Cllr Nova Charlton brought the motion
Cllr Nova Charlton brought the motion

Labour has called for urgent action children’s social care to end the rampant profiteering of private companies bleeding councils and council taxpayers dry.

A motion brought by Cllr Nova Charlton, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, and seconded by Cllr Trisha Long, Chair of the Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Panel, set out the current situation and called for far greater oversight of the companies currently making huge profits at the expense of vulnerable children and local councils.

Speaking at last Wednesday’s full council meeting, Cllr Nova Charlton said:

“St Helens Council knows the importance of providing the best possible care for our most vulnerable  Children Looked After. As corporate parents we know how essential it is for our children in care to be suitably provided for and looked after. It is our legal duty as corporate parents to ensure that this happens. We are all corporate parents here; be we elected members or council officers and we take this responsibility very seriously.  

Councils across the country are paying extortionate amounts for Children’s Social Care, whilst many companies are making eye watering profits for providing placements. This is causing many councils to be in the situation of issuing Section 114 notices.

We cannot sit back and do nothing whilst large scale private organisations provide 75% of residential placements. Local Authorities and voluntary organisations used to run these services however as we have transitioned, we have seen an increase in prices for placements. Vitally With the rise in costs we have not seen any evidence that children and young people have benefited from living in private residential care.

Sharp cuts to LA funding since 2010, whilst the rising cost of inflation, increasing demand for services and extortionate cost for some placements have put massive pressures on Children’s Services across the country.

On average, the cost to St Helens Council for one residential care placement is approximately £300k per year. This cost has risen by around 60% over the last five years.

Over the last five years, the amount this Council spends each year on such placements has doubled from £9m to £18m. These increases along with central government cuts are resulting in severe financial pressures for us and other councils across the country.

In 2022 the Competitions and Markets Authority investigated the profiteering of certain providers of Independent Fostering Agencies and Children’s Homes. Some of them are owned by private equity firms and making huge profits whilst Local Authorities are at their mercy.

We need our Children and young people to be Looked After and sometimes at short notice, when it comes to bargaining, we do not have the upper hand. We have a dedicated team responsible for sourcing placements here in St Helens who try to reduce costs, however we need to have a vital conversation with providers who currently have all the control.

We need to make a statement of intent to say that we are fighting back against those who are making money out of vulnerable children and young people. This is public money which is making those people who in many cases are already wealthy even wealthier by charging disproportionate amounts for Looking after Children and young people.

In St Helens we are fighting back by creating our own provision however this is a bit like dropping a pebble into the ocean and does not stop the budget spiralling out of control. There needs to be a wholesale change on a national level.

In 2022 Josh McCallister conducted an independent Review into Children’s social care which found that:

The UK has “sleepwalked” into a dysfunctional market for children’s social care with local authorities forced to pay excessive fees for privately run services that often fail to meet the needs of vulnerable children.

However, Where there’s a problem there’s often a solution and we could follow the example of Italy. In Italy residential care for children and other vulnerable groups can only be provided on a not-for-profit basis and it is largely delivered by the third sector which includes voluntary associations and social co-operatives.

We are all corporate parents, and we want the best for our children and young people, however we need to do something. It is financially and morally indefensible what is happening. Children are not commodities. We need to fight back and address this not just at a local level but regional and national levels.

It is reassuring that as an authority St Helens Children’s Social Care have been found by Ofsted to be Good and Outstanding for Care leavers. We have some amazing foster carers, and our Children and Young People are an inspiration and as a council they are our number one priority. So we owe it to them to ensure that money is not redirected to private equity firms or offshore accounts and instead is invested in supporting our Children and Young People here in St Helens.”

Members from all political groups backed the motion, and Council Leader David Baines will now write to government spelling out the position and our call for urgent action.

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