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£6.7m overspend for children’s services
Wednesday 12th December 2018 @ 12:08 by Lauren Entwistle
Community Tameside

Costs continue to spiral for children’s services as Tameside council reveal they are expecting to go £6.7 million over budget this year.

By Charlotte Green, local democracy reporter.

The figure was outlined by finance chiefs as they presented the accounts for the first half of the financial year.

It’s down from 2017’s huge bill of £8.6m, but it is around £3m more than they had been predicting just months ago.

Council documents revealed that the number of looked after children in the north west in 2017 was the highest for the last 20 years, and has been steadily growing year on year.

The amount of children coming into care has stabilised at 636, but it’s the excessive cost of specialist placements that are adding to the financial pressure for the town hall.

Expenditure for the end of the financial year is expected to ‘significantly exceed the budget allocation’.

There are a variety of factors behind the increase, reports show.

The weekly cost for private placements has risen by around £300 across just the course of this year, up to £3,970.

And a large number of children in care are reaching their early and mid teens, which are the age group most likely to require the most expensive residential type accommodation.

But officers note there is a greater reliance on residential placements in Tameside when compared to statistical neighbourhoods, and there is shortage of available fostering placements to meet demand.

Director of finance, Kathy Roe, told a recent meeting of the strategic commissioning board that despite the additional costs, ‘things are starting to turn around’.

She said: “There have been quite a few significant movements, so children’s services pressures have now increased to be £6.7m over budget which is mainly being driven by the placement costs of the individual complex cases rather than any further increase in volume around the number of looked after children.”

Overall, the total integrated commissioning fund of the council and the clinical commissioning group is expected to go around £2.7m over budget for the end of the financial year.

But reports state this ‘masks significant and increased pressures in a number of areas’, including children’s services.

Ms Roe added: “This is an improvement from month five, which was £4.1m over budget so we are heading in the right direction and that has been a figure that has constantly been reducing since the start of the year.”

Continuing healthcare is adding a pressure of around £2.8m – but this was down from last year’s pressure of £4m.

“It’s demonstrated that things are going in the right direction, although there is concern, there is an awful lot of work going on there to try and address the local pressures we are facing,” Ms Roe told members.

Contingencies, increased business rates received and staff vacancies have all contributed to offsetting the financial pressures.

But they are ‘trying to close the gap wherever they can’, Ms Roe added.

An in-depth investigation by the council found that the context remains ‘very challenging’.

There is a “continuing significant increase in looked after children numbers, as a consequence of greater rigour of intervention for children at risk of abuse and neglect, and of dealing with the significant legacy of previous years’ poor practice”, according to the report.

But at this point, officers say that practice has remained too ‘risk averse’ and the effectiveness of interventions needs to be strengthened to manage risk and effect change in families without the need for children to be put into or kept in care.

A specific strategy has been developed to be able to keep more children with their families, with investment in the ‘edge of care’ service, and expanded capacity for ‘family group conferencing’.

More social workers have also been employed, with 86 full time staff in September 2016, increasing to 145 by this June.

However turnover among temporary social workers remains high and recruitment of both locum and permanent social workers continues to be a struggle.

The number of children experiencing a change of social worker remains ‘too high at this point’, officers say.

The new director of children’s services, Richard Hancock said: “We’re only 12 months really into driving forward the improvement

“It’s safe to say that our self-assessment of ourselves is really robust and strong now, we know where we do well, we know where we’ve got work to do.

“There is issue around the placement type, we’re more reliant on residential placements than we would like.”

He added that the number of referrals are reducing, but the numbers of looked after children continue to place financial pressure on the town hall.

“The direction of travel is the correct one we just need to keep that momentum going,” Mr Hancock told the committee.