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Children’s social care: ‘Once in a generation’ chance to overhaul system in England, warns charity

Now is the time to snap up a “once in a generation” opportunity and take “radical action” to overhaul children’s social care in England, a charity has said.

Former teacher Josh MacAlister was commissioned by the government to lead an independent review of the current system and on Monday published his findings calling for a “five-year comprehensive ambitious reform and investment programme” to improve the lives of children in care and their families.

The review has made more than 80 recommendations, including calls to rebalance resources “to back those who care for and love children”.

And there has also been a call for a windfall tax to be imposed on the profits made by the largest private children’s home providers to fund the radical overhaul.

Lynn Perry, chief executive of Barnardo’s, told Sky News: “This has clearly been a far-reaching report – the number of recommendations are illustrative of the fact that this is a system that requires radical reform and has been under significant mounting pressure for some time.”

She said a “record” number of children are in care and warned “if we don’t take action now that number will continue to rise”.

“We cannot allow that trajectory, because we know that children in care are three times more likely not to be in education, training or employment, more likely to experience poor mental health and homelessness.

“So this is a really important moment. It’s a once in a generation opportunity to take some radical action.”

Only through greater investment in early help and support for children, young people and families, and a strengthening of the child protection system, can families avoid separation and the numbers of youngsters in care be reduced, she said.

Mr MacAlister said those working on the review, which began in March 2021, started by listening to people who have first-hand experience of the system, including children in care, young adults who were in care, grandparents, foster carers and parents.

Among more than 80 recommendations is a call for someone’s experience of being in care to become a protected characteristic, recognising that many children in care and care leavers experience discrimination or stigma.

Ms Perry said the charity had heard from young people who said they had been “discriminated against” in terms of housing and fewer employment opportunities.

She added: “Some of the children and young people that we work with here in Barnardo’s tell us that they have experienced being bounced around from pillar to post, multiple foster families and residential care experiences – sometimes too far from home, which means they also have a discontinuous experience of education, training, relationships with friends, wider family support networks.

“And what the review quite rightly highlights in that context is the need for loving, strong and stable relationships… people they can look to, learn from and lean on throughout their life.”

Mr MacAlister also said costs can be saved in the long run if the government invests in change now.

He said when children grow up without lifelong loving connections and when families are not supported, the social costs later down the line are “enormous”.

“It’s why we’re calling for a five-year comprehensive ambitious reform and investment programme so that we can set this system up to succeed for the hundreds of thousands of children and families who need it,” he said.

The review has calculated the costs of adverse outcomes for the social care system as £23bn a year and is suggesting an investment of £2.6bn over the next five years to reform the system and “reduce long-term costs”, Mr MacAlister said.

“The option for the government is simple either carry on as we are limping forward, into 2032, where we’ve got nearly 100,000 children in care, with costs of £15bn a year, up from about £10bn at the moment, or invest really smartly now in an ambitious programme of change so that we can improve outcomes and make the system more sustainable,” he added.

What if the government doesn’t invest?

The review is calling for the government to levy a windfall tax on the 15 largest private residential children’s homes and independent fostering providers.

A tax of 20% on profits could generate hundreds of millions of pounds to help transform the system, it says.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi had said: “This is the start of a journey to change the culture and dramatically reform the children’s social care system.”

Mr MacAlister said “it’s too soon” to tell if the government will take on the recommendations or provide the funding.

But he added: “The argument is really clearly put, which is that if the government don’t invest, if the government don’t pursue a big change programme, we will end up in a more costly situation in the years ahead, and outcomes will be significantly worse.”

Responding to the review, the government did not immediately commit to most of the recommendations but said they would be considered in the longer term.

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