Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 89) (HC 415) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grant Report for 2000-01 and 2001-02
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First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 17 December 2001

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 89) (HC415)

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 89) (HC 415) on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grant Report for 2000-01 and 2001-02.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the ''Special Grant Report on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 2000/01 and 2001/02''. The Government are committed to improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. The quality protects programme is a key vehicle for delivering that change.

Last year's extension of the programme to five years shows our determination to ensure a real and lasting impact on children's lives, and great progress is being achieved. The number of children being adopted from care continues to increase. Care leavers are better supported. Children and young people are being actively involved in decisions that affect their future. Services for children with disabilities are improving. Much remains to be done—it is crucial to ensure that progress is maintained—but significant progress has been made to improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable children.

Councils have known their grant allocations for this year since December 2000. They were asked to produce management action plans outlining how they proposed to improve their services and to set out proposals for their spending of the grant. Those were evaluated by the social services inspectorate.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): Can the Minister say whether the funding is top-sliced off the revenue grant to local authorities, and does it have to be match-funded?

Jacqui Smith: No, it does not have to be match-funded. I shall go into detail in a moment about the various streams of the quality protects programme, particularly the provisions for the care leavers grant—it is not the subject of today's debate, as it is delivered under section 93 of the Local Government Act 2000, but it is £885 million worth of new money over the five years of the quality protects programme.

The MAPs were evaluated by the social services inspectorate. Councils have known since May 2001 that their MAPs had been approved, and they have been able to budget and spend on that basis. The total special grant for this year is more than £291 million. More than £290 million is allocated to councils to help

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them deliver on the children's social services objectives. The rest is to cover costs of regional development workers.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): The Minister refers to extra money. Is it new money from the Treasury, or has the money been taken from other budgets that have already been allocated?

Jacqui Smith: It is new money, which has been allocated over and above the increases in personal social services standard spending assessments. The special grant money is intended to bring about important improvements in the management and achievement of children' services. It was introduced during the Labour Government's first term, and it had not previously existed in that form.

Sir Paul Beresford: I am sorry to be difficult, but we are interested in the revenue support grant, not the SSA. Is some or all of the money from the normal RSG? In other words, is it top-sliced, even though it represents a new form of payment?

Jacqui Smith: It is not, inasmuch as it does not, in the way that the RSG does, support spending that is allocated in the local government settlement under SSAs. We are talking about extra money for local authorities, over and above what is budgeted for ordinary social services activity. Opposition Members are rightly concerned about which pot the money will come from, but whichever pot it comes from, it would not have been matched under the Conservatives' plans.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No, I shall make a little progress.

The £290 million that is allocated direct to councils includes funding that is transferred from other Departments to support the implementation from October this year of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. However, the underlying grant has also increased from £120 million in 2000-01 to £180 million this year, and it will increase to £290 million by 2003-04. Of this year's grant, £128 million is for implementing the Children (Leaving Care) Act. As I said, the money is being paid under section 93 of the Local Government Act and is, therefore, not covered by the report.

As we did last year, we have required councils to target the special grant on priority areas, including increasing the choice of adoption, foster and residential placements for looked-after children; the implementation of the Children (Leaving Care) Act; enhancing the development and use of management information systems; improving assessment, planning, record keeping and quality-assurance systems; listening to the views and wishes of children, young people and their families; improving the life chances of looked-after children through expenditure on education and health needs; reducing offending; improved cultural, leisure and sports activities; and managing change in the system.

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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The Minister gave a long list of desirable outcomes for children in care, but the most important item was increasing the number of foster homes. Will she be a little more precise about all this wonderful money and about what will be done to increase the supply of foster parents, who are most difficult to find in Worcestershire, as she and I know?

Jacqui Smith: We are undertaking a range of activities. Through the evaluation of the management action plans, we have monitored the extent to which local authorities are planning improvements and increases in foster care placements. The hon. Lady will know that the performance assessment indicators contain important information about improvements that have been made with a range of 40 measures, although they do not all relate to children.

On fostering, the quality protects grant has enabled local authorities—they have done this in Worcestershire—to focus on how they recruit and support foster carers and improve support for children in foster homes. The Department has also provided money to support the publicity campaign for national fostering week. I agree that ensuring that we recruit sufficient foster carers is important for providing placement stability, which is essential. The hon. Lady will, therefore, be pleased to know that one key improvement has been the increase in placement stability for looked-after children. The most recent figures show that only 16 per cent. of children have had more than three placements in a year, which is down from 20 per cent. before the quality protects grant took effect. There are, therefore, tangible signs of improvement.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) made an interesting point about foster carers as a strategic part of improvement in child care. In the light of all the figures that the Minister read out, why has the number of foster carers increased from 30,166 to only 30,343 in the past two years? That is an increase of less than 1 per cent. Because we serve on the Committee that is considering the Adoption and Children Bill, we both know that the Government aim to increase the number of children placed with adoptive parents by 40 per cent. during the next five years. Those figures are hardly a good start.

Jacqui Smith: I have already talked about the Government's action to ensure that we focus on and support foster carers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the number of children placed for adoption from the looked-after system has increased because of the focus on children's services brought about by quality protects. I think that there has been an increase of 40 per cent. since 1996-97. The hon. Gentleman is grimacing. If I am wrong, I will correct myself. No one argues with the fact that the focus on children's services has enabled a significant increase in the number of children adopted from care. Important developments will continue in the light of the Bill that the hon. Gentleman and I are poring over in Committee, but progress has been made.

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I was about to discuss what the Department additionally expects of councils this year. We have asked them to focus especially on services for children and young people with disabilities, and we have earmarked £15 million from the children's services grant to spend on such services. I am pleased that management action plans show that authorities plan to spend £3 million more than that—£18 million in total—from the grant on services for disabled children.

Sir Paul Beresford: I am sorry to bother the Minister, but I am puzzled and interested in something. One of the difficulties with action plans is that their production involves people in local authorities, and therefore expenditure in local authorities. Then officials have to consider them. How many action plans will the Department consider on this subject and other ring-fenced matters?

 
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