Senior members of Croydon Council have clashed over the importance of funding in children’s services that were rated as “inadequate” in a recent damning inspection report.
The government recently took control of Croydon children’s services following an Ofsted report that said “widespread and serious” failures were leaving children at risk.
The report blamed weak management at all levels for failing to ensure social workers followed protocols for missing children and those at risk of sexual abuse.
Too few young people who ran away were spoken to by a social worker when they were found, inspectors reported, and children were also left at greater risk as they waited for unacceptable periods of time for help.
In an emotionally charged emergency meeting on Monday, leader of the Council, Tony Newman, who has faced repeated calls to resign, said he took “his responsibility head-on”.
However, he put the failings in Croydon’s children’s services partly down to “unique pressures” in the borough and funding cuts from central government of at least half since 2010.
The unique pressures in Croydon included 40% of looked after children being unaccompanied asylum seekers, which was putting greater strain on the children’s services budget.
Cabinet member for Finance and Treasury, Simon Hall, said there was a £1.7m shortfall between direct costs for these particular children and the Home Office grant.
“Croydon has long been underfunded,” he added.
Newman said: “Money isn’t everything but if we are going to find a sustainable solution then how we finance this service in the long term is absolutely vital.”
He referred to the “fragile” national picture, in which 70% of councils have been judged inadequate or requiring improvement.
The Local Government Association (LGA) revealed recently that growing demand combined with funding cuts were forcing 75% of councils to overspend on children’s services.
The LGA analysis estimated that the shortfall would reach £2 billion by 2020, unless the government takes urgent action.
However, the leader of the Conservative group, Tim Pollard, criticised Newman for blaming the council’s failures on funding cuts.
He cited a 25% rise in funding of children’s social care, from £42m in 2012 to a projected £53m this year.
“Whatever you think of austerity, you’ve been able to find the money to fund the service, you just haven’t spent it very wisely,” he said.
He went on to accuse Newman of being “evasive” and of trying to “dodge the blame” for the damning report, which he described as “an appalling indictment of the leadership or lack of it”.
“How can the people of Croydon have any confidence in you to deal with the problems to which you were apparently oblivious for years?
“That it why you should get out of the way and try to sort out the mess that you’ve left,” he concluded.
Councillor Alisa Fleming, Cabinet member for Children, Young People and Learning, was asked to resign by her opposite number in the shadow cabinet.
Fleming apologised for the failure and promised to focus on “turning the service around” in order to ensure that “children in the borough receive the support they need and deserve”.
When Pollard referred to the previous inspection in 2012, which awarded all children’s services either “adequate” or “good”, Fleming described the comparison as “disingenuous”.
A new inspection framework was introduced shortly afterwards in 2013 following a number of series cases.
“If we had been inspected under this framework in 2012, we would have been rated inadequate,” she said, adding quickly that this did not justify the latest report.
The Ofsted report found that social workers were saddled with unsustainable caseloads, meaning there was high staff turnover and they were unable to give enough time to each child.
Foster carers also complained to inspectors they were not being properly supported by the local authority and that fostering was not being properly regulated.
The council is currently developing an improvement plan, for which an extra £2m has been allocated from reserves.
Some measures are already being implemented, such as an additional team of social workers, extra resources for business support so staff remain on the frontline, and retention payments for permanent social workers.