Background information

Children in care

Under the Children Act 1989 as amended:

  • A child is a looked after child if it is subject to a care order or is provided with accommodation by a local authority for a continuous period of more than 24 hours (a care order is not always required, as long as the parents/carers of the child agree that the child can be taken into local authority care);
  • A child can be classed as a “child in need” under section 17 of the Act, although the level of local authority support is generally lower than for a looked after child.


Number of children in care

According to the Department for Education in September 2017, “the number of looked after children continues to increase; it has increased steadily over the last nine years [before 2017]”.  The number has increased steadily since 2009-2010, when there were 64,450 in England.  At 31 March 2017, there were 72,670 looked after children, which was an increase of 3% on 2016 and of 13% on the 2009-10 figure.

The number of children starting to be looked after in 2016-17 also rose in recent years, and had increased by 2% compared with 2015-16.

According to the APPG for Children’s report into children’s social care, which was published in March 2017, there are a range of factors which have been attributed as contributing to the increase in demand for children’s protection services including:

  • greater awareness and referrals in the wake of high profile cases such as those involving sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
  • increasing numbers of children who are vulnerable or at risk from female genital mutilation, gang violence, child sexual exploitation, radicalisation, and increasing numbers of unaccompanied children seeking asylum.
  • better identification, rather than an actual increase in the number of children at risk.

There are also concerns that reductions in public sector funding and welfare reform are key contributory factors.  For example, in October 2017, the Association of Director and Children’s Services ADCS) in a policy paper said:

Local authorities are ambitious about improving children’s life chances but a series of conflicting national policy initiatives – particularly in relation to welfare reform – coupled with dramatic reductions in public sector funding, are increasingly affecting our ability to improve outcomes.


Financial pressures

The Local Government Association warned in late 2017 that “[c]hildren’s social care in particular is becoming the biggest area of financial challenge for social care authorities” and that that 75% of councils overspent their children’s services budgets by £0.5 million each in 2015/16 and it estimates that children’s services will face a £2 billion funding gap by 2019/20.  It recently estimated that this funding gap would amount to “£3 billion by 2025, just to maintain their current level”, and that within the last year “there was a £816 million overspend in council’s children’s social care budgets”.  Moreover, a recent study by the Social Market Foundation argued that “63% of Local Authorities in England are providing services for these children which either ‘require improvement’ or are simply ‘inadequate’”.  Such concerns were reported recently in the following press reports:

Revealed: cash crisis pushing child services to tipping point

The Observer, 1 September 2018

13,000 children in care ‘left with inadequate levels of support’ – new analysis

Politics Home, 19th August 2018


Government policy on children’s services

In 2010, the Department for Education commissioned the Munro Review of child protection, which recommended major reform of children’s social work when it was published in May 2011. It proposed 15 recommendations designed to create “a better balance between essential rules, principles, and professional expertise”; to reduce prescription from the centre as well as to create a “learning system” so that children’s services could be more “child-centred” and less bureaucratic. 

Nevertheless, in 2016, the Government recognised that help and protection services for children required further reform in order to create a system that is “staffed and led by the best trained professionals; dynamic and free to innovate in the interests of children; delivered through a more diverse range of social care organisations; with less bureaucracy; smarter checks and balances designed to hold the system to account in the right ways; and new ways to intervene where services fail.”  As a result of these ambitions, in July 2016 the Department for Education published Putting children first, setting out its vision for children’s social care by 2020.

The Government’s strategy involves reform in the following three areas:

  • people and leadership – bringing the best into the profession and giving them the right knowledge and skills for the challenging but hugely rewarding work ahead, and developing leaders equipped to nurture practice excellence;
  • practice and systems – creating the right environment for excellent practice and innovation to flourish, learning from the very best practice, and learning from when things go wrong; and
  • governance and accountability – making sure that what we are doing is working, and developing innovative new organisational models with the potential to radically improve services.

