Listen to ministers and you could be forgiven for believing that although cuts in the public sector are necessary, services will be maintained. It’s true, change in social care isn’t just a matter of throwing money at the problem and despite resource shortages we all know that whatever area we work in, efficiencies are possible. In reality, where resource allocation filters down through layers of bureaucracy and policy to the point where workers and users meet, these assurances are worthless. Last week I came across two examples where cuts in one area will have adverse consequences in another.
Children and Young People Now reported that local authorities’ spending on child care staff training was cut by over 40% last year. Four authorities have no budget at all. I suspect this does not come as too much of a shock to anyone who works in the public sector because training budgets typically take a hit whenever savings are required. However, it comes at a time when more and better training is recommended in each and every area of social care in order to increase standards and improve the service. It’s a staple of each report, every service review, all inquiries. I’ve often heard the argument that such cuts protect frontline services. Clearly in the long run they undermine them.
Another example concerns the impact for some foster carers on the changes in eligibility for housing benefit. From April, foster carers living in social housing will not be able to claim housing benefit for bedrooms occupied by fostered children and young people. It’s sparked a frantic rush of agitated audits as local authorities work out how many placements this will affect. The context is an existing shortage of around 8,700 foster carers as estimated by the Fostering Network. This change could reduce current numbers and deter potential new recruits. It will affect inner city authorities badly – off the top of my head, Southwark for example has over 65% of its properties as social housing.
The intention behind the change is to deter under-occupation, basically to not subsidise empty rooms. This will compel many to move from homes and communities where their families have been brought up because their children have grown up and moved on. In terms of children in care, according to the HB rules, foster children are not classed as permanent members of the household. Also, between placements the room is unoccupied. Therefore, no benefit will be paid.
This is not a deliberate policy, and that’s my point. Changes made for other reasons by another department in order to meet their savings target could have serious consequences for foster care in general and for children and young people in placement in particular. If carers can’t afford to carry on, children may have to move.
The Fostering Network have campaigned on the issue and there is now a £5m discretionary fund that in theory is available to compensate for any shortfalls. Minister Edward Timpson, who grew up in a family that fostered, is genuinely sympathetic and has promised to keep highlighting the problem but the FN is concerned the cash could be swallowed up by the larger housing pot and not reach its intended target. Anyway, when the words ‘benefits’ and ‘discretionary’ are linked, forgive me if I harbour grounds for scepticism.
There’s no conspiracy here, rather the unintended consequences of resource-led decisions. Different departments have different agendas and priorities. Yet the devil is in the detail. I’m certain that nobody planned to undermine foster carers doing vital work for the vulnerable, they just didn’t bother to look too closely at the implications of their decision-making.
This is serious. The government is trying to create a myth that decent levels of service can be maintained with inadequate resources. Sure, we can all do better, and every professional I know is determined to put everything they can into their work in 2013 on behalf of users in defiance of the cuts. However, the government has to understand this simple thing – there is a limit as to what is humanly possible. The demands on services and professionals for higher standards are greater than ever, and rightly so, but if we don’t have the tools to do our job, there’s a limit. What really hurts is, the government know the truth but carry on undaunted.