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Children in need of help or protection

Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General

1 The law defines children in need as children who are aged under 18 and need local authority services:

  • to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development;
  • to prevent significant or further harm; or
  • because they are disabled.

2 In 2014-15, local authorities recorded 635,600 referrals (requests for services to be provided by children’s social care) because of concerns about a child’s welfare. Referrals can come from the children themselves, as well as teachers, GPs, the police, health visitors, family members or members of the public.

3 When a local authority receives a referral, working with local partners, it assesses a child’s need for services. If an authority suspects a child is at risk of significant harm, it may need to do more to protect the child, including putting in place a child protection plan. In 2014-15, 62,200 children became the subject of a plan. Over the past 10 years, the rate of children under 18 starting on plans has risen by 94%.

4 Local authorities have statutory duties for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of individual children in their area and are directly responsible for improving local services. Authorities work with agencies such as the police and health services to meet these duties and are accountable to their local communities and councillors for their performance. Although the Department for Education (the Department) is not legally responsible for improving local services, it is responsible for the legal and policy frameworks within which local authorities operate. The Department also publishes data and research; sets the framework against which Ofsted inspects each authority’s services; and intervenes where an authority fails to deliver services to an acceptable standard.

5 The Department for Communities and Local Government provides most funding for children’s services. In 2014-15, local authorities reported they had spent £1.8 billion on children’s social work (including local authority functions in relation to child protection) in England, an 11% increase on 2012-13.6 In 2010, the Department considered that the child protection system in England was not working as well as it should. It commissioned the Munro Review of child protection. This report recommended major reform of children’s social work. The government has recognised, however, that help and protection for children still needs to improve further. In July 2016, the Department published Putting children first, setting out its vision for children’s social care by 2020.

Scope of this report

7 This report examines the Department’s progress in improving the system to help and protect children. We look at the system from the point where someone contacts a local authority with concerns about a child to the point where the authority makes a child the subject of a child protection plan. The report examines:

  • the demand for help and protection for children (Part One);
  • how the system is working in practice (Part Two); and
  • how the Department aims to improve the system (Part Three).