Under normal circumstances, I would do anything for this government to stop lying. But on this occasion, following its response to the “once in a generation” review of children’s social care, I find myself hoping it has lied.
We cannot wait another generation for the meaningful change we were promised. This strategy offers a pittance – just £200m split among just 12 local authorities over the course of two years, in response to a review calling for £2.6bn of investment. The prospect of services remaining underfunded for decades to come will strike fear into the hearts of many.
As a care leaver- turned- social worker, I know the flaws in the system. But what drew me to the sector was a hope that other children would experience the genuine care I lacked. And I was right to hope. For I have seen first-hand that, when properly resourced, social work can be transformational – lifesaving, even.
But this is not possible when services are at the point of collapse, stripped to the bone after a decade of austerity. The workforce is depleted, as highlighted by the 17% vacancy rate in children’s services.
There are definite positives in the government response – promises to increase foster carer recruitment and retention, prevent children being placed far from home, and boost early help services are welcome (even though the latter could be dubbed Sure Start 2.0, after the Tories decimated the first iteration). And it is a good job the government had enough sense not to implement the review’s backward suggestion to axe the crucial independent reviewing officer role, which gives children a voice and scrutinises care plans.
Intentions to put “love for children and families at the heart of our care system” are well meant. But the sector doesn’t need more empty promises of “love” (which, when used in isolation, seems to be a euphemism for “cheap”). It needs urgent investment, in all areas, from children with special educational needs and disabilities to mental health services.
Real investment is seriously lacking in this strategy. When the review was released, in May, I criticised the proposed £2.6bn for failing to plug the £4bn gap. But compared with the meagre £200m now offered by the government, that seems generous – £200m is insulting. You’d have to multiply it by 185 to reach the £37bn shelled out for botched test-and-trace contracts during the pandemic. Could there be a more damning indictment of the lack of value placed on children in care?
In keeping with the usual divisive tactics, the money will be provided for just 12 of England’s 333 local authorities, which will be part of a pet project to develop “best practice” (as if swaths of evidence by people with lived experience, social workers and academics don’t already exist). It is so far unclear which will be deemed worthy of the funds. Will this be a rinse-and-repeat of the levelling up agenda, which saw funding reserved for the neediest areas being snapped up by those with more favourable connections?
Could a child or care-leaver from a deprived area such as Blackpool, where I am from (and known to have a disproportionate number of children’s homes), fare worse than a child in a local authority with less demand? The care leaver offer varies wildly as it is, with care leavers at the mercy of a postcode lottery.
Clearly, the strategy raises more questions than answers, including this: is this the wilful destruction of children’s services? Far-fetched it may seem, but with a government seemingly intent on weakening public services to the point where privatisation is the only option, it is not unfeasible. Last year, the Competitions and Markets Authority described the children’s social care “market” as dysfunctional but, remarkably, the review failed to suggest profit caps.
Nowhere was this move more needed than in unregulated settings, with some providers charging upwards of £9,000 a week per child. A colossal amount – how can three weeks in care equate to a three years of university fees?
In September 2021, the government failed to ban unregulated settings for children aged 16 and 17, leading to the #KeepCaringto18 campaign set up by the Article 39 charity. Today, the government seems to agree that children should receive care until 18. But under Ofsted proposals designed to regulate such settings, children of this age can still be dumped in a caravan, bedsit or a narrowboat. The government knows that 34 children died in such accommodation over the past six years, but has not condemned Ofsted’s dangerous plans.
This is terrible dereliction of care – something I know first-hand, having lived as a child in care in a hostel with adults who had just got out of prison. I was once in hospital for four days before staff knew I was gone.
I never did, and never will, meet an undeserving child. But today, the state has proved itself an undeserving parent.
Rebekah Pierre is a care-experienced social worker, editor of Free Loaves on Fridays, and Professional Officer at the British Association of Social Workers