GLOUCESTERSHIRE'S children services budget is facing an overspend of £12m this year prompting bosses to ask staff to find ways to reduce costs.
Ann James, executive director of children’s services at Shire Hall, says external placements – where Gloucestershire County Council has to place a looked after child with an independent fostering agency, a residential children’s home, a residential school or a specialist residential unit and not with their own in-house foster carers – led to an extra £5m over budget at the end of the first quarter.
Concerns were raised last year that the authority has failed to get to grips with an average yearly overspend of £7 million for children’s services.
But recent increases mean the council is forecasting an overspend of £12m in children’s services.
Ms James said in a recent message to staff that children services have seen hikes in placement spending in July and August which has added another £2.6m to the forecast overspend.
Ms James says the situation is not sustainable and the council must find ways to reduce its placement costs.
She said: “We have a problem that is resulting in uncontained cost pressure, and I need you each to act to help reverse this so that we can continue to work for our children and families without having to take even tougher decisions about service,” she said in the message to staff.
“To maintain services across the county we must return to and stay within our budget.” She also said that conversations have taken place with bosses asking them to think about how the service works and how to keep costs down.
They are also putting in place mechanisms to effectively track and hold social workers accountable for the outcomes for children.
“I do understand that there will always be situations where high-cost packages are essential to keep children safe and to meet need and we won’t shy away from that when it is needed.
“Our job is to reduce the incidence of emergencies to ensure we are working closely with commissioning colleagues to review and reduce our spend as children progress and to refuse to allow an emergency to become the status quo.”
Liberal Democrat group leader Ben Evans (LD, Churchdown) says this latest overspend is yet another example of the council’s hardworking officers being put under pressure by incompetent Conservatives.
He says the Tories have had 18 years to get this right but have lost all control of the budget setting process.
“Let’s be clear – this financial mess is all of the Tories’ own making, by cutting costs in the wrong areas.
“They know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. And as always happens, they have now lost all control of the public money they are meant to be managing.
“The Lib Dem group is ready to invest in our people, invest in our services, and invest in children, young people and families.
“We will manage the budget competently. We cannot allow Tory financial illiteracy to impact the lives of the most vulnerable in our county.”
But children’s social care cabinet member Stephen Davies (C, Hardwicke and Severn) says the service is forecasting a £12 million overspend this year due to increasing pressures and high cost placements that can run into tens of thousands of pounds per week.
“Residents would rightly expect us as Conservatives to challenge managers to make sure their taxes are being spent wisely and where the money is most needed.
“We have made significant improvements to our delivery of children’s social care thanks to the huge investment we have made into the improvement programme, which has only been possible due to the £9 million additional income this year from Javelin Park – a long-term strategic investment the Lib Dems spent years opposing.
“We don’t need to imagine what the Lib Dems would do to the council’s finances, we just need to look towards the Cotswolds, a council that by its own leaders’ admission is on the verge of bankruptcy.
“So while the Lib Dems carry on with what they do best, blustering anger and childish name calling, we’ll be doing what our residents need us to do by making the difficult decisions that ensure we can deliver effective and efficient services for the long term.”
Ms James said the financial issues within children’s services are a challenge for local authorities across the country.
“We, like all authorities, need to ensure we are spending every penny of tax-payers’ money carefully whilst delivering the best outcomes for our families both now and into the future,” she said.
“We are committed to reducing spend while continuing with the excellent progress we have made on our improvement journey.
“The safety of children in Gloucestershire remains our highest priority and we will never shy away from spending money where high-cost packages are essential to keeping children safe.”