Zahawi: Government taking action to reduce number of children in care

Neil Puffett and Joe Lepper
Thursday, September 6, 2018

Steps are being taken to try to stem significant increases in the number of children being taken into care, with the government "acutely aware" of the impact the situation is having on local authorities, children's minister Nadhim Zahawi has said.

Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi said local authority recording of missing incidents has improved in recent years. Picture: UK Parliament
Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi said local authority recording of missing incidents has improved in recent years. Picture: UK Parliament

Speaking in a parliamentary debate on the independent Care Crisis Review published earlier this year, children's minister Nadhim Zahawi said both the Department for Education (DfE) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have been carefully considering the options for change set out in the report, and have already implemented some of the recommendations, with potentially more to follow.

He said Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance has been reviewed and amended to emphasise the importance of partnership and co-production with families and highlight the effectiveness of relationship-based practice.

He added that government is actively considering what more can be done, with representatives of the DfE and MoJ meeting with members of national and local family justice boards across England, to understand the challenges in the family justice system better.

Statistics published last year show that the number of children in care is rising at its fastest rate in five years, with 72,670 children in care in the 12 months to the end of March 2017, compared with 70,440 the year before and 69,480 in 2015.

The rises come at a time of increasing pressure on local authority budgets, with the Local Government Association estimating that by 2020, there will be a £2bn funding gap in children's services.

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Analysis: Understanding £2bn funding gap

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The Care Crisis Review made a total of 20 recommendations, with a central suggestion being that more children suffering abuse or neglect should be placed with their wider family in order to reduce numbers coming into the care system.

Speaking in the debate, Zahawi said he acknowledges the increase in the number of care order applications and the number of children being taken into care in recent years.

"The government are acutely aware of the impact that that has had and is having on local authorities and the courts," he said.

"We are also very conscious of the implications for children and families."

He added that he is due, along with family justice minister Lucy Frazer, to meet with Nigel Richardson, former director of children's services in Leeds, who chaired the review, and Family Rights Group chief executive Cathy Ashley, who helped drive it, to discuss its findings.

But he rejected a call from education select committee member Lucy Allen to ringfence support for early help for families.

"I acknowledge the increase in the number of care order applications and the number of children being taken into care in recent years," said Zahawi.

"It is for local authorities to determine how to spend their non-ringfenced income on the services they provide, including services for preventive support measures."

Last month Association of Directors of Children's Services president Stuart Gallimore warned that councils will be forced to cut funding for early help due to deepening central government funding cuts.

Allen, who is Conservative MP for Telford, said that ringfenced funding for early help is vital to help prevent children from being taken into care.

"The government could be doing so much more to set the direction and insist on a ringfenced element of funding for early intervention and prevention," she said.

"As a Conservative government, we care about families. We care about people being able to help themselves. We believe in helping people to help themselves, but we are not doing that. We are simply saying, "The state will take care of this, because you have failed as a parent." What message does that send about our vision of society?

Former children's minister and Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham Tim Loughton said there is concern in his constituency that funding for the Troubled Families initiative which supports families with complex needs, will not be renewed when its current funding ends in two years. Zahawi said he will be calling for funding to continue after 2020.

"I have seen first hand the effectiveness of the Troubled Families programme, and when it comes to the spending review, I will be a champion in ensuring that we continue to commit," Zahawi said.

Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour's shadow children and families minister, highlighted fears that the funding crisis in children's social care threatens children's safety and could contribute to another tragedy, such as the death of Peter Connelly, also known as Baby P, in Haringey in 2007.

"Coupled with recent reports in the press from members of the minister's own party that we are fast approaching a Baby P tragedy, it should be more than enough for him to act and put pressure where it is needed within government," she said.

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