This was first published in the Local Government Chronicle on 8th May 2018
After the celebration of victory comes an eye-opening and somewhat shocking week for new councillors elected last Thursday. Many of the pressures they will hear about in their initial briefings and inductions will not come as news: absurdly tight budgets, further cuts, council tax rises, pressures on adult social care. But what may leave them particularly wide-eyed with worry is an issue they will almost certainly not have heard raised on the doorstep nor read about in the national press: the very fragile state of their council’s children’s services.
Today sees a debate in Parliament about just one aspect of this emerging crisis. Ann Coffey MP has discovered that the number of children being placed in care homes outside their home borough due to a lack of appropriate accommodation had risen to 3,680 by March last year. This is a rise of 64% since 2012 when the Government pledged to radically reduce the figure following fears that such practice increases the risk of abuse and exploitation.
This failure on the part of the Government sits within a wider context well described by a new paper from the Education Policy Institute chaired by former Schools Minister, David Laws. The report outlines a situation wearily familiar to those working to protect children in local government and which will become increasingly familiar to new councillors as well. An almost 90% rise in demand for children’s services over the last eight years, shrinking budgets to both meet that demand and invest in the early intervention solutions that could control it, a service increasingly led by interim heads and delivered by temporary staff, and a very large proportion of councils receiving poor ratings from Ofsted.
As “corporate parents”, councillors have a responsibility to look after the interests of children cared for by their council with as much concern as they would show to their own children. Of course, that means addressing any failings that exist within their council rigorously and with determination. But good parents don’t just make sure they are providing love and care in the home. When their child is the target of injustice or neglect by others, they fight to protect them. It is now time for councillors across the country to fight to protect the vulnerable children in their communities.
When elected members speak with one loud voice they are a force that cannot be ignored. It is that voice that pushed the Government to finally admit the funding pressures on adult social care, allocate extra funds and agree to a Green Paper consultation. The same now needs to happen on children’s services. Councillors across the party divide and country must demand urgent funding relief. But maybe even more importantly they need to demand that the Government ditches the complacency it has shown towards children’s services since 2010. A major consultation and then clear action is needed to identify the extra funds, powers and support councils need to respond to a decade’s worth of rising demand.
So, let this be a week of unexpected worry for new councillors. But let next week be the beginning of a fight to protect the most vulnerable from a complacency that has gripped Whitehall and Westminster for far too long.