The cost of bringing the Herefordshire Special Children’s Services Department up to standard has been estimated at nearly £22 million, more than half of which will be spent this financial year.
These figures were presented to yesterday’s council of council portfolio holders, who unanimously approved them.
The council’s £11.5million ‘financial resilience reserve’ this year comes on top of the £41.3million allocated to the department under the council’s 2022/23 budget. That was already up 12% from the £36.9m figure for 2021/22.
A further £4.5 million will be added to the department’s budget for the next financial year. The council has already spent £5.8million, partly from the government, on the department’s transformation program over the past year.
Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Councilor Diana Toynbee, said the new sum was “a huge ask” and added: “We need to show results and value for money for the residents of the Herefordshire from that.”
The money will fund an additional 82 staff (full-time equivalent) on top of the department’s current figure of 429.
Council leader David Hitchiner said: ‘A big problem has been the number of cases handled by each social worker, repeatedly mentioned by Ofsted, which we need to reduce significantly.
Deputy Chief Councilor Liz Harvey said: ‘It shows the scale of what needs to happen in the leadership.
“But when we took over in 2019, the budget for children’s services was lower in real terms than in 2013 – there had been a significant reduction, and increases since then have been aimed at coping with the consequences of this.”
Councilor Kath Hey said of the matter, “There are too many children in care in our county, and that investment needs to go towards prevention, so we haven’t got (that many) in care.”
The leader of the Liberal Democrat group, councilor Terry James, said he was concerned that “the culture of services and child protection was bad and does not seem to be improving”.
Council leader David Hitchiner replied: “Culture is what we need to change and we are already moving in that area.”
Tory group leader Jonathan Lester said: ‘If there’s one thing the council should do well, it’s look out for the well-being of children’, but asked for reassurance that the council was good for the children. “huge increases” in funding.
Resources and assurance director Andrew Lovegrove estimated the board’s financial resilience reserve at £16.7million – “so there’s a lot in that reserve, and we have other reserves”, did he declare. “It’s affordable and doesn’t put the board at risk.”
True Independents group leader Bob Matthews hoped the department would tackle the ‘exorbitant cost of agency staff’ it employs, saying it’s ‘so demoralizing for regular staff to bring in people who are again paid half as much”.
And he told Darryl Freeman, appointed director of children’s services last November: “Unless you address staff supervision and discipline, you won’t make the progress we expect for all this money.”
To which Mr Freeman said: ‘We have some very good agencies and replacement staff that we want to keep. We want our workforce to be more and more permanent – it’s better for children and families and cheaper. But recruiting is a challenge nationwide.
He added, “The introduction of duty managers has resulted in more frequent supervision of staff and records. That and manageable workloads are the key to improvement.
Earl Toynbee explained that securing the strategic funding increase had been hampered by “a sharp increase in lobbying and dismissals over the past year, for a combination of reasons”.
Mr Freeman confirmed that his service had “seen a significant increase in demand” due in part to “increased levels of trust in our agency partners and referrals, and also increased demand resulting from the Covid pandemic and recent high-profile national cases”.
He added: “For the coming year, we will need a higher level of capacity to respond to that.”
The Department of Children’s Services has been forced to make drastic improvements since a High Court judgment against it last March following the death of a child in care.
The Ministry of Education then sent the board a notice of improvement in May.