Tories Plan To Charge For Child Services

The only Conservative-controlled council in Wales was condemned last night for plans that would involve charging vulnerable children and their parents who use social services.

Monmouthshire County Council was accused of having a “callous, Thatcherite and potentially dangerous approach” after it emerged that the authority is considering using a little-known piece of legislation to introduce such charges.

Under the council’s plans, access, for example, to children’s homes or fostering for short periods would be subject to a parental means test.

A council report states, “At present, the local authority does not charge parents for the costs of provision of services under the Children Act.

“The cost of providing accommodation for looked after children is significant. If the budget for such children could be reduced, even by a small percentage, this would enable the local authority to invest more in preventative services.”

The report goes on to say that under the Children Act 1989, parents or children over 16 can be charged for any service other than “advice, guidance, or counselling”.

The report, written by the council’s head of children’s services John Waters, states, “Where parents look to the local authority to assume responsibility for their children, they would face a financial disincentive if there was a charging policy.

“This would create opportunities to provide support services to assist young people and their families to remain together.”

But Mr Waters adds, “At the same time, it must be recognised that for the majority of parents, their circumstances will be such that it would either be impossible or unreasonable for the local authority to charge for services.

“Also, if parents were put off asking for a child to be looked after by the local authority, it is possible that there may be adverse and hidden consequences, such as family breakdown involving abuse of the child concerned, or a need to permanently accommodate a child, where a short period of short breaks may have avoided that situation occurring.”

The saving for the council is estimated at around £30,000 per year.

A spokeswoman for Monmouthshire County Council said, “Members at Monmouthshire County Council are currently debating whether to bring in a charging policy for certain children’s social services. If a policy is adopted, it will ensure that resources are targeted to those who are in greatest need. However, no decision has been made yet.”

But Labour councillor Armand Watts, from Chepstow, said, “This is a callous, Thatcherite and potentially dangerous approach, based purely on ideology.

“It’s astonishing that it’s being proposed, and seems to me to go beyond what most people would regard as politically acceptable.”

Maria Battle, the acting Children’s Commissioner for Wales, said, “I am very concerned about any proposals which may restrict services to those children most in need. I will be making contact with the local authority to find out more details and make my concerns known.

“I will be making it clear that any decision taken by a public authority in Wales must take into account the rights and welfare of children and young people.”

Gwenda Thomas, Deputy Minister for Social Services in the Assembly Government, said, “I am astounded at this decision.

“It does not seem to have been properly thought through, because local authorities would obviously have parental responsibility for some of these vulnerable children who are in care, and it could lead to a ludicrous situation where the authority ends up charging itself.

“To seek to try to save money when we are talking about vulnerable children is extraordinary – and could result in many not getting the services they need.”

Labour MP Jessica Morden, whose Newport East constituency includes part of Monmouthshire, said, “If this is true then vulnerable families are going to be hit in the pocket and vulnerable children are going to be worse off.

“David Cameron and Nick Bourne can preach all they like about supporting public services but when they are in control – as they are in Monmouthshire – they reveal their true colours.

“If the Tories are capable of doing this is in the part of Wales they do control, then it doesn’t bear thinking about what would happen to children’s services across the whole of Wales if the Tories were ever in power again.

“Where will this idea stop – will older people start having to pay for all the care services the council provides for them?

“Monmouthshire Council needs to go back to the drawing board.”