Taskforce finds fault with action plan to improve failing children’s service

Lin Hazell, portfolio holder for children's services
Lin Hazell, portfolio holder for children's services
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A government taskforce sent into County Hall’s failing children’s department has criticised parts of the council’s improvement action plan.

Consultants Red Quadrant told service chief Lin Hazell about ‘some weaknesses’ in the plan yesterday, she revealed at this morning’s inquiry into the department’s massively increased budget.

She said resolving their issues – one of which was around the complexity of the IT system in logging child welfare data – may cost the department more money than has currently been budgeted for.

The department, which is responsible for the safeguarding of children including many from troubled families, was savaged by Ofsted in late 2014, when it was deemed inadequate and told it was putting youngsters at risk. It was given emergency funding of £5.8m from the council’s reserves to deal with existing pressures and start to make improvements, but even after this it has still overspent an extra £717,000.

The county council’s cabinet has agreed to increase the department’s 2015/16 budget from £41 to nearly £53m, which equates to 16% of the authority’s total budget, an increase of 4%.

Councillors on the budget scrutiny select committee grilled Mrs Hazell over whether her children’s services will need even more money ploughed into it.

She said the nature of the department, where children previously unknown to them could be referred to the council for safeguarding at any moment, meant it was very difficult to plan future costs: “We know what we know but we don’t know what we don’t know. When you look at other departments such as adult social care they have got a client base, we don’t get that type of thing.

“I can’t sit here and say this is all encompassing. There are more unknowns in the budget than knowns because there are a lot of pressures. It is a little like star gazing at the moment.”

She gave an example of four children of asylum seekers who came into the council’s care, costing taxpayers £260,000.

Mrs Hazell also added that the council’s much-hyped ‘Future Shape’ strategy, which calls for a change to a more corporate culture at County Hall, had ‘no real base behind it’ for her department.

She is also looking to increase the numbers of social workers employed by the council, rather than agencies, saying: “Eighty per cent of the first response team is agency staff which is not good.”

She said she was looking to cut employment red tape and improve basic pay – which she admitted the council was ‘behind on’ – to attract more social workers to the authority.

Councillor Bill Chapple said he was concerned about the amount of performance indicators the department was failing at on its ‘risk register’.

These include:

> The percentage of repeat referrals needing social care intervention standing at 29% and not the target of 25% (the average for English councils is 23.4%).

> The percentage of assessments not completed within 45 days standing at 23% and not the target of 15% (English average is 17.8% but for authorities similar to Bucks it is just 5.9%).

Mrs Hazell said: “What you have got to remember is the whole business is risk. You might have it itemised on a piece of paper but our whole being in business is a risk at the moment we open our eyes to the moment we close them.”