Soaring demands for children’s social services are not understood by the Government despite an £872 million overspend last year, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has warned.
Around 91% of local authorities strayed above budget for children’s social care in 2017-18, a trend the Department for Education has “not yet done the work” to unpick, according to the National Audit Office.
The lack of detailed analysis comes despite wild variations in spending from one council to the next in recent years, along with astronomical rises in certain care requirements.
While referrals to children’s social care stayed roughly in line with population growth at 7% between 2010-11 and 2017-18, child protection assessments jumped 77%, it was found.
Children being taken into care by authorities – the most expensive cases handled – similarly escalated at almost triple the rate of population growth, rising around 15% during the same period.
Meanwhile, spending by local authority ranged from as little as £566 per child to £5,166 in different parts of the country each year, the NAO found.
The absence of a “well-informed pathway” may mean the Government falls short of its target to provide every vulnerable child with access to high-quality care by 2022, the watchdog’s analysis concluded.
The report said: “Unless adequate and effective children’s social care is in place, children in need of help or protection will be exposed to neglect, abuse or harm.”
Carrying out its own analysis, the NAO said a “high degree of autonomy” enjoyed by councils in the sector meant noticeably different approaches were being pursued in different regions – with varying levels of expense.
But no link was found between local authorities’ spending per child and the quality of services, with the report pointing out that some services rated “good” by Ofsted had seen spending of £570 per head, while others with the same rating had a spending of £4,980.
Costs associated with looking after children in care are also continuing to rise, with local authorities budgeting £4.2 billion for 2018-19, an increase of £350 million since 2017-18.
Councils called on the Government to heed “consistent and increasingly urgent warnings that children’s services are now at a tipping point”, while Public Accounts Committee chairman Meg Hillier said the Government has “got to grasp the nettle”
Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, said: “As the report acknowledges, we are currently working across government to improve our understanding of demand for children’s services.
“We know there are pressures on councils, which is why we are providing an additional £410 million in the Budget for adult and children’s social care and an extra £84 million to expand innovative practice to support vulnerable families across a further 20 councils.”