Devolution is an opportunity for more integrated care services

Devolution is now increasingly seen as one of the key means through which to tackle the complex challenges facing the health and social care sector, with around half of devolution deals including asks relating to devolved power over health and social care.

Paradoxically, however, rather than empowering local authorities by devolving greater powers and resources around children’s services, recent reforms appear to be going in the opposite direction by advocating their removal from local authority control.

For example, in the event of persistent failure, responsibility for children’s services will be removed from local councils in favour of other high-performing authorities, experts in child protection and charities. The idea is to create an academy-style system, whereby any local authorities judged as inadequate by Ofsted are taken over and transformed into ‘trusts’, like those in Doncaster or Slough.

The reforms aim to respond to the complex challenges facing children’s services in England, alongside the inadequate performance of a large proportion of local authorities, with just 10 out of 43 local authorities were judged by Ofsted to be performing to a good standard.

Children’s services also face issues regarding a lack of coordinated and effective early family intervention, difficulty recruiting experienced social workers and poor management. Such issues are compounded by the impact of continued public sector cuts on service level, causing local authorities to raise concerns that they will be unable to protect spending on children’s services.

While elements of the new reforms may be positive, removing local authority control over children’s services is a retrograde step which contrasts sharply with the current devolution agenda.

Although the devolution of health and social care funding continues to divide opinion and is not without risk, the lack of both local and national integration between health and social care is at the heart of the challenges faced by both sectors. Yet by removing children’s services from local authority control, while powers over health and social care are simultaneously devolved, the new reforms increase the risk of service fragmentation and pose serious barriers as regards connecting child protection with wider social care prevention services. This is likely to result in poorer outcomes for children and increased costs due to reactive interventions.

Removing children’s services from local authority control in favour of such an ‘academy-style system’ also poses serious issues in terms of oversight and accountability of such bodies. The current educational academy system has proved controversial at best due to a number of factors such as lack of local accountability, poor financial management and a failure to deliver the promised increase in educational attainment.

Indeed, where the trust model has been trialled in Doncaster, there is as yet no conclusive evidence that such structures are effective at turning failing services around. More alarmingly the new reforms failure to ensure a continued partnership between local authorities and Trusts or to guarantee expertise and experience in children’s services as a requirement of the new structures.

Clearly the current standard of children’s services in England needs to improve. However changing the management structure without addressing the systemic weaknesses within children’s services, risks neutralising the opportunities presented by devolution. While simultaneously creating a fragmented and unaccountable system which is unable to effectively support children and families.

Instead if local authorities are to be supported to improve children’s services, existing structures must be reformed and supported through additional powers and funding. For example, by devolving more power to local safeguarding children boards to take action if the needs of children are being compromised.

Unlike recent reforms, devolution presents an important opportunity to create a progressive whole system approach to children’s services in which local and combined authorities are empowered to integrate and deliver effective health and social care services within a locally controlled and accountable system.


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