Debate on the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

Councils want to do all they can to keep children and young people safe and to help them to thrive.


Key messages

  • Councils want to do all they can to keep children and young people safe and to help them to thrive. It is positive that the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care not only recognises that councils are best placed to do that, but recognises and builds on much of the excellent practice already taking place while offering recommendations to tackle some of our most significant challenges
  • The final report of the Review puts forward over 80 recommendations which cover a range of issues, from transforming early help for families, to ensuring every child and young person in care is receiving the right support, to unlocking the potential of the dedicated children’s social care workforce. The LGA’s full response to the Review’s recommendations can be read on our website.
  • The report reflects many issues that councils have been raising for some time, including the need to invest further in early help for children and families, improve support for kinship carers and make sure that we have the right homes for children in care, as well as ensuring better futures for those leaving care.
  • While we welcome many of the recommendations in this report, many will take several years to embed and there are some issues that cannot wait for delivery. In particular, we have significant concerns around placements for children in care who have the most complex needs, placements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and workforce capacity. We know that work is underway in some of these areas but we must move more quickly if we are to provide the support children deserve.
  • Children’s services remain one of the most significant pressures on council budgets because of increasing demand and the increasing cost of services. The number of children in care has risen to a record high of 82,170, and this number is predicted to rise as the cost-of-living crisis pushes more families into poverty. Last year councils spent nearly 25 percent more on children’s social care than in 2016/17, and our analysis in 2021 found that children’s services faced a funding gap of £1.6 billion. The recommendations within the report will require significant funding to deliver on top of closing the funding gap and we urge the Government to provide the investment needed to reform services swiftly.
  • While the additional funding for adult and children’s social care announced in the Autumn Statement is welcome, the scale of current pressures means that a long-term sustainable funding solution for children’s social care is still urgently needed to deliver the best outcomes for all children and young people.
  • We have concerns around the Review’s recommendations for Regional Care Cooperatives (RCC’s). While there is a clear argument for working collaboratively to provide specialist placements, and more strategic issues such as market shaping, we are not convinced that RCCs will deliver the changes that we need to see in the care ‘market’. Many councils are already working collaboratively and seeing positive results, yet they note that they are still unable to have significant influence over the largest private providers. Furthermore, we have concerns around ensuring that decisions are made as close to a child as possible and that local relationships between all those supporting children are well maintained.
  • We are keen to work with the Government to build and deliver an ambitious plan for implementation that will see longstanding improvements to services, while also tackling those issues that are increasingly risking the ability of councils to support children.

Background

The Government’s 2019 manifesto committed to review the children’s social care system to make sure children and young people get the support they need. The Government subsequently commissioned an independent review, led by Josh MacAlister, which launched in March 2021. It prioritised hearing the voices of children, young people and adults that have received the help or support of a social worker, or who have been looked after.

On 26 May 2022, the Review published its final report. The Government provided an initial response to the Independent Review and has committed to publish its final response and an implementation strategy for the recommendations it intends to take forward by the end of the year.

Homes for children in care: What the Review recommends

Chapter 5 of the Review outlines the current challenges in the children’s social care system and proposes wide-ranging recommendations to ensure children in care receive the right support. The Review recommends:

  • Standards: The development of a National Children’s Social Care Framework to set the purpose, objectives and outcomes for children’s social care, alongside practice guides setting out the best evidence for achieving these objectives. Alongside this, the Review recommends introducing a new, single set of ambitious care standards to replace current regulations for children’s homes, fostering placements and unregulated provision.
  • Oversight:
  • Establishing up to 20 new Regional are Cooperatives (RCCs), owned and run by councils, which would have a duty to ensure sufficiency of care placements; run and create public sector fostering, residential and secure provision for the area; and commission not-for-profit and private sector care for children where they choose to do so.
  • New oversight powers for Ofsted to enable it to interrogate financial records of providers and new powers to take action where a provider is operating at a high level of financial risk.
  • Tackling excessive profit: The review states that providing care for children should not be based on profit, but does not recommend a ban on profit-making or introducing price/profit caps. It does recommend a windfall tax on profits made by the largest private children’s homes provider and independent fostering agencies, to generate hundreds of millions of pounds to contribute to the transformation of the care system.

