Derbyshire’s children’s services in turmoil as demand and dwindling budgets cause headaches

Derbyshire County Council's Matlock headquarters.
Derbyshire County Council's Matlock headquarters.

The county council’s children’s services department is in turmoil, with the demand for services and dwindling budgets continuing to cause headaches for yet another year.

This week, the county council has announced that it will be forced to draw nearly half a million pounds extra from its reserves to fill a gap in its children’s services department budget – and last year it overspent by nearly £6.4 million.

The new payment and budget details, revealed in papers for a meeting of the county council’s cabinet member for young people on September 4, mean £444,000 will be drawn from the reserves (cash saved for rainy days and emergencies) at the end of the current financial year.

However, it assumes that the number of children in care remains unchanged – which would be against the current and prolonged trend – so this figure may increase.

On top of this, the council is looking to make budget cuts of £2.9 million from its children’s services department this year, of which it feels it can achieve £2.2 million.

The overall budget for children’s services is £98.7 million.

The county council as a whole must make £53 million in budget cuts by 2022, with £12 million of these in total coming this year.

Derbyshire County Council officers said in the new report that “increases in demand for statutory services have exceeded the capacity of the current children’s services budget for some years”.

There are currently 743 children in the county council’s care; a further 942 on child protection plans; 547 children are in foster care; and 50 children are in county-run residential care.

The main source of pressure in the children’s services department is in safeguarding and early help – which saw a £6.5 million overspend.

Most of this budget is cancelled out by an underspend of £6.6 million in “unallocated funding”, half of which is for social care recruitment and will be spent in 2019.

The number of children in the authority’s care has shot up by almost nine per cent in just ten months from October last year to August 2018.

This has seen the figure rise from 682 to 743.

Meanwhile, in a separate category, the number of children on protection plans in Derbyshire has risen from 741 to 942 – an increase of more than a quarter since 2016.

Spending on agency residential placements costs the council £200,000 per annum on average and the projected overspend in this area alone is £1.022 million.

Agency fostering placements cost approximately £43,000 per year on average, creating a projected overspend of £1.709 million.

Alongside this, children’s homes are projected to overspend by £0.477 million.

This overspend is due to the additional costs of providing staff who are awake in the homes overnight to ensure that children with challenging behaviours are appropriately supervised. Social care teams are projected to overspend by £1.781 million.

This is due to the extra costs of employing agency staff rather than permanent employees – this comes after the authority rebranded itself as an “enterprising council” at the start of 2018, a move which has seen it increase its outsourcing of services.

The county council has frequently sought to “delete” vacant positions left behind after employees leave or retire in a bid to save money and the authority seeks to cut 260 jobs this year.

The authority says that “agency staff are being employed as a temporary measure until recruitment has taken place and to provide a short-term solution to ensuring that there is an appropriate mix of experienced and newly-qualified social workers in each locality”.

The county council has received some funding boosts for the current year from central government, this includes £11 million for “children’s services demographics” which is to close the gaps between demand-led spending in the department and the budget it has available.

Previously, the authority had sought to quash this gap through its reserves and underspends in prior years.

However, this year’s overspend of almost £6.4 million proved too heavy a burden to repeat this manoeuvre, alongside its current spending and savings targets.

The authority has also been given £5.3 million to remodel children’s social care and bring in new social workers from September to “help bring caseloads down to the levels expected by Ofsted”.