At the time of the Budget last February, the then Leader of the Council said that, whilst there was a predicted overspend in the Children's Services area of £1.3M for 2019/20, they were confident that the Council would be able to bring down this figure.
I note that a number of areas have been identified for investigation and action to try to reduce this overspend. Is the Executive Member for Finance also confident that the overspend will be reduced?
Budget pressures across Children’s Services are being driven by increasing demand and complexity of cases. Higher than anticipated spend on expensive residential and semi-independent placements, alongside more complex legal proceedings, have been needed to keep our children and young people safe.
So just to give you an example the average cost of a residential placement made in the last quarter has been in excess of £6,000 per week. When compared to around £4,000 at the same time last year, that means an increase in costs of £100,000 for just one child placed in residential care over the course of a year.
The other issue is home to school transport where we have to ensure that children with special educational needs have access to appropriate facilities and if they cannot be provided locally we have to pay for them to go elsewhere.
A robust review of spend and budget decisions continues to be a key priority and significant work under the governance of the Continuous Improvement Programme is being driven forward to maximise opportunities to reduce and contain budget pressures.
However the level of increasing demand and complexity is such that we cannot really reduce the cost. It is a statutory service after all so unlike other departments if the costs are too high we can say we are not doing it but it is statutory and we cannot. We have a duty to these children and young people to ensure that they are safe and that they get the education and care which they are entitled to. So I cannot really give you a better answer than that.
Thank you very much for that answer because I do appreciate that this an incredibly complex area. It is an area in which you quite rightly say that there is a lot of non-discretionary expenditure where costs can be extremely volatile and unpredictable and I appreciate all of that and the specific cases that you sited in your answer. So thank you very much for that.
I am still wondering nevertheless are there any lessons at all, and this is not meant as a criticism, but it is a learning exercise. Are there any lessons you know that have been learnt from this past year’s experience that can feed into this year’s budget planning process; specifically of course for Children’s Services?
It is not a question of learning any lessons we just have to try and cope with what is coming our way. What we are doing, however, is to try and reduce transport costs by having very soon, within a 6 month period, another 50 places at Addington. We are also in the process of negotiating building another Addington which will give us another 175 places.
We need to look at the interim staff we are using for example and we are planning to reduce the cost by about 6% within the next couple of months. Having said that we have to ensure that we have properly trained social workers especially for the more serious cases and as you know from last night nobody should have more than 15 cases because it is not safe.
I just want to give you another example of how it works. This year we had 109 children in care which is an increase of 41% compared to March 2017. We cannot foresee these things so we have to work with what we have and do our very best because it is our duty to ensure that children are being kept safe.
Councillor Kaiser gave the following response:
I think the true answer is that we are building 13,000 homes in the Borough. 35% of those are affordable and they attract young families. With young families come children and of course that will give us a different profile to what we probably had in the past. But one thing you can be sure of is we will not be dropping the service. We may be coming back to you and putting the price up but we will not be dropping the service which I think is really important.