Council counts cost of caring

COUNTY Hall is facing an increased bill for dealing with Norfolk's most vulnerable children, with the high-profile case of Baby P cited as a possible reason for more reports of child abuse cases.

COUNTY Hall is facing an increased bill for dealing with Norfolk's most vulnerable children, with the high-profile case of Baby P cited as a possible reason for more reports of child abuse cases.

A new report has revealed the cost of caring for Norfolk's vulnerable children is set to spiral over budget by �6m next year and council bosses have had to find savings by not filling vacant posts in its children's services department.

The soaring bill facing Norfolk County Council has been attributed in part to the case of Baby P, with the shocking treatment the youngster suffered at the hands of his mother and stepfather being cited as a possible reason for people being more prepared to report cases.

The predicted �6m overspend on the originally agreed budget of �16.5m is because of the increasing number of youngsters who need to be looked after by agency foster carers and for children who need residential care - with a record 872 children currently in the care of the county council.

Lisa Christensen, the county council's director of children's services, has had to undertake a review of all budgets to try to balance the books.

Savings of �1.4m have been identified through vacant posts which have not been filled, including posts which have been deemed as representing only “a minor risk impact on service provision” if they are held vacant.

Most Read

However Paul Fisher, Norfolk County Council children's services assistant director (resources and efficiency), stressed: “There's no decrease in front-line posts. All the time we are trying to ensure the posts are filled as soon as they become vacant, but it can take a while to fill posts and that results in a saving on paper.”

He said it was hard to say whether the Baby P case had led to more children being taken into care but said the council was facing extra pressure because increasing numbers of adolescents were ending up in the care system.

But Shelagh Hutson, cabinet member for children's services, spoke of her concerns during a cabinet discussion over the pressures facing the county council.

She said: “There is no doubt the future is very worrying for us. It does seem, since the Baby P case that people are more cautious and are reporting vulnerable children more often, who are coming into care. We have seen an increase in the past few months.”

Liberal Democrat county councillor Mervyn Scutter, his party's spokesman for children's services, posed a question at a council meeting last month after a social worker contacted him with concerns about the number of vacant posts in the Central area.

He was told that from April to August last year only 60pc of posts were filled, although it had increased to 85pc by October last year thanks to a recruitment campaign.

He said: “There's really two kinds of vacancies. There are those which arise and they decide, after a risk assessment, that they can run with them being vacant to save a bit of money and then there are the vacancies which arise and they just cannot fill them.

“My personal concern is really with the latter, because they are regarded as important but cannot be filled. The occupancy level in the Central area was 60pc at one point which is really quite scarily low.

“When you're balancing the books the key thing is not putting kids at risk and we'll be keeping a very close eye on that. The council is going to be under pressure in the years ahead and needs to ensure it is not putting people at risk.”

The county council revealed earlier this month how �140m of savings and efficiencies need to be made over a three year period and the authority is facing “difficult choices”.

Council bosses laid the blame at the government's door, saying uncertainty over future financial settlements with an expected squeeze on public funding, meant the council had to plan for the worse case scenario.