Spending on crucial child protection and safeguarding services was cut by almost a fifth by Solihull Council in the five years leading up to the shocking death of six year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in June 2020.
Analysis of annual spending data submitted by councils to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government shows Solihull spent £10.3 million on ‘safeguarding children and young people’s services’ in 2019/20, according to NationalWorld.
After adjusting for inflation, that equates to a real-terms cut of 19% compared to 2014/15 - when spending was at £12.7 million (in 2019/20 prices). Data for previous years’ social services spending is not directly comparable.
The council also cut its safeguarding budget by 5% over that time. It still overspent on what it had budgeted for in 2019/20, which was £9.5 million.
Solihull Council’s figures go drastically against the grain of the national picture, where safeguarding spending has rocketed by 22% over the same period.
Overall English councils overspent on children’s social services by £4 billion over six years as they struggle to keep up with spiralling demand.
Social workers and the Local Government Association paint a picture of beleaguered councils forced to cut preventative, early intervention work to focus on areas they are statutorily obligated to provide – such as child protection, or children in care.
The category of ‘safeguarding children and young people’s services’ is a subset of overall children’s social services spending.
It encompasses the cost of statutory social work, including for child protection; running the council’s Local Safeguarding Children Board; and the cost of commissioning children’s and young people’s services.
Separate data submitted by Solihull Council to the Department for Education shows social work accounts for the vast majority of this spending.
The latest Ofsted data shows Solihull Council’s children’s services department was rated ‘requires improvement’, both overall and specifically for the “experiences and progress of children who need help and protection”. The inspection took place in November 2019.
Sam Mather, chair of the Solihull Labour and Meriden Party, accused the council of holding children’s services “in contempt”, saying it had consistently made deep cuts to the department’s budgets during austerity years.
“It’s something we’ve been concerned about for the last 11 years really,” he said.
“There’s no way you can continue to make those cuts and protect frontline services. If there was wastage and inefficiency then that would have been cut out in the first round of cuts and yet we’ve seen continued cuts over the course of those years pretty consistently.
“Morale within the actual children’s services is incredibly low.”
Solihull Council was unable to explain why the safeguarding spending picture there was drastically different from England as a whole.
When approached by NationalWorld it replied only that its overall children’s services expenditure had increased.
When pressed, a spokesperson said the council was “comfortable” with the response it had given.
Overall, Solihull’s spending on children’s social services increased by 14% in real terms between 2014/15 and 2019/20, from the equivalent of £34.2 million to £39 million.
This was in part driven – as in other councils – by a sharp rise in the costs for looked after children (a 26% rise, from £14 million to £17.6 million), as well as spending on ‘family support services’, which almost doubled from £3.74 million to £7.46 million.
Family support services includes direct payments to families with disabled children or those with special educational needs, respite breaks, and targeted support for vulnerable families such as those in the Troubled Families Programme.
Figures from the Department for Education show there was an increase in the number of children being referred to social services in Solihull between 2014/15 and 2019/20 – up by 20%, from 2,542 to 3,061.
But there has also been a big increase in the proportion of referrals that end in a child being found to not be in need of services – up from 4% in 2014/15 to 18.4% in 2019/20.
“The numbers are shocking but it does reflect anecdotally what people tell you on the ground,” said Mr Mather.
“It’s important to note that doesn’t mean that more people are ringing up with things that shouldn’t be taken action on, and children that aren’t in need.”
For those found to be ‘in need’, an increasing proportion are assessed to be suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, and made the subject of child protection enquiries, known as Section 47 enquiries.
These are more costly interventions for social workers, and may lead to child protection plans being put in place. The British Association of Social Workers has previously said a Section 47 enquiry indicates a child is already at crisis point.
It says cuts to preventative services, which can help prevent a child reaching crisis, can contribute to a vicious cycle, in which social workers have to step in at a later point when higher levels of intervention are needed.
In a short statement, a spokesperson for Solihull Council said: "The data that you refer to shows total national spending on children’s social care increasing from £8.091 billion in 2014/15 to £9.920 billion in 2019/20, an increase of 22.6%.
“In the same period, Solihull’s spending increased from £31.080 million, to £39.029 million, an increase of 25.6%.”
The figures quoted by the council have not been adjusted for inflation.
A version of this story has appeared in our sister title NationalWorld
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