Council chief denies Derbyshire’s children’s services are in ‘turmoil’

Councillor Alex Dale
Councillor Alex Dale

The county’s children’s services lead has denied that his department is in turmoil, despite admitting that budget woes keep him up at night.

Derbyshire county councillor Alex Dale, cabinet member for young people, made the statement at a meeting of the authority’s improvement and scrutiny committee.

He referenced an article by the Derbyshire Local Democracy Reporting Service, during the session – at which members of the public cannot speak – which stated that the department’s budget was on course for another overspend, and suggested it was “in turmoil”.

Last year, the children’s services department overspent by £6.4 million and will need to draw another £440,000 from its reserves this year to cover costs.

This year’s figure assumes that the number of children in care remains unchanged – which would be against the current and prolonged trend – so the figure may increase.

Coun Dale said that to say the department is in “turmoil” is “misleading” and feels that the budget is “in a significantly better position than last year”.

However, he conceded that it is “getting harder and harder to find areas in which we can make cuts”.

He said: “The budget remains the key thing that keeps me up at night.

“We still have £2.9 million in cuts to make this year and statutory duties make up 90 to 90 per cent of the budget.”

Statutory duties are actions which must legally be performed by the authority – and cannot be rolled back.

Coun Dale stated that the authority has ploughed £18 million extra into children’s services this year, which brings it to the bring of breaking even this year, if the rising demand for the services bucks the national trend and stops increasing.

He said he was trying to avoid asking for an additional council tax charge – by way of a children’s services precept – to help fund services, because he felt that would be unfair on council taxpayers.

There is already an additional adult social care precept, added on to the general council tax fee.

Coun Dale also said that £5.4 million was being spent this year to remodel social work within his department.

This would be used to recruit dozens of extra social workers which would replace the authority’s reliance on agency staff and add to the council’s current stock.

A council report revealed last week that “increases in demand for statutory services have exceeded the capacity of the current children’s services budget for some years”.

The number of children in the authority’s care has shot up by almost nine per cent in just ten months from October last year to August 2018.

This has seen the figure rise from 682 to 743.

Meanwhile, in a separate category, the number of children on protection plans in Derbyshire has risen from 741 to 942 – an increase of more than a quarter since 2016.

Spending on agency residential placements costs the council £200,000 per annum on average and the projected overspend in this area alone is £1.022 million.

Agency fostering placements cost approximately £43,000 per year on average, creating a projected overspend of £1.709 million.

Meanwhile, after an extensive investigation by the council into the cause of rising permanent school exclusions in Derbyshire, Coun Dale will be writing to the Secretary of State to raise concerns that the new pupil assessment method, Progress 8, is having a negative impact on students.