The spiralling cost of placements for children in care is being blamed on past mistakes, as Oxfordshire County Council faces bills of up to £20,000 per child per week to place children into care.
The authority finds itself having to fund a £6.7 million shortfall to cover the cost of just 13 extra placements for children with complex needs – a budget of £100,000 was set to cover one such placement ahead of the new financial year that began in April.
It is the single biggest variance in the county’s budget, with the council’s business management and monitoring report up to the end of July citing “…an unprecedented period of difficulty in finding suitable placements for some children, often at very short notice, and to meet the particular individual circumstances of the children”.
It continued: “At the time the 2022-23 budget was prepared, there was only one such placement and a budget of £0.1m. These placements increased during the latter part of 2021-22 and have continued to increase in 2022-23, including two placements at the start of June, one costing £12,000 per week and the other £20,000 per week.
“There are 14 such placements included in the forecast. The provision within the forecast is an estimated cost of £6.7m.”
Councillor Donna Ford (Con, Bicester North) asked if the cabinet was “confident this is the best use of council resources for both the children in question and council tax payers”.
Councillor Calum Miller (Lib Dem, Otmoor), the county’s cabinet for finance, replied: “Those are shocking figures. I don’t think any member of this council would be comfortable that those are at the right level, but the question assumes there is something within the council’s power to act upon this.
“The fact of the matter is that the 2014 act (The Care Act, 2014) enabled many more children to access services and put additional obligations on the county in the way we care for children.
“Decisions taken by previous administrations reduced the number of children’s homes and other facilities within this county in which those children could be cared for.
“The exorbitant prices that she quotes are a consequence of this national government allowing private equity firms and others to take huge, supernormal profits – in the region of 30 per cent according to a recent Panorama investigation – from the care of our children.
“If the members opposite think it is appropriate that we should have a situation where the care of the most vulnerable children in our society is outsourced to the private sector to make these supernormal profits, then I think it is them who should look in the mirror and question whether it is appropriate.
“On this side of the chamber, we are working extremely hard to look at long-term investment and measures that will reduce these pressures in the future. I look forward to discussing that with the whole council as we seek to approve an appropriate revenue and capital budget for next year.”