Assurances sought over children's services budget

Financial control of Powys County Council’s children’s services is getting better, but assurance is needed that it is not a “one off”, a committee has heard.

Ian Halstead
Ian Halstead

For several years a key concern for councillors has been the spiralling costs of the children’s service department.

This coincided with a highly critical report from Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW) in October 2017,  which saw money ploughed into the department to turn things around.

From 2017/18 to 2020/21 the departmental budget nearly doubled from £13.1 million to £26 million.

The department had also gone from spending £4.65 million more than their 2019/20 budget, to being £944,000 inside their budget last year,

To find our why this has been happening Internal Auditors, SWAP was brought in to investigate the department’s financial controls.

They started their probe over 18 months ago, but the work was hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their report was discussed by the Governance and Audit committee on Monday.

SWAP assistant director Ian Halstead told the committee that nine recommendations to tighten up financial controls were suggested following the investigation.

Mr Halstead said: “In the past there was a mismatch between available resources and the required resources, but 2020/2021 is really positive.

“However, I am concerned that this is a misleading picture, a snapshot that was effected by Covid and the Welsh Government grants and the house keeping at the end of the year.

“It may be a one off.”

He believed councillors needed more assurance that the children’s service budget is managed effectively.

Head of children’s service Jan Coles said:  “I do take issue with the terminology that were failing to deliver services in budget or are constantly overspending, that is a narrative that needs to be challenged now.

“I wasn’t here in the days when this was happening or involved in those decisions, I can only speak for my record.

“Fewer children are being brought into care,  the average cost of a child into care is £50,000.”

Ms Coles explained that had they department not invested in early intervention, more children would have come into care with the resultant costs.

Ms Coles added: “The work we are doing in children’s services to address the deficits of the past are working.”

Committee chairman Cllr John Morris asked whether financial considerations were a part of the daily decision-making process and were the staff cost conscious?

Ms Coles answered: “They are cost conscious, but they are needs led.

“If we go into a house where children are not safe, we can’t say we’ve used up our placement allocation for this year, but we can come back in three months’ time when the budget starts again when we have some funding.

“I would hope that’s as a council that’s how you want us to be, we’ll always try and deliver the service to the best value.”

She explained that the pandemic had “exposed some of the housekeeping issues” that work to restructure the department had not “got to yet.”

Cllr Roger Williams said: “Children is Powys are safer now, the difficulty is that it’s a service that has to react to emergencies

“If a bridge is unsafe, you can shut it, but if a child becomes unsafe you have to act and sometimes it can be very expensive.”

Cllr Morris added: “We do appreciate the pressures you have been under in the last 18 months; this report just happens to come out at a difficult time, please be assured we are aware of that.

“We are just seeking assurance and trying to be helpful.”

Cllr Morris added that the issue will be looked at again in around six months to see if the recommendations have been embedded.

The recommendations covered a number of areas which include budgeting the true cost of the service; controlling the costs of agency/contracted staff; more financial management training for staff and better financial reporting.

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