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Failing Birmingham children’s social care facing shock £120m improvement bill

Failing Birmingham children’s social care facing shock £120m improvement bill

🕔28.Jul 2014

The cost of turning around Birmingham city council’s failing social services for vulnerable children could hit £120 million over the next three years, according to the expert brought in to oversee an improvement plan.

Lord Norman Warner said an additional £30 million set aside by Labour council leaders to boost spending on social care between 2015 and 2018 is highly likely to prove inadequate.

In his first formal report since being appointed a Government commissioner to work alongside the council, Lord Warner says the actual cost of pushing through improvements at the scale required could be three or four times greater than the local authority has budgeted for.

In his budget speech this year council leader Sir Albert Bore unveiled plans to inject an additional £14 million into safeguarding services during 2014-15 and a further £10 million a year up to 2018.

Some of the money will be used to pay for a new head of children’s services at the council.

A head-hunting exercise is under way to recruit an executive director, who will qualify for what Lord Warner describes as an “attractive” pay package and performance bonus.

This is the latest attempt to fill a position where the survival rate can be measured in months.

Former children’s social care director Colin Tucker left by mutual agreement in March 2011 because “the department had not improved quickly enough”, while strategic director Peter Duxbury also left by mutual agreement in July 2013, after 15 months in post.

Lord Warner says he cannot “say with any precision” what the true cost of delivering the required improvements will be, but he believes the council has severely under-estimated the amount required.

He accepts that it will be difficult to identify additional money since the authority is already under severe financial strain.

Cuts to Government grants combined with additional spending pressures means that the council has to find ways of saving at least £300 million over the next two years.

Discussions about the financial plight are the subject of “high level discussions” at the Department for Local Government and Communities, Lord Warner added.

Ramping up spending on children’s social services is a relatively new departure for Birmingham.

Although the department has been failing and under special measures for more than five years, the problem was not regarded as financial by the city’s former Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

It was not until last year’s Government-ordered review into Birmingham’s plight, led by Professor Julian Le Grand, that the truth emerged – the council spent far less on looking after vulnerable children than other comparable authorities.

The Le Grand report also revealed that many children at risk have not yet been identified by social services and are not receiving help.

Lord Warner said: “Work is in hand now to identify more precisely the extra costs of the Improvement Plan, particularly those for dealing with the unidentified children at risk about which professor Le Grand and his expert group were understandably so concerned.

“Over the next two to three months I will work with the council leadership, which are being very open about their circumstances, to clarify the budgetary implications of the improvement plan.

“As matters unfold, I will discuss these issues with Department for Education officials before providing an update on these budgetary issues in my next report in October.”

Lord Warner is scathing about Birmingham’s failure to implement adequate checks and balances into the system for safeguarding vulnerable children.

He asks: “Were they all asleep at the wheel or do these systems simply not work?”

Lord Warner describes the independent review system as “broken”.

He adds: “I have started from a position of being puzzled as to why Birmingham’s children’s services were apparently allowed to fail for so long despite established checks and balances.”

He expresses concerns about the size of the Birmingham Safeguarding Board, which has 50 members, and its lack of effectiveness. “Some have suggested to me that it is little more than a talking shop much of the time,” he adds.

On a more positive note, Lord Warner says he is satisfied that the ‘quartet’ established to oversee social care improvements, consisting of council leader Sir Albert Bore, cabinet member Brigid Jones, chief executive Mark Rogers and People director Peter Hay, is working together well.

He adds: “They are devoting the attention to improving children’s social care that is needed. They meet formally once a fortnight and I meet them individually and collectively on a regular basis.

“On the evidence I have seen so far I have every reason to believe that the quartet will be an effective accountable body for securing improvement but I shall watch matters closely.”

Lord Warner was appointed Birmingham Commissioner in March by Children’s Minister Ed Timpson.

There were 20 Serious Case Reviews in Birmingham between 2007 and 2013 following the deaths of youngsters, most notably Khyra Ishaq in 2008 and Keanu Williams in 2011.

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