictate whether some children are the subject of protection from significant harm or not. There need to be clear statements from the authority as to what it regards to the necessary levels of intervention required to ensure the safety and protection of children from different community and ethnic backgrounds. This analysis must precede and be the basis for judging any budget proposals.
Future decisions on how to resource Children’s social care services must be led by the concern to promote social justice and of ensuring the human rights of children and their families.