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When Sir Eric Pickles abolished the watchdog charged with overseeing England’s councils, the then-local government secretary insisted it would be replaced by an “army of armchair auditors” scrutinising council spending from the comfort of their living rooms.

These civic-minded battalions did not emerge, not least because local government data collections have changed so often as to make comparisons between inputs and outputs — and across years and between councils — a mammoth job.

Now, the Financial Times has put that information into the public domain for the first time, allowing readers to see how spending and services have changed in their local communities.

The absence of such data until now has meant that the changing, and in many cases diminishing, role of local government in England has been subject to little examination or debate.

Nowhere, however, is the state’s retreat more apparent than in the realm of adult social care and children’s services, which between them swallow up by far the biggest chunk of council funding.

Take adult care. In the year to March 2010, the last before the coalition took office, England’s councils arranged or paid for care at home for 534,590 residents aged 65 and older.

Four years later, data collected by councils themselves show the number had been reduced by more than 100,000.

A 20 per cent cut in care recipients in four years would be stark enough. But the statistic flatters the true extent of the fall because it overlooks the fact that over this period the number of over-65-year-olds grew by 11 per cent as Britain’s population aged.

The numbers tell the story. While in 2009-10, English councils were funding or arranging home care for 65 out of 1,000 over-65-year-olds, by 2013-14 the ratio had dropped to 46 out of 1,000: equivalent to a 28 per cent cut, or more than 150,000 elderly people losing access to a service they would have received four years earlier.

The data — like most collected for central government administration purposes — are not perfect, and some councils claim the figures fail to capture the number of people who have received “re-ablement” services. These return the individual to a higher level of health and capability, negating the need for continued care.

But the information provides the best available indication of the impact the estimated £4bn-plus of spending reductions has had on users of council adult social care services. Its scale is corroborated by other data, including an 18 per cent reduction in the staff count of council adult social care services between 2011 and 2014.

These services were in far from robust condition even before George Osborne, the UK chancellor, started to wield the austerity axe in June 2010.

John Jackson, a council social services director who speaks for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, says recent cuts to the help that people receive with basic tasks such as washing and eating follow years of reductions elsewhere. These cuts have already seen councils forced to slash services seen as “very desirable but not absolutely essential”, he says.

In the final four years of the Labour government, council efforts to contain social care budgets amid rising demand had already seen the number of adults attending day-care centres cut by a fifth and the number of “meals-on-wheels” delivered to the elderly and infirm slashed by 40 per cent.

Roll forward to 2013-14 and meals-on-wheels has almost gone: the number receiving the service is down 81 per cent from 2005-6, according to data collected for the Department of Health, and the number using day centres has halved.

Mr Jackson sums up the dilemma of many council social care directors now faced with finding even steeper reductions: “After you’ve cut that, what else is there to do?”

The answer, for the vast majority of councils, has been either explicitly or implicitly to tighten eligibility criteria to stem the flow of new recipients, while reviewing whether services can be reduced or removed from current beneficiaries.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, says a growing number of severely disabled younger adults are also having their more extensive care packages reduced, often leaving their ageing parents to step in to fill gaps in their care.

That option has not been available to children’s social care. There, the FT’s analysis shows that a real-terms increase in gross spending on child protection — of 4 per cent in the four years to 2013-14, to £5.7bn — was outstripped by a 13 per cent increase in the number of children referred to councils by the police, doctors, schools and the general public as potentially at risk.

That increase is thought to have been triggered by raised public and professional awareness of child abuse following the coverage given to examples of neglect such as Baby P, Victoria Climbie and Daniel Pełka.

There is nothing to suggest this leap in referrals was an over-reaction, however. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, there was a 24 per cent increase in the number of children subject to a child protection plan, indicating that further investigation by social work professionals and other agencies has concluded the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.

Set against that increase of a quarter in the number of children subject to formal protection measures, spending per child fell between 2009-10 and 2013-14 by 16 per cent in real terms.

During the same period, the absolute number of full-time children’s social workers remained static at about 24,600, while the staff turnover rate almost doubled from 9.1 per cent in 2011 to 17 per cent in 2014.

Kate Mulley, policy director at the charity Action for Children, which runs about 650 separate children’s social care services across the UK, says there is some anecdotal evidence that councils are raising the threshold for escalating child protection cases.

“When we make a referral ourselves, very often we are having to persevere . . . because we are very worried about that child,” she said.

But Ian Thomas, recently appointed director of children’s services at Rotherham council — which has suffered high-profile failures over its own child protection regime and who speaks for the national Association of Directors of Children’s Services — said there was clearer evidence that councils were cutting back on preventative services as they attempted to remain in the black.

“It’s remiss of any area to cut their early intervention services, although many feel they have to because of the need to balance the books in very challenging circumstances,” said Mr Thomas.

Adult and children’s social care alone comprise about a third of total spending, and Mr Jackson says the fact that a large proportion of expenditure is devoted to such a small fraction of the population means that many of the most painful cuts made in the past five years have gone unnoticed by the public at large.

“In adult social care we spend 50 per cent of our budget on just 2 per cent of the population, and it’s even smaller in children’s social services,” said Mr Jackson. “Morally, we want to make sure those needs are met. And legally, we are obliged to. But it has to be recognised that local government doesn’t just have obligations in social care.”

Letter in response to this report:

Reassuring to know that standards aren’t slipping in the public sector / From Alice Watson

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