In December 2016, a Public Accounts Select Committee’s inquiry into Child protection concluded that:

The Department [for Education] seemed to us worryingly complacent that nothing can be done to improve [Children’s] services more quickly. The Department’s newly stated ambition to improve services by 2020 is welcome but the Department lacks a credible plan for how and by when it will make a difference and ensure that local authorities are intervening effectively to make a difference to these children’s lives…

The National Audit Office published a report – Children in need of help or protection – in October 2016 which recommended Government action to improve children’s services. The head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, said:

Six years have passed since the Department recognised that children’s services were not good enough. It is extremely disappointing that, after all its efforts, far too many children’s services are still not good enough. To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020 the Department will need to inject more energy, pace and determination in delivering on its responsibilities.

A debate on Children’s Services was held in Westminster Hall on 12 December 2017.  In this, Fiona Onasanya, MP for Peterborough, articulated concerns about a £2 billion funding gap by 2020, as estimated by the Local Government Association, and called for “sustainable forms of funding, based on the cost of delivering current and future [children’s] services, and not regressively focused on past spending”. 

The then Minister for Children and Families, Robert Goodwill, acknowledged that two thirds of “vulnerable children live in local authorities where service provision is less than good” and committed to work “tenaciously to address that”.  On funding, however, he noted a need to be “realistic”, stating that “[q]uality is not only dependent on money”, and outlining the reforms undertaken by the Government, most recently its abovementioned 2016 Strategy, as well as a schemes designed to expand the number of those entering social work (including Frontline and Step Up), and outlining the achievements of the children social care innovation programme:

High-quality services need excellent leadership, a skilled and experienced workforce, and rigorous, evidence-based practice. Since I started this job six months ago, I have been impressed by how much of that good work is already out there and how much my Department has already done to spread it more widely.

[HC Deb 12 December 2017, ccWH112-119].

The Government’s most recent statement came in response to a parliamentary question about children’s services on 16 July 2018:

The government wants every child to be in the stable, loving home that is right for them. One of the key principles of the legislation which underpins England’s child protection system is that children are best looked after within their families. However, as a last resort, local authorities may apply to the independent courts for a decision about removing a child from his or her family – for the child’s safety. In making these decisions, the courts must be satisfied that the threshold for significant harm has been met and that taking the child from his or her family’s care will be in the child’s best interests.

The government set out its vision for delivering excellent children’s social care in ‘Putting Children First’. This outlines our reform programme which seeks to: improve the quality of social work practice; create systems and environments where great social work can flourish; promote learning and multi-agency working where all involved in supporting children and families can work together; and support children who both enter and leave the care system.

The 2015 Spending Review made available more than £200 billion until 2020 for councils to deliver the local services their communities want to see, including children’s services. In February, Parliament confirmed the 2018-19 settlement for local government, which has provided a £1.3 billion increase in resources to local government over the next two years, from £44.3 billion in 2017-18 to £45.6 billion in 2019-20. In addition, the current business rates retention scheme is yielding strong results. Local authorities estimate that in 2018-19 they will keep around £2.4 billion in business rates growth. This is on top of the core settlement funding. Funding for children’s services is an un-ring fenced part of the wider local government finance settlement. Local authorities have used this flexibility to increase spending on the most vulnerable children by around a £1 billion since 2010.

[PQ HL9563, 16 July 2018]


The Care Crisis Review

The Care Crisis Review was completed by a self-described “coalition of the willing” from across the child welfare and family justice sector in England and Wales.  It was prompted by a comment by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales, who in September 2016 said: “We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis.  What is to be done?”. 

The Review was intended to be a direct response to this and was organised by the Family Rights Group.  It sought

  • to examine the reasons for the rise in care proceedings and number of children in care

  • to at all times retain a focus on achieving the best outcomes for children and families

  • to take account of the current national economic, financial, legal and policy context that impacts on families and on local authority and court practice

  • to identify specific changes to local authority and court systems and national and local policies and practices that will help safely stem the increase in the number of care cases coming before the family courts and the number of children in the care system.

