£3.5m overspend as number of Cambridgeshire children in care hits 500

Massive growth in the number of Cambridgeshire children in care has opened a £3.5 million budget black hole.

More than 500 youngsters are now being looked after by relatives, foster families or in residential homes – the highest number in the county for more than five years.

The figure has increased by about 40 per cent, from 350, since the Baby P case in Haringey put the conduct of social workers under intense scrutiny.

Increased demand has sent costs soaring, and Cambridgeshire County Council’s social care placements department was predicted to overspend by £3.5 million in this financial year. Adrian Loades, the authority’s executive director of children and young people’s services, said the rise to 503 children in care could not be directly attributed to a “Baby P effect”.

He told the News: “This trend is being seen regionally and nationally.

“There are several reasons for the increase locally, including a significant rise in relinquished babies, a rise in homeless 16 to 17-year- olds, an increase in the accommodation of sibling groups where neglect is a major factor, and adolescents where the carers are refusing to continue care.”

The overspend was cut to £2.6 million when the council’s cabinet approved the transfer of £900,000 from elsewhere in the service, and Mr Loades said this would not affect provision.

The cash, including £500,000 for home to school transport, was not expected to be needed.

Work is now under way on a strategy which will aim to reduce the likelihood of children becoming looked after, slash the length of time they are cared for, and cut the risk of children who have left council care coming back into it.

Mr Loades said he hoped this would “address the current increase in numbers and deliver savings in the longer term”, and the authority will also look to work with their counterparts in Norfolk and Suffolk.

At the cabinet meeting, every department was directed to underspend by one per cent.

Finance boss Cllr John Reynolds said: “We have got to look very carefully at expenditure at all levels and ask ourselves serious questions.

“Every penny will be needed in the coming years to maintain vital frontline services.”