Children’s trust boss warns of ’real challenge’ to balance budget
After the first quarter the trust which looks after children’s services for Northants says it is already running £1.8m over budget on its placements for children in care.
By Sarah Ward
The chief executive in charge of running Northamptonshire’s children’s services, says he thinks it is going to be a ‘real challenge’ to come in on budget this year amid rising care placement costs and increased agency staff bills.
Speaking during a grilling from North Northamptonshire Council’s scrutiny commission on Tuesday, chief executive of Northamptonshire Children’s Trust Colin Foster pointed to the financial pressures facing his service, with private placements for looked after children already running £1.8m over budget in the first quarter of this current financial year.
The trust - which formed in November 2020 - has a budget of £131m to provide services on behalf of the two unitary authorities, which retain statutory responsibility for the welfare and safety of children in the county.
Foster’s alert comes after the Competition and Markets Agency pointed out at the end of last year that private firms which run children’s homes are charging increased prices due to a shortage of homes. Most local authorities have closed down their own children’s homes over the past two decades and Northamptonshire now only has a handful of its own.
At the meeting the trust’s finance director Andrew Tagg, said a placement for one child was costing £12,000 per week and that of its £131 million annual budget, £60m was spent on placements. A response to a written question from Labour’s Cllr John McGhee said the Trust is now looking after 1183 children, 637 of whom are in foster care (at an average cost of £800 a week) and 120 young people are living in children’s homes.
Asked by deputy chair of the scrutiny commission Cllr Kevin Watt whether an earlier intervention could have reduced the care costs for some of the more expensive children’s placements trust director Cornelia Andrecut said the trust had analysed the placements and in some cases there were Northants children whose need had not been met earlier, which had led to the level of care necessary escalating.
Andrecut also said the change in the law which now required under 16s to be placed in regulated homes had also increased placement costs.
During the meeting in the Thrapston council offices, the finance director pointed to increased costs for agency social workers. The authority has had a historic issue with recruiting and retaining staff, in part due to the culture and also due to the management and political failings which have piled pressure on staff.
Currently the trust has 88 agency staff in its service, which equals 16 per cent of its overall workforce, a situation which has improved since the county council days.
Tagg said the rate for agency social work staff now stood at £42 an hour, in part due to the national shortage of social workers. He said in some parts of the country this now stands at £50 and the trust is modelling how an increase in the hourly rate by a further £2 could impact on the budget.
The trust was mandated by the government in 2018 after the conservative administration leading the former county council failed to run the service properly.
When Ofsted inspectors came in following the authority’s now infamous financial crash of 2018, they found the service was on its knees and failing to protect the county’s most vulnerable children properly. More than 200 children who had been identified as needing a social worker did not have one and the service was assessed by the children’s commissioner appointed to come in as in ‘chaos’.
Since then there have been a series of high profile safeguarding reviews following child deaths or instances of serious harm - most notably the murders of Dylan Tiffin-Brown and Eve Rose Muggleton, both aged under two.
The trust got up and running in November 2020 and since then a government inspection has found improvements, but says more needs to be done for it to become a good service.
A further Ofsted inspection is expected this autumn.
At the meeting Foster told the councillors the trust would operate transparently.
“We are not going to hide anything,” he said. “We will always be straight. We will do what is necessary to build confidence.”
He spoke of the improvements that had been made since the trust had taken over and pointed to the changes in drawing down from government any additional money the county was entitled to. He said under the former county council only a third of the £1.6m on offer under the Troubled Families grant (now called Strengthening Families) had been claimed.
Also at the meeting the unitary council’s phone system came under fire. After a relatively high call abandonment rate was flagged up, deputy chair Cllr Kevin Watt said he thought this was because the system was so ‘frustrating’.
“I’ve used it a couple of times and it can be so demoralising,” he said, pointing to the lengthy GDPR notice callers have to listen to when they first call.
And a report by the levelling up sub committee will go to the commission in July. Led by Labour’s Cllr Zoe McGhee, it has been delayed in part due to covid which now means, according to monitoring officer Adele Wylie, that any of its recommendations has missed out on being allocated money in this current budget (which was set in March).
It also appears that the multi-million pound levelling up fund bid currently being put together by the scrutiny commission’s chair Wendy Brackenbury’s husband David’s growth and regeneration department, won’t be specifically aimed at levelling up the area’s three ‘left behind’ communities.
Cllr John McGhee said the bid, which is set to go in next month, should have been worked up by a larger circle of councillors and should have gone through the scrutiny commission.
The commission, which has the role of looking at the workings across the entire council only appears to be meeting every two months, which is a lesser frequency than the previous county council. The chair is a member of the ruling Conservative party.
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