Derbyshire County Council is set to axe 200 staff from a service which supports vulnerable kids and teenagers.
A leaked council report reveals that out of 449 staff in the authority’s early help service, approximately 200 are set to lose their jobs by October.
These are among 462 jobs which the authority is set to cut this year. This comes as the council aims to reduce the budget of the service by 60 per cent, from £12.9 million to £4.5 million by 2020. In total, the county council is looking to cut £63 million from its total £500 million annual budget by 2023.
Trade union Unison fears that if the “dreadful” early help cuts are carried out, serious child abuse cases, and even deaths, may increase, due to a shortfall in experienced staff to catch early warning signs.
It provides vital assistance to 4,000 children (and their parents) who are in need – often due to family conflict. It aims to prevent harm from occurring to children and to stop less-serious cases from escalating.
The service also aims to help youngsters and help vulnerable teenagers “maximise their potential” and move onto college and work. Part of this work revolves around youth groups – 23 of which are set to be cut due to a perceived drop in attendance.
But a report approved by the council’s cabinet last week stated that the council was getting involved unnecessarily in almost a third of cases where children were thought to be at risk and where its help was, in fact, found to be not needed. This report showed that public support for the early help review stood at around 13 per cent.
The review aims to help schools to set up their own versions of the early help service, to take the burden off the authority. This would be funded by £3 million already held by the council in its schools budget.
Alongside this, the authority is providing £1.3 million over the next three years to set up a transition term to ensure the changes to the service are carried out smoothly.
Neil Ploughman, Derbyshire branch chairman for Unison, says that morale is “on the floor” among staff in the early help service, and that the union is working closely with the council to mitigate any impacts and draw more scrutiny on the proposals. Mr Ploughman, a children’s social worker, said: “We are staggered by the level of intransigence. Much of the work done by youth groups is becoming more and more necessary to prevent a rise in gang culture among teenagers, increasingly even in our towns. Derbyshire’s early help staff are highly-trained and very, very respected, and are great value for money. They provide a five-star service but are being met with high workloads and referrals. Within this review they (staff) are to be expected to train volunteers to carry out their roles, it is absolutely appalling. This is a case of short-term gain, long-term pain. DCC does have reserves, it is one of the richest authorities in the country. You cannot put a price on one child’s death, which is at stake here. This review represents dreadful potential for the most vulnerable and disabled. This service does not deal with the most serious cases, these are handled by social services, but when you take away this service, which represents the foundations of the support for these children, which prop up all of the stuff above it, you run the risk of the rest falling with it. This is a preventative service and seeks to stop escalation and high state intervention. We already have substantial and glaring child abuse cases, and we have had several deaths in Derbyshire. The service seeks to prevent serious harm to children and to allow intervention before cases do become more serious. If this is cut there will be loads more serious cases in Derbyshire, and that could include any number of things, including deaths.”
Unison has set up meetings with affected staff. Meanwhile, last week’s council report also included letters from head teachers at primary schools in Tintwhistle and Simmondley stating that “to reduce the service further would inevitably increase the pressure on my school and on families, leading to a vicious circle of increasing needs in families and children, and more pressure on teachers and our school”. They stated that they were “very concerned that we would see a rise in numbers needing to access statutory services and huge pressures on the already creaky social care system”. The letter continues: “All the evidence shows that early intervention is the key and pound-for-pound is much more effective investment than crisis response.”
Meanwhile, Sharon James, head teacher at Bramley Vale Primary School, representing 10 primary, infant and secondary schools in and around Bolsover, said: “As a group of schools we are extremely worried about the affect the cuts will have on our children.
“We feel that if services are cut, then many vulnerable families will not get the support that they need. We currently feel swamped by the increasing demand on schools to provide support for children and families who are struggling and feel this will just increase to breaking point.”
Councillor Alex Dale, the authority’s cabinet member for children and young people, said: “We really value the work of our early help staff and we’re proud of everything the service has achieved. This review is no reflection on our staff who work very hard and are extremely passionate about improving the lives of children and young adults in Derbyshire. Both locally and nationally, circumstances have changed and we need to make changes to our early help offer to ensure we can continue to deliver the right support at the right level to those children and families who most need it. Our vision for our new early help offer is that it will be more targeted and practice will be evidenced-based to ensure we make the best possible use of our limited resources. Providing early help is the responsibility of all public organisations. It’s everybody’s business and some of the best early help arrangements in the country are based on strong partnerships between councils, health, schools and the voluntary sector and that’s what we’re proposing we build here in Derbyshire. This new approach has already started in parts of Derbyshire and is working well. We listened to what people had to say during the consultation and we’ve put significant mitigation into our proposals to ensure partner agencies are well supported as they further develop their own early help arrangements. By supporting other organisations to provide more universal services and by focusing our resources on those who most need our support, we can ensure that we continue to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children and their families. Those families who are currently receiving our support will continue to be supported in the same way as they are now and the proposed changes will only affect new service-users from September onwards. We’ve been talking to our staff about our plans for the past year and we are helping them wherever possible to move to other jobs within the council, or re-train as social workers for example. This will clearly be a difficult time for staff, but we will be doing everything we can as a council to avoid compulsory redundancies.”
Leader of the opposition, Labour’s Cllr Anne Western, said: “These cuts to the youth service, careers service and family support are extremely serious and will have a detrimental impact on children, families and young people right across Derbyshire. The public response to the consultation was very strongly against these cuts. The Conservatives, yet again, expect other organisations to step in and fill the gap these cuts will leave, but school budgets are being squeezed and staff are already working at their limit. The same applies to health services. So more pressure falls onto community volunteers to help as well as run libraries and all the other services that should be run by the council with professional staff. This is a very short-sighted decision because we all know that early support prevents situations becoming more serious, damaging and expensive to resolve.”