It was explicitly not intended to be an examination of the care system as a whole.

The Review involved a consultation of 2,000 people across England and Wales, as well as an academic review of the evidence of factors contributing to the rise in children in care, and, ultimately, an examination of the potential options for change.  It published its report – Care Crisis Review: Options for Change – in June 2018 which came to the following findings:

  • The number of care order applications reached a record level in 2017 and the number of “looked after” children was at its highest since the Children Act 1989. The number of children in care has been rising since the early 1990s, aside for a period in the mid-2000s in England.
  • Many professionals are frustrated at “working in a sector that is overstretched and overwhelmed” so that children and families “do not get the direct help they need early enough to prevent difficulties escalating”.
  • There is a “strong sense of concern” about a “culture of blame, shame and fear” in the system, affecting those working in it as well as children and families. This, it was suggested, has created an environment that is “increasingly mistrusting and risk averse and prompts individuals to seek refuge in procedural responses”.
  • That there are “overlapping factors” which have led to the rise in care proceedings and the number of children in care, which means, it asserts, that there can be no single solution.
  • That relationship-building is “at the heart of good practice”, and therefore that the challenge for the future “is how to create the conditions within children’s social care and family justice that allow good relationships to flourish everywhere”.
  • That the wider family and community of children in care are a “significant untapped resource”, which, if used, could “safely avert more children needing to come into care”, or could help them “thrive” in the care system.
  • That the Children Act 1989 has “stood the test of time, as has its underpinning principle of partnership with families to promote their children’s wellbeing”.

The Review, therefore, proposed 20 “options for change”, some of which included:

  • Taking immediate steps to “move away from an undue focus on processes and performance indicators”, to a system “where practitioners are able to stay focused on securing the right outcomes for each child”.
  • Sharing visions and ethos across agencies so that leaders communicate a “consistent message”, including “modelling the way they want others to act”.
  • Taking approaches where families are “supported to understand professionals’ concerns and to draw upon their own strengths and networks to make safe plans for their child”, which might prevent the need for some to enter the care system. This includes approaches such as family group conferences.
  • That statutory guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children, be changed in order “to promote relationship-based practice”.
  • That Family Justice Boards in England, and the Family Justice Network in Wales, should be revitalised, “so that all can become places where challenged are discussed and solutions developed”.
  • That the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Education (DfE) should, in consultation with the devolved administrations, “examine the impact of benefit rules and policies, and the projected effect of planned benefit reforms, on the numbers of children entering or remaining in care”.
  • That the Ministry of Justice should complete an “impact assessment of the present lack of accessible, early, free, independent advice and information for parents and wider family members on the number of children subject to care proceedings or entering or remaining in the care system”, as well as the net cost in terms of public money.
  • That the National Family Justice Board should revise its approach to measuring timescales, including the 26-day week measure for care proceedings.
  • It makes proposals related to “pre-proceedings activity and guidance” when it comes to children entering care through voluntary arrangements.
  • Ofsted and Social Care Wales in their inspections and research should be encouraged “to take into account the duties on local authorities to support families and to promote children’s upbringing within their family”.
  • That safeguarding partners and Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) in England, and partner agencies in Wales, should “work with the third sector, to ensure that dedicated support is provided to parents whose children have been removed as a result of care proceedings”.
  • That the Government should “make up the £2 billion shortfall in children’s social care”, which has been identified previously by the Local Government Association (see above), and that similar funding commitments should be made by the Welsh Government.
  • That there should be an additional ring-fenced fund available to all local authorities in England “to act as a catalyst for them and their partner agencies to achieve the local changes needed to address the crisis”.

In response, Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Children and Families, said the following in the House of Commons on behalf of the Government:

The sector-led review is an important contribution to the family justice system. Across government we will consider its findings and recommendations carefully. My counterpart in the Ministry of Justice and I are due to meet the Family Rights Group to discuss the report in more detail.

[HC Deb 25 June 2018, c589]


Further reading

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