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Local authorities in England have a range of duties and powers relating to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. They are also the statutory point of referral for any concerns about children at risk of harm.

Demand for children’s social care

Department for Education (DfE) data on local authority social care activity between 31 March 2010 and 2020 showed an increase in activity across a range of measures: children in need (+4%), child protection enquiries (+125%), child protection plans (+32%) and looked after children (+24%). The number of referrals made to children’s social care services per year also increased by 5% from around 615,000 in 2010/11 to 643,000 in 2019/20. However, there is also considerable variation between local authorities in the activity of children’s social care.

While it is argued that there remains “a lack of clarity” about what has driven the increase in demand for children’s social care over the last decade, a number of factors have been suggested, including:

  • A growth in the number of children aged 0-17.
  • Parenting capacity and needs – adults experiencing domestic abuse, mental health difficulties or substance misuse are the most common reasons why children come to the attention of children’s social care services.
  • Poverty and the continuing impact of welfare reforms and economic downturns.
  • A growing awareness of risks faced by adolescents outside of the family home, including exploitation by criminal gangs.

The coronavirus outbreak has placed greater stress on some children and families. Concerns have also been raised about the reduced visibility of vulnerable children during the pandemic and that this may have manifested in reduced referrals to children’s social care. It has additionally been suggested that the pandemic may have impacted the availability and cost of placements for looked after children.

Funding for children’s social care

Children’s services are funded through local government. The majority of children’s social care funding is not ring-fenced and it is for local authorities to decide how to prioritise their spending based on local priorities and need. Local authorities in England spent £9.93 billion on children’s social care in 2019/20.

However, in recent years the Government has announced additional ring-fenced funding for children’s social care. Most recently, the Spending Review 2020 announced £300 million of additional grant funding for adult and children’s social care. This was on top of an additional £1 billion of funding, which was announced at the Spending Round 2019 and is being maintained in each year of the current Parliament.

The Government has also provided additional funding for support services for children and families during the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced funding for local authorities to help them respond to pressures faced as a result of the pandemic, across all service areas.

Expenditure data suggests that local authorities have generally protected spending on children’s social care services, despite Government funding for local authorities falling in real terms for much of the period.

However, concerns have been raised that children’s social care is facing significant funding pressures. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has, for example, estimated that the total required to close the budget gap in-year is £824.1m to ‘stay still’. There is also evidence that spending on non-statutory children’s services, in particular for early help and preventative interventions, has been reduced in many areas.

Review of children’s social care

In its manifesto for the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party stated that it would “review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings are providing children and young adults with the support they need.”

Following delays as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, the review was launched on 15 January 2021. It will be led by Josh MacAlister, the founder and chief executive of the children’s social work charity Frontline.

The terms of reference for the review state that it will look “at the whole system of support, safeguarding, protection and care, and the child’s journey into and out of that system, including relevant aspects of preventative services provided as part of early help.”

The review launched a call for advice, aimed at anyone with an interest in the review, to guide its early work. On 1 March, a call for evidence was also issued, aimed “primarily at the research community and those with robust evidence the review should consider”. At the time of writing, the call for advice “remains open for now” and the call for evidence closes on 30 March 2021.

The review plans to set out a case for change in the summer, before beginning to build recommendations for how the system can be improved.

Further information is available on the review’s website at: An independent review of children’s social care in England.

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