Children’s social care – what local authorities do to protect children from harm, including taking children into care, and the fostering and adoption of children to new families – is one of those issues which has not featured in the 2017 election debates, writes John Fowler. Perhaps it was ever thus.
We all need public protection, so we debate defence, policing and security services; we all went to school, so we debate the shape of the education system; we will all fall ill at some point in our lives, so we debate the future of the NHS; and, as much as we might not like it, we will all grow old and need adult social care services, so we debate that also. But children’s social care – perhaps less than 10 per cent of the population ever have a need for children and family social work support, and users of such services might not put voting high on their list of ‘must do’ activities – goes without a public debate.
But it is worth looking at what the major political party manifestos have to say about children’s social care services: Conservative (Page 73), Labour (pages 86-87) and Liberal Democrat (page 18).
The issue of public expenditure has been raised frequently in the election debates.
Local authorities spend £8 billion a year on these services (see Expenditure by Local Authorities and Schools on Education, Children and Young People’s Services in England, 2015-16), admittedly a fifth of the amount spent on schools. However, the current President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Alison Michalska has estimated that the funding gap is “expected to be £2bn by 2020, given that demand for these services continues to grow at the same time as our budgets have reduced” (see press statement 11 May 2017). In percentage terms, this will be a much bigger real fall in expenditure than any of the parties are proposing for school education; see the Institute for Fiscal Studies A comparison of manifesto proposals on school spending in England.
In response to these funding pressures for children’s social care services, the manifestos of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties have nothing to say.
Who should provide children’s social care?
The Conservative manifesto demands “all local authorities be commissioners of the highest-quality family support and child protection services”. Currently, local authorities on the whole commission inhouse services, except where the Government has used its powers to require outsourcing because of poor performance. It is not known whether the Conservative Party wishes local authorities to become solely commissioning bodies of social work services from third party organisations as this proposal has not been subject to public scrutiny. There was a provision that could allow a local authority to decide to be solely a commissioning body in the Children and Social Work Bill before parliament in the last session, but it was withdrawn by the Government at the last stage. The Labour Party manifesto is to the point: it will prevent the private sector and subsidiaries of private companies from running child protection services. The Liberal Democrat manifesto is silent on this matter.
Only the Labour manifesto mentions child protection: the party is committed to delivering earlier protection to victims of abuse by strengthening mandatory reporting and guaranteeing allegations will be reported and action taken to make children safe.
Outcomes for children in need
The Conservative Party will review support for children in need in order to understand why outcomes are so poor, and what more support these children require, in and out of school. Labour wants to promote the educational achievement of the most vulnerable children and institute a step change in outcomes for looked after children. This includes extending the ‘Staying Put’ arrangements to enable young people to remain in their residential and other forms of care placement until they are 21. The Liberal Democrat manifesto is silent on this matter.
Children in care
The Conservatives want local authorities to provide consistent care for children, which includes not relocating children far from their home when it is not in their best interests to do so. The Labour manifesto wants social care to focus on families in local communities, to prevent children becoming at risk of going into care. The Liberal Democrat manifesto is silent on this matter.
The Conservatives remind readers that Government has invested in the social work profession. Labour will continue to support all training routes for social workers, including Frontline (the scheme to enable high achieving graduates to enter social work). The Liberal Democrats will continue to promote and invest in Frontline.
It is perhaps unfair to put the election manifesto commitments on children’s social care under the magnifying glass. General election debates always centre on the big issues of the economy, the National Health Service, defence, education, and for this election, Brexit. For these major areas, there have been a succession of comparative analyses, for example, the Education Policy Institute’s General Election 2017: An Analysis of Manifesto Plans for Education.
However, children’s social care involves at any one time 70,000 children, and the long-term outcomes of these children are known to be poor in comparison to their peers especially in terms of interaction with the criminal justice system and need for mental health support. And we spend £8 billion a year on these services. So perhaps the future of these services should be debated during a general election.
On a positive note, all the manifestos have something positive say about mental health support, and also interaction with the justice system. So if one had taken a whole host of services in the round, it might have been possible to be more positive report.
John Fowler manages the LGiU’s Children’s Services Network.