Taxpayers Donating More To Children In Care

Taxpayers in Cambridgeshire are forking out around £4million more than average to help the county’s children in care. In the past four years, they have faced a 114 per cent rise in costs – almost four times more than other areas in England. The figures have been revealed after Government inspectors looked at the way Cambridgeshire County Council manages its services for children and young people.

They discovered the cost of looking after children in care – more than £35million last year – was 12.4 per cent higher than similar councils. Inspectors blamed the high costs on the use of expensive private sector foster placements, the need to place children out of the county because of the lack of local foster carers and the use of expensive agency staff to fill vacancies in frontline care teams.

County council chiefs have defended the costs claiming that when the service was inspected they had “higher levels of needy children, resulting in more expensive care packages”. But costs look set to rise again next year by almost £4million and more than £3.5 million in 2008/09.

The inspection, carried out by the Commission for Social Care and Ofsted, discovered that vacancies on the county’s social care workforce frontline teams are running at 30 per cent, resulting in the heavy use of agency staff.

“The council needs urgently to adopt a comprehensive workforce strategy if it is to improve the proportion of qualified staff working with looked after children and children in need,” the report said. “The past year has seen a serious fall in both. Cambridgeshire has a reasonable budgetary provision but needs to achieve better value for money in some areas.”

Overall, services provided by the county council for children and young people were rated as good, however, and had improved since last year, moving from a two rating to a three. Inspectors praised the council’s partnership working with the NHS in meeting targets for reducing smoking in pregnancy, an increase in breastfeeding and in MMR inoculations.

A Cambridgeshire County Council spokesman said: “In common with local authorities across the country, Cambridgeshire has difficulty in recruiting and retaining social care staff. However, the children’s needs must come first and it is better to use more expensive agency staff than not look after the children.

“In Cambridgeshire the cost of keeping looked-after children in school and the cost of transporting them can be extremely high. Cambridgeshire included all these costs, but we do not know whether other authorities did or not. Our openness may have resulted in an unrealistic comparison. In addition, Cambridgeshire’s looked after children have higher levels of need, resulting in more expensive care packages.”