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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Jacqui Smith: We have had an interesting debate, although it was slightly—

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Confused.

Jacqui Smith: No, it was an interesting debate—I shall leave it at that.

Let me start by responding to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I assure Conservative Members that the £885 million of expenditure over five years in the quality protects grant is all new money and comes from the two spending reviews. It includes money that was announced separately for adoption. The only RSG top slice is the money that has been transferred in relation to care leavers. That money is, therefore, not included in the £885 million and there is no double counting. Had we included that money, the amount would have been significantly higher than £885 million.

The hon. Gentleman was right that the number of looked-after children has increased, and some of those children are in care for longer. Local authority social services departments must deal with the effects of

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social problems. The extra money that is being made available through the quality protects grant, and the Government's actions on child poverty and on tackling drugs and crime will be important in ensuring that local authorities have the resources and support that they need.

As I said in my introduction, the amounts that are being made available overall for the quality protects programme are increasing significantly, as are personal social services resources, which have increased by more than 3 per cent. a year in real terms under the Government. They increased by 0.5 per cent. or so—that may overstate the case—in real terms under the Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman and others have mentioned the timing of the debate. I apologise for the fact that it comes so late in the year. However, as I said in my introduction, local authorities have known the sum that they will receive, and have known since May 2001 that their MAPs have been approved. Local authorities' spending and work, which I am sure concern all hon. Members, have not been affected.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for the Minister's admission that the debate comes extremely late, but will she tell us why it does so? Have the full sums been allocated to the authorities as originally suggested out of guilt, without any differentials? Will the criteria be tougher next year? I hope that we will debate future allocations in plenty of time.

Jacqui Smith: That will teach me to apologise. The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The allocations were made in line with the criteria that have been in place since the beginning of the quality protects grant. They were made in December 2000 for the following financial year. The allocation criteria are unaffected by the fact that we are debating the subject now.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we ensured that management action plans were evaluated and that they delivered. There was some suggestion that that they were not robustly assessed because all 150 were approved. I assure hon. Members that the social services inspectorate carefully assesses the MAPs. If they are weak, councils are asked to return to the drawing board and re-submit plans before they can be approved. Several councils with weaker MAPs have been left in no doubt that progress will be monitored carefully. MAPs form part of the assessment process, which for the first time gives us a rounded and complete view of councils' performance. As the Government have announced, they will be built on by our development of the performance assessment framework and a star rating system from next summer.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of how we ensure that progress is made in relation to black and ethnic minority children. The new requirement in the 2001-02 MAPs to report on services is in direct response to the ''Excellence, not excuses'' report. As a result, MAPs have shown much more activity on the subject. That is encouraging, although there is still a long way to go. The Government will continue to focus activity and attention on the issue.

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Several hon. Members raised issues about the allocations formula used for the determination of the grant. I outlined the criteria in response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Cheadle. The formula has been in use since the start of quality protects in 1999-2000. There were significant changes in the SSA formula that year, and the hybrid formula was established to help to ensure that there were no significant changes for authorities. We will consider the formula for 2003-04 in the light of changes to the SSA system following the local government White Paper, to ensure a smooth transition when the grant reverts to formula funding, as we expect that it will.

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove asked lots of questions but has not remained to hear the answers. As a Worcestershire MP, she rightly pointed out the difficulties with the SSA formula. She took a little detour into the politics of Worcestershire county council, so it is only right that I highlight the fact that the SSA formula about which she complained was set in stone by the county council when it was Conservative controlled. However, we are as one in believing that the SSA formula should be reviewed and this Government are undertaking that review.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised an important point about asylum-seeking children. He will be aware that councils receive additional funding through a Home Office special grant, which was set at £85 million in 2001-02, to meet the extra costs associated with their responsibilities towards unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

We are aware that a small number of councils are experiencing particular difficulties in coping with large numbers of such children. We are working with those councils, with voluntary organisations such as the Refugee Council and with the Home Office on initiatives to tackle the problems that that creates. In particular, we are developing a joint commissioning project, which aims to stimulate the provision of high-quality tailored support for unaccompanied asylum seekers. That will help to ease the burden on councils and will lead to a more consistent approach to support for those young people.

The Government's objectives for children's social services have been set out and are reflected in the Government's PSA targets. I referred to the target for the education of looked-after children. There are, of course, also targets for increasing the number of children adopted and targets on other issues, too.

There was a dispute among Opposition Members about whether we should increase ring fencing. The difficulty is that when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels strongly about something, such as adoption, he argues that we should ring-fence. He criticised the Government for not ring-fencing funds for adoption.

Tim Loughton: Far from it. I queried why the Minister said last year that funding for adoption services would be ring-fenced but has now decided that

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they should not be. I am not disputing whether such funds should be ring-fenced; I am drawing attention to the Minister's inconsistency.

Jacqui Smith: It is important that we achieve results. That is why we set the objective of increasing the number of children adopted out of care. We have achieved some success on that. That is another important reason for the MAPs, which allow us to exert some influence, to check on and to evaluate spending. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be pleased that the MAPs this year show councils planning to spend to target on adoption in 2001-02. On the basis of that analysis, the Government were able to recognise that objectives were being met without it being necessary to ring-fence.

Mr. Wilshire: I am interested in the Minister's remarks that councils are spending to target. Is the target the council's or the Government's? Surrey county council does not recognise Government targets set for it under the SSA as being worth much.

Jacqui Smith: I was talking about whether local authorities intended to spend the amount of money equivalent to the extra funding that the Government have made available for adoption. The question was whether we were likely to achieve the outcomes for adoption that the increased Government expenditure was designed to achieve.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reprised some of the questions about local PSAs that he has asked in the Special Standing Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill. Eight out of 20 local authorities have chosen to focus on adoption in the first tranche of local PSA authorities. That is a good proportion. I will, as I said in the other Committee, write to the hon. Gentleman about what the evidence on the new authorities shows us about those that focus on adoption.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove raised important issues relating to the promotion of fostering and adoption, many of which I have already dealt with. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I was mistaken about the 40 per cent. increase in looked-after children adopted in England. I suggested that it was a 40 per cent. increase since 1996-97. In fact, it is a 40 per cent. increase since 1998-99, which is even better. I had mistakenly understated the achievement of local authorities. The actual figures show that 3,067 looked-after children were adopted in England in the year up to 31 March 2001. As has been discussed in the Adoption and Children Bill proceedings, we are also examining adoption support allowances through the framework for adoption support, on which we will consult after legislation has been passed.

The hon. Member for Southport asked why the time period is five years and what happens after that. We will consider the best ways to embed the significant improvements in policy and practice that are developed under the quality protects programme. That will be at the heart of the work taken forward to develop the children's national service framework, within which children's social services will be an

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important component. That work will enable us to ensure that the five-year quality protects programme, which has delivered, will continue to do so subsequent to the end of the programme.

 
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Prepared 17 December 2001