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The other windfall tax: Can this blueprint fix the children’s care system?

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care calls for £2.6bn of new spending on “the civil rights issue of our time”.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

To help transform Britain’s “dysfunctional” care system, a major review into the sector has recommended that the government imposes a one-off windfall tax on the largest privately run children’s homes to help fund a “radical reset” of social care for young people.

The current system “can and must do better for children”, states the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care report that was released on Monday. In the government-commissioned report, the author Josh MacAlister, other sector experts, and those who have experienced social care first-hand, argue that fixing care for young people “should be the civil rights issue of our time”.

What is the current state of care like?

“The current care system is not fit for purpose,” Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of children’s care charity Become, told Spotlight. “We have record numbers of children in care – 80,000 in England – and whilst the system does work for some, for too many it doesn’t give them the stability and the support that they need to thrive.”

Instability in care, which sees children move from place to place across different homes and schools throughout their developing years, is compounded by the “care cliff”, which sees support for young people “fall away overnight”, Sacks-Jones added. “Sadly, we’re setting up many young people to fail… For too many [children], that instability and uncertainty that they faced before coming into care is replicated and compounded in the care system.”

Rather than drawing on the support networks and relationships provided by family and the wider community, social care for children can be “rigid and linear”, critiques the report.

So, what solutions is the review proposing?

One of the key proposals is the call for the UK to become the first country in the world to recognise someone’s experience of being in care as a protected characteristic, an acknowledgement of the effect time in care has on life outcomes.

The report also outlines a desire to strengthen the relationships between children, their extended family and social workers, alongside supporting institutions such as schools and the police. Proposed “family network plans” would aim to do more to involve a child’s extended family in the decision-making process regarding care, with local authorities pushed to do more to fund and support family members to care for a child (including providing new statutory financial allowances, legal aid, and kinship leave for guardians with a Child Arrangement Order).

Local authorities are also asked to take more control over children’s care and establish “regional care cooperatives (RCCs)”. These would be tasked with creating and running all public sector care within a particular region, in addition to commissioning not-for-profit and private sector care for children in an area if necessary.

Additionally, the introduction of a five-year “early career framework”, which will provide social workers with improved training and development that is linked to national pay scales, is hoped to both attract and retain talented individuals to the profession.

How much would that cost, and where would the money come from?

The review is calling for a £2.6bn investment of new spending over the next four years. The report proposes that the government introduce a windfall tax on the 15 largest private children’s homes, the average profits margins of which sit at around 20 per cent. There are “serious questions about how we’re allowing such high amounts of profits to be made” in the sector, Sacks-Jones said in support of the levy.

But the devil is in the details…

The increased focus on relationships shaping care is welcome, said Sacks-Jones, as are calls for better early help for struggling families and the commitment to provide all young people with care until they are 18 (“not all do at the moment”), but questions around safeguarding provisions following changes in care structures will need to be “understood more”.

It “isn’t clear”, Sacks-Jones said, what will replace the proposed removal of independent reviewing officers, who operate separately from a child’s direct social worker and are there to help with an individual’s care concerns. “These important safeguards have been kind of built up over the years, for good reasons,” Sacks-Jones said, before adding that “we need to understand a lot more about those proposals and what would replace that important role in the child’s life”.

In a joint statement, the National Children’s Bureau, NSPCC, Action for Children, Barnardo’s and The Children’s Society welcomed the review, saying it needs to be met “with an urgent action plan from government to implement the reforms and a commitment for ambitious, long-term investment”.

What about the levelling-up agenda?

The government’s levelling-up plan includes goals on improving educational attainment for children and empowering local communities. Monday’s report makes the case that it “aligns with the ambition” of this agenda when it comes to changing the ways families are supported and in terms of streamlining funding. On family support, the report argues that some of the measures it proposes could help achieve that ambition “in a profound way – enabling children to grow up with the foundations of safety, stability and love, regardless of where they live”.

How will the government respond?

The government has pledged to commit to a number of the proposed measures in the review – which contains over 80 recommendations – including the establishment of a new “national implementation board”, which will aim to recruit and retain workers in the sector, improve data sharing between different agencies, and implement a new evidence and feedback-driven framework for children’s social care.

Time will tell if the government fully follows through with its pledges following the review, said Sacks-Jones: “They need to have a good look at this report and properly consult the care experience community, including children and young people. But they need to commit to long-term sustainable reform and that’s going to require investment.”

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