The spiralling amount of money spent on Bradford’s Children’s Services is “unsustainable,” according to a commissioner’s report into the department.
The report, published late yesterday, also reveals that a scathing review of the District’s children’s homes last year “came as a shock” to Council bosses, and “undermined confidence” in the then head of Children’s Services.
Last month it was announced that the beleaguered Children’s Services department would be taken out of Council control and run by a trust.
The announcement came after a report by Steve Walker of Leeds City Council into the department, which was rated inadequate in 2018 and has yet to improve at any significant pace.
On Wednesday Mr Walker’s 45 page report to the Government was officially published, and although it praises some aspects of the Council, it details how a lack of communication between different areas meant improvement was not happening fast enough.
It says a “desire for excellence” sometimes got in the way of the Council delivering a service that was even “good enough.”
It also shows how drastically increasing the budget for the department has also failed to bring the required improvements, and that there were still over 120 social work vacancies in the Council – which have to be covered by pricey agency staff.
In a section looking at the funding of the department, the report reveals that in 2015/16 the Council spent £85m on Children’s Services, roughly 21 per cent of the Council’s total budget.
In the current financial year the budget for the department was around £103m – although the actual spend was around £115m, and if Covid related expenditure is included, that spend rises to over £130m.
It means in the past year almost a third (31%) of the Council budget was spent on Children’s Services.
The report says: “The proportion of Council budget spent in children’s services is 50% higher than the 2015/16 position.
“Clearly this level of increase is unsustainable in the long term.”
He goes on to say that the Council had pledged to keep spending on the department high.
Much of the high spending is related to the cost of employing agency workers.
At the time of the inspection, there were 173 agency social workers in the department, costing the Council £1.7m a month.
There were 124 social work vacancies at the time of the commissioner’s inspection.
The number of cases open to Children’s Services has increased from 3,870 at the time of the 2018 inspection to 6,150 at the time of the Commissioner’s review.
It details how an ever-shifting management structure in the department – the Council is currently on its fourth director or interim director of Children’s Services in four years – had impacted the speed of improvements.
The most recent Director of Children’s Services, Marc Douglas, resigned in October, and the report details issues between him and Council leaders in the run-up to his resignation.
In July a scathing Ofsted report into a Council-run children’s home was released and led to the facility being shut down.
The Commissioner’s report said: “The Leader, Lead Member for Children and Families and the Chief Executive reported that the issues raised by Ofsted in relation to children’s homes and the placement of the young person in July 2021 came as a shock to them.
“They were aware that there had been a challenging inspection in one of the authority’s children’s homes as a result of the mix of children in the home, which highlighted the issue of sufficiency.
“However, all report that they were unaware of the scale of the recent issues and were not briefed about the placement of the young person in unsuitable unregulated accommodation until after Ofsted had written to the Director with their concerns. This undermined the confidence of the council leadership in the Director of Children’s Services.”
Covid-19 had a major impact on work to improve the service, with the report saying: “The pandemic did expose and exacerbate some of the challenges the authority faced, taking forward improvements. Recruitment became even more challenging as did delivering the training and development offer for staff.”
It says the improvement plan was too complex, and “the leadership in children’s services in Bradford has been reactive over the past three years.
“In part, this has undoubtedly been a result of trying to take forward a major programme of improvement during a pandemic. “However, in my opinion, it is also a consequence of the lack of a depth of experience within the leadership team which meant that pragmatic decisions were not always made and at times the desire for excellence got in the way of delivering good enough.”
The report also praises how different parties in the Council have kept the needs of children a priority, rather than using the chaos in the department for political gain.
It says:” There is cross-party support for children’s services and there is no indication of political interference in the delivery of services or that elected members have used children’s services as a ‘political football.’”
Bradford Council is developing a new recruitment and retention offer to keep social workers in the District, as well as attracting new staff to plug the gaps. But the report says this has come too late.
It says: “It is possibly one of the best (offers) in the country, but it has taken too long to put in place and is perhaps an example of where a more pragmatic approach may have given quicker results.”
Summing up his findings, Mr Walker said: “Even taking the pandemic into account, the pace of progress has been too slow. Many of the key challenges identified in the 2018 inspection remain, particularly in relation to workforce stability and the quality of social work practice.
“After three years the local authority has been unable to create a context in which good social care practice can take place.”
Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, Leader of Bradford Council, said: “I welcome the publication of Commissioner Steve Walker’s report on the options for Children’s Services in Bradford. We want to thank him for the time and commitment he has shown in getting to know our staff and services.
“It is a thorough and detailed report which shows the efforts to which we have already gone to improve children’s services.
“The report highlights many strengths that the commissioner has seen, including the commitment of staff, extra resources, strong political and leadership support and strong safeguarding arrangements.
“It also highlights the challenges we still face – not least of which is recruiting a stable workforce and developing stronger partnerships. Overcoming these challenges so we can provide better outcomes for children and families and support our front-line staff is now our key focus.
“We are working closely with the government to deliver the recommendations within the report and to set up a children’s company in Bradford that will provide the extra impetus to deliver the improvements we need.”
Councillor Jeanette Sunderland, leader of the Liberal Democrats on Bradford Council, said: “The report shows how stark the problems are and underlines that there is not the capacity or capability in the senior leadership in Bradford to affect change.
“They are more concerned about property development and whether we get a new railway station. They are not giving the right attention and focus to the young people of the district.
“Leadership have taken their eye off the ball with Children’s Services.”
Cllr Sunderland has called for senior leaders in the Council to stand down over the report.