Foster Care: The DfE should, within six months, launch a national foster carer recruitment campaign to recruit 9,000 additional foster carers over the next 3 years and provide an uplift of £82 million over five years to improve foster carer

LGA View

  • It is welcome that the Review recognised many of the issues that the LGA has been raising for some time. Children’s services remain one of the most significant pressures on council budgets because of increasing demand and the increasing cost of services. LGA analysis shows that councils spent over £10.5 billion on children’s social care in 2020/21, nearly 25 per cent more than the £8.5 billion spent in 2016/17. Further analysis outlined in our submission to the 2021 Spending Review identifies outstanding pressures of £1 billion each year, with an additional £0.6 billion worth of pressures each year to maintain services at the current level of quality and access.
  • Increasing spend on children’s social care is largely a result of councils’ vital work in supporting children who are unable to live with their birth parents. The number of children in care has risen to a record high of 82,170, and this is predicted to rise as the cost-of-living crisis pushes more families into poverty.
  • Councils continue to face significant challenges in finding suitable homes for all children in care. Some placements are now costing £1 million a year, and waiting lists for placements in secure children’s homes have doubled over the last year so that more than 50 children are waiting for a place on any one day.
  • While the additional funding for adult and children’s social care announced in the Autumn Statement is welcome, the scale of current pressures means that local government needs a long-term sustainable funding solution for children’s social care.
  • The asylum and migration system is also proving challenging to children’s social care systems. This includes providing appropriate placements and support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and ensuring the wellbeing of children who have arrived under other schemes such as the Afghan relocation scheme and Homes for Ukraine, some of whom are living in hotels or B&Bs which are not suitable homes for children. We urgently need more cross-government join-up on all asylum and migration schemes, and support to develop the right places for unaccompanied children.
  • We have concerns around recommendations for Regional Care Cooperatives. While there is a clear argument for working collaboratively to provide specialist placements, and more strategic issues such as market shaping, we are not convinced that RCCs will deliver the changes that we need to see in the care ‘market’. Many councils are already working collaboratively and seeing positive results, yet note that they are still unable to have significant influence over the largest private providers.
  • Councils are clear that they, working with partners and carers and listening to children and families, are best placed to identify the right home for each individual child they look after. They are corporate parents to these children and work to ensure children’s voices help to shape overall provision while working with partners to build support around the child. Local autonomy in decision-making is vital to ensure councils are able to use this knowledge and local connections to provide the best placement for each child, keeping that child’s voice and needs at the centre.
  • We strongly support calls for Ofsted to have oversight of the finances of private providers, which is something we have been calling for several years as profit making and financial risk amongst the largest providers has increased.
  • We have also been calling on the Government to commit to a fostering recruitment campaign for some time, and encourage the Government to work with councils to develop an evidence-based campaign that can achieve strong national reach with the opportunity for tailor this to local circumstances for maximum impact.

A revolution in family help: What the Review recommends

The Review proposes a fundamental shift in the way children’s social care responds to families who need help, arguing that identifying risks earlier and preventing problems from needlessly escalating will reduce the need for ‘less dignified and more costly intervention’ later. It calls for investment of £2 billion to implement the proposed transformation in family help, with national government pots of funding integrated into this funding stream and local partners incentivised to contribute, followed by long-term ringfenced funding for family help services.

Its specific recommendations to transform family help services include:

  • Combining “early help” and “child in need” support into a single definition of “family help” to end handovers between services and to bring a more flexible approach to supporting a wider group of families.
  • Setting out the eligibility for family help services clearly at the national level to give a more consistent understanding of who should receive family help services, whilst enabling family help teams to respond flexibly to families’ needs.
  • Amending the statutory guidance, ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’, to enable more light touch assessments for family help where appropriate, with a focus on ‘conversations’ rather than ‘mechanical referrals’, and to remove timescales for assessments to instead focus on family outcomes. Where a child is at risk of, or experiencing, significant harm, timescales would still apply.
  • Staffing family help services with multidisciplinary teams and for family help to take a population health management approach, with teams embedded within neighbourhoods to harness the power of community and consider how wider networks can provide support.

LGA View

  • Investment in family help will ultimately improve children’s outcomes and reduce spending later on, through keeping more children safely with their families, promoting reunification, ending repeat and intergenerational cycles of care, reducing occurrences of significant harm and countering the impact of deprivation.
  • Councils have long highlighted the challenges in delivering universal and early help services in the context of increasing need and reduced funding, and have raised significant concerns about the implications of not being able to support children and families before they reach crisis point. The Review’s emphasis on enabling children, young people and families to access the help they need, when they need it, is very welcome and we urge the Government to work with councils and the wider children’s sector to deliver on this vision.
  • We welcome calls to invest specifically in the transformation of family help services; for ongoing funding for these services, and the Review’s recognition that the multiple funding pots that councils can currently bid into for these services needs to be streamlined.
  • To swiftly expand access to family help services, Government should extend funding for family hubs to all areas, building on the 75 areas which have already received funding.

