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Pressures on children’s social care

Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General

This report sets out recent trends in pressures on children’s social care and the response of both national and local government to these pressures. It also sets out analysis we conducted about what is causing variations in children’s social care demand and activity between different local authorities.

Local authorities in England have statutory responsibility for protecting the welfare of children and delivering children’s social care. In extreme cases local authorities may use their statutory powers to place children in need on protection plans or even take them into care. Local authorities are also responsible for delivering non statutory services for all children and young people, such as children’s centres.

One hundred and fifty-two upper-tier local authorities in England are responsible for delivering children’s social care. The Department for Education (the Department) provides statutory guidance on delivering these functions. The Department has overall policy responsibility for children’s services, and has the strategic vision that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, should have access to high-quality support by 2022. Most funding for children’s services comes from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), and services are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that funding for children’s social care is spent with regularity and propriety and achieves value for money.

This report is about children’s social care in England and the pressures on these services. We examine the pressures that stem from demand for children’s social services, which we define as referrals to children’s social care. We also examine the pressures that stem from the activity that local authorities undertake in response to actual or perceived demand. Local authorities in England are responsible for setting the thresholds at which they decide to work with vulnerable children, and are therefore responsible for managing demand for their own children’s social care. Referrals are the initial measure of demand, and the subsequent level of local authority activity in response to referrals is filtered through local thresholds for action and perceptions of risk.

As both the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Committee of Public Accounts have previously reported, local authorities’ finances and services are increasingly under strain. In 2016 the Committee of Public Accounts concluded that the Department seemed worryingly complacent that nothing could be done to improve children’s services more quickly, and that the Department lacked a credible plan for how and by when it would make a difference and ensure that local authorities were intervening effectively to make a difference to children’s lives. Until recently, the Department has not seen it as a central part of its responsibilities to understand drivers in demand for children’s social care across all local authorities. Unless adequate and effective children’s social care is in place, children in need of help or protection will be exposed to neglect, abuse or harm.