It is no surprise to me that in the first three weeks of coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown over 90% of children’s homes continued to provide care for the children and young people living in them. Taking responsibility, reacting quickly and decisively to keep children safe is in the very DNA of those homes.
After an initial spike of anxiety and some confusion about how to apply blanket rules imposed at speed by government, Children’s Services providers have rapidly adapted working patterns and introduced innovative practices to protect children, staff and their families. Examples of collaboration and co-operation are emerging with the sector. For instance, some independent children’s homes are currently experiencing staffing shortages – and local authorities are freeing up some of their own staff to temporarily fill these roles.
At the same time almost every commissioning authority has been contacting providers to gain copies of contingency or business continuity plans. This highlights just how much local authorities rely on their provider base alongside providing services themselves. The fact that providers are inundated with these requests at a time when the primary focus has been on keeping their services for children running gives further illustration of a complex, somewhat disjointed sector based on mass spot purchasing of placements (see the discussion about this in my paper for Research in Practice).
As the country faces an extended period of lockdown the future implications of the situation are being considered. Questions are arising about the impact on families, mental health and the potential that demand for Children’s Services may increase, exacerbating the trend that already existed pre-virus. Recruiting new carers and adding capacity will almost certainly be impeded or halted outright by the current restrictions. The shortages of children’s homes vacancies and shortages of foster carers that were already in evidence before COVID-19 could be even more acutely evident later in the year.
Early speculation about the macro-economic impact of current events includes estimates by the Resolution Foundation that the Government job retention scheme alone will cost £40 billion for each three-month period it applies. Until the events play out no-one can be sure of the scale of the actual impact, but we can be sure that the country’s finances are receiving a shock that is potentially wider and deeper than the 2008 financial crisis.
It is not unlikely that we will see a return to the austerity budgets that so severely impacted local authorities for a decade after that shock. Children’s Services budgets were the most protected areas of local authority expenditure during the last decade. Next time around the pressure on public finances could be the catalyst that forces changes in a sector that has been roundly criticised by government reports, committees of MPs and the National Audit Office in the last two to three years (these are discussed further in my paper).
We need look no further than the government suspension of passenger rail franchises for six months at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak for a clear sign that the scale and nature of this crisis can force decisions that previously would have seemed impossible.
So, whilst we must always ensure that policy and practice are in line with the core principles of the Children Act 1989, this is a time to contemplate possible changes and issues including:
- Why we disempower local authorities by fragmenting national spending power.
- How we can intelligently improve central monitoring and support for commissioning.
- Instigating an informed and balanced debate about the merits and disadvantages of a mixed market and design a strategy to shape the future of these services.
- Consideration of legislative changes to oversee these essential services.
- Testing out new forms of contracting which take a long term or even whole life view as a stable alternative to a short-term, unit price per spot placement approach.
- Recognising the investment needed to develop knowledge and skills and to protect funding for services
I want to pose the question – is it possible to rebalance placement decision-making to be led by evidence-informed and mutually respectful debate and less driven by each local authority responding to current year budget pressures? My personal view is that Children’s Services are an essential national resource that need continuous long-term funding organised in a way that reduces or even removes the influence of commercial factors from decision-making about our most vulnerable children and young people.
The pre-COVID-19 state of commissioning of the children’s homes sector is examined in a new series of papers published by Research in Practice. Let us place the valuable core of Children’s Services into an environment where money, the influence of spot markets and procurement are eliminated in favour of long-term stability and the value of know-how.