Realising the potential of the workforce: Review recommendations

The Review proposes:

  • Reducing bureaucracy for social workers, with a goal of 50 per cent of social worker time spent working with families and ensuring all registered social workers spend 100 hours a year in direct practice.
  • Development of an “Early Career Framework” to cover the first five years in the profession, leading to the role of “Expert Practitioner”. Only Expert Practitioners would be able to take decisions on child protection cases, which they would co-work with other social workers.
  • Introducing national pay scales to recognise and reward development of expertise.
  • Developing rules to tackle the overuse of agency social workers. When national pay scales are introduced, the rules should integrate rates of pay for agency social workers. To complement this, Government should provide seed funding for local authorities to establish not-for-profit regional staff banks for social workers to rival agencies.
  • Introducing a professional registration for all children’s home staff and a new leadership programme to train up to 700 new children’s home managers in the next five years, with a bursary to support “high potential individuals” to transition into these roles.

LGA View

  • We welcome the Review’s recognition that “the greatest strength of the children’s social care system lies in its workforce”. Children’s social workers and the wider workforce do not receive the public recognition that their colleagues in health and education receive and they deserve. In its response to this Review the government should consider how to improve public understanding of these vital roles.
  • Councils consistently highlight challenges in securing a sufficient, stable workforce and we are keen to work with government on how to improve the recruitment and retention of all those in the children’s workforce. Existing pressures have been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, which is seeing more social workers leave to join agencies where they can receive higher rates of pay.
  • Agency behaviour is also presenting a significant challenge. Some agencies are refusing to supply individual social workers to councils and instead only offer whole teams, in addition to aggressively poaching in-house social workers, and offering roles on a “no contact” basis with no in-person visits to children.
  • Urgent action on agencies is required, along with work on improving the pipeline of social workers and ensuring social workers are well supported and well respected. The Department has already started some work on these challenges and is engaging closely with the LGA and councils; we look forward to driving this work forward with urgency.
  • The process of introducing national pay scales for children’s social workers would be extremely complex and time consuming. National pay scales would also not be reflective of regional pay or local circumstances. We are keen to work with government to consider whether this would address our current workforce challenges and how we could tackle any unintended consequences if this was introduced.
  • To help alleviate current challenges in the children’s social care workforce, we are calling on the Government to fund an extension of the Return to Social Work programme to help bring 200 social workers back into the profession.
  • It is also vital that Government gives councils maximum local freedom and flexibility over the use of Apprenticeship Levy funds to help address workforce challenges, including the ability to pool levy funds to better plan provision across their areas, and use a proportion of the levy to subsidise apprentices’ wages and administration costs.
  • Our members consistently raise challenges with ensuring children’s homes have the right staff in place to provide consistent, high-quality care for children. Therefore investment in children’s homes staff and in training additional children’s homes managers is very welcome. To expediate this work, Government should invest in a trial of the national leadership programme for new children’s home managers, as recommended by the Review.

Implementation: What the Review recommends

To deliver the reforms set out in the Review, it proposes that the Government should invest £2.6 billion over four years - £46 million in year one, £987 million in year two, £1.257 billion in year three and £233 million in year four, plus an additional estimated £50 million on other interventions over the investment period. This breaks down to:

  • Approximately £2 billion on family help
  • £23 million to bring parity between the support given to foster carers and Special Guardianship Order/kinship Child Order Arrangements and to establish family network plans
  • £76 million to recruit 9,000 more foster carers over three years and to establish Regional Care Cooperatives
  • £253 million investment in social work

The Review also recommends that the Government publish a White Paper on Children’s Social Care reform. It recommends that the Secretary of State for Education should oversee the reform programme alongside a new National Reform Board of stakeholders, including those with lived experience of social care.

LGA View

  • We have repeatedly called on the Government to sufficiently fund children’s social care, and prior to the Review’s publication we highlighted that reform could not happen without genuinely transformational investment. With spend on children’s social care rising by hundreds of millions of pounds each year, the Government must make the required investment into the system as a matter of urgency.
  • We support the Review’s calls for a white paper, which will demonstrate the Government’s commitment to wider reform.
  • It is vital that councils, as those responsible for planning and delivering children’s social care, are represented on the National Reform Board alongside those with lived experience of children’s social care and our partners, to deliver the reforms that children and families deserve.

Contact

Megan Edwards, Public Affairs and Campaigns Advisor [email protected].