Report of the Chief Officer for Children’s Services (CS/21/17), attached.
The Committee received the In-Year Budget Briefing Report of the Chief Officer for Children’s Services (CS/21/17) outlining those areas of specific pressures on the budget and on action being taken to address this. The Report highlighted that as of September 2021, the forecast position for Children’s Services, including Public Health Nursing (PHN), was an overspend of £43.3m, which included the Dedicated Schools Grant deficit of £36 million. The greatest cost pressures related to the availability of suitable provision for children coming into care, the reliance on agency staff pending impact of the Recruitment and Retention Strategy and the SEND High Needs Block.
The Dedicated Schools Grant was showing a deficit overspend of just over £36 million for this financial year after £2.8 million of management actions. This cumulative deficit was expected to be £85 million by the end of the 2021/22 financial year. The Council (and Government) recognised the national context of rapidly escalating demand and a legal framework that increased demand without the corresponding investment.
School transport continued to be an area of significant pressure due to marketplace failings driving up the costs above inflation and with the current pandemic it could place more pressure on contract providers in the long term. The current predicted overspend on the school transport budget for 2021-22 was £2.5 millions. This budget sat within Children’s Services but the operational delivery sat within Planning, Transport and Environment (PTE).
Children’s Social Care was forecast to overspend by just under £5 millions. Operationally, the staffing position remained challenging. However, Cabinet had approved the Recruitment and Retention Strategy in September of this year and several measures, such as more competitive salaries for experienced social workers combined with a retention payment provided an immediate incentive.
The number of children in care had slightly reduced from a high of 840 down to just over 800. The greatest areas of concern continued to be the number and cost of children’s placements. The Sufficiency Strategy 2022-2024 “Finding a place to call home” sets out the plan to address these issues.
The budget for the Public Health Nursing Service was £10.5 million, of which £10.4 million was funded from the Public Health grant. The Service was forecast to underspend by £300,000, largely due to vacant nurses positions. 12 new starters were expected to join the Service in January 2022.
Members Discussion points included:
· How the shortage of bus drivers within Stagecoach, as well as coach operators ceasing to trade due to current climate, would be managed moving forward to ensure children could still get to school. Members were advised that whilst the budget for school transport sat with Children’s Services, the operational delivery sat within Planning, Transportation and Environment services – this would be a challenge moving forward with the current market climate, however, the Transport Team had found the best value school transport routes; therefore the overspend could have been much higher. It was noted that every school run had continued throughout the Pandemic, however with the rising fuel costs it was anticipated there would be a higher overspend next year.
· How Devon compared to other Local Authorities (LA) - Members were advised that LA’s counted their spend in different ways so it would be difficult to compare an exact like for like. The High Needs Block funding was calculated on 2-18 years population, and Devon was currently 125th of 150th funding for high needs block at £589 per pupil (the average being £609; the highest LA received £1000 per head, and the lowest LA received £500 per head). It was explained that if Devon received just the average value per head, the Council would receive an additional £11m in funding per year.
· How and what funding was based on – it was explained that deprivation was used, however it was currently based on historical calculations.
· Plans to reduce the overall High Needs Block deficit, sat outside of the Council budgets until 2023.
· The Council was still awaiting the Government’s SEND review report, which had been due in September 2020 but delayed due to the pandemic.
· Numbers of Free School Meals (FSM) had started to increase again, which was seen as positive as there had previously been a stigma around claiming FSMs from some parents in rural areas.
· The recruitment and retention of social workers continued to be problematic, especially given the housing emergency in the South West with less private renting available, making it difficult to recruit people to Devon. This also related to the recruitment of Education Psychologists.
· The Council had received a grant of £2.2m to embed restorative practice across all social work and care, which included the introduction of champions, mentoring and training of staff.
· Challenges in the Courts system as a result of the Pandemic had resulted in delays. The national target to conclude cases was 26 weeks, however in Devon the timescale was currently around 40 weeks; therefore, children remained in care longer than they should.
It was MOVED by Councillor Hannaford SECONDED by Councillor Aves and
(a) that the Committee thanks the Cabinet Member and the Chief Officer for their prudent financial management over a very difficult year;
(b) that the Committee asks Cabinet to ensure sufficient funding for Children’s Services in the 2022/23 Budget to take account of rising demand, pressure on services, ongoing improvement related projects and to minimise future overspend and further asks that there is sufficient capacity in the Council to complete a process-mapping exercise of the Eclipse Social Care Case Management System; and
(c) that the Committee requests that the following information is circulated to Members in preparation for the January 2022 Budget Meeting:
I. A summary of the 2021 Budget and Spending Review and what it means for Devon’s Children.
II. A summary of the consultation of the proposed policy changes to School Improvement Grant.
III. A summary of comparable local authority spending patterns used to benchmark where the Council compares as an authority on spending on Children’s Services.