Cllr Mieka Smiles is the Deputy Mayor and Executive Member for Children’s Services on Middlesbrough Council.
How often have you heard the phrase ‘cash-strapped council’?
As a councillor in Middlesbrough, I can tell you that, as an authority, we are certainly that.
My town is one of the most deprived areas in the country.
We always need more money to deal with the huge challenges we face – from helping to win investment through regeneration projects. And I’m of course happy to fight for every extra penny we can get from central Government.
But as the executive member responsible for children’s services in Middlesbrough I can also tell you that asking for yet more money for my department is an extremely concerning prospect.
In fact the biggest challenge for us as a council right now – and something that’s blocking our ability to improve the town and tackle some of our major issues – is our spiralling children’s services budget.
It is also something that should strike fear into the hearts of hardworking taxpayers – careful spending of their cash being one of my highest priorities.
Let me be clear. Taking care of our most vulnerable children is our most crucial responsibility as a local authority. However, what is truly a broken system means that there is not only less money to take care of our children but also less for anything or anyone else.
We need to direct more cash to tackle the underlying causes of deprivation – and lessen the number of children needing our help in the first place.
What also needs to happen though – and happen urgently – is a rapid reform of the entire children’s social care system…before we and other authorities like us go bust.
To give you some idea of the scale of the issue, our total spending on Children’s Services this year will be in the realm of £56 million. This is out of an overall budget of around £116 million.
This amounts to £10.5 billion spent in 2019/2020 by local authorities nationally – and £13.1 billion when you factor in other associated costs.
Councils even in leafy southern areas – that have nowhere near the demand for the service that we do – are saying the costs are putting them at the risk of bankruptcy.
The drivers of this crisis are threefold.
The first is the cost of external residential placements charged by private providers.
In the past children brought into care were taken into children’s homes run by local authorities.
This has now switched to a situation where there is a mix of local authority and private external placements.
Due to increasing demand, the private sector fills the gap, setting up children’s homes and often caring for children with very complex needs. The vast majority do a fantastic job.
Disturbingly though, we are now in a situation where these providers can more or less stick their finger in the air and charge what they like. The average cost per external placement for our authority is a simply unbelievable £5,100 per week per child – and we had one quote for more than £30,000 per week per child. This is not unusual nationally.
We must build more children’s homes and decrease our reliance on these private placements as soon as feasibly possible.
The second issue is making sure we retain and increase our number of internal foster carers.
This would help tackle our reliance on the extortionately priced external placements.
At the moment independent foster care agencies are poaching our foster carers, paying them more and legally we must reimburse them.
Recently we lost a foster carer that we were paying £400 a week and are now paying £800 for to an independent agency. It soon adds up.
This makes no sense whatsoever.
We need to make absolutely sure we give our in-house foster carers the gratitude, support, and money they deserve to prevent this mass exodus.
Finally, it’s the challenge of recruitment.
We are in dire need of more social workers that work for the local authority.
It’s a career that is fraught with stress and risk, so understandably fewer and fewer are interested in the vocation.
Thanks to these staff shortages we are now over a barrel, needing to take on agency staff and pay rates that can be around double what a contracted member of staff is paid.
We need a reset, we need to get out to colleges and universities, and make our package the most attractive in a career that is not only rewarding but offers fantastic progression.
Two major Government reviews have taken place aiming to tackle some of these challenges – including The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and the Children’s Social Care Market Study. Both make very sensible recommendations for policy makers to follow to fix this mess.
My plea is that this is done without delay – and that local authorities like mine are given the help they need to tackle these issues before it’s too late.