Social services waste billions, say watchdogs

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The Independent Online

Two out of three social services departments are failing to provide consistent and adequate care for vulnerable people in their area, with people from ethnic minorities, children and the elderly particularly at risk, an official report said yesterday.

Two out of three social services departments are failing to provide consistent and adequate care for vulnerable people in their area, with people from ethnic minorities, children and the elderly particularly at risk, an official report said yesterday.

The third annual review of social services departments produced by the public spending watchdog the Audit Commission and the Social Services Inspectorate says that much of the billions of pounds spent on social services is wasted because best practice is not shared. Good-quality services work in isolation of other initiatives, with the result that councils often provide poor services and support for vulnerable people, the report, Making Connections , concluded.

The performance of 29 social services departments was examined this year as part of a continuing national review. The researchers found that there was no clear link between how a council runs its social services and how much it spends on them or whether they were in inner city or rural areas.

Of the 29 examined, only eight councils were found to be serving people well. Five - Calderdale in West Yorkshire, West Sussex, Sheffield, Bury in Greater Manchester and Coventry - were not serving people consistently well.

Feedback from ethnic minority clients revealed complaints that racial, cultural and religious needs were being ignored, and criticism that racial equality policies were not being put into practice. The report described the situation as worrying. "Many councils are not responding effectively to diverse communities," it said.

In three-quarters of councils reviewed by the two bodies since 1996, less than one-third of respondents felt that matters of religion, race or culture were taken into account. While more than 70 per cent of white European users described social services as good or excellent, the figure was 55 per cent for ethnic minority respondents who were twice as likely as white respondents to say services were poor or very poor.

Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, said: "The Government has put in place new policy initiatives designed to improve services. If councils are to meet this challenge, they should take a broader view of their services and how the whole system interacts to meet the needs of the community and vulnerable people."

Flaws were also identified in the provision of childcare by social services. A second report, Getting the Best from Children's Services , also conducted by the Audit Commission and Social Services Inspectorate, said too many vulnerable youngsters were being shunted around between carers, depriving them of desperately needed stability. In Solihull, West Midlands, 18 per cent of children in care were moved three or four times a year, compared with only 4 per cent who were moved this often in Cornwall.

Recruiting more foster carers is one way of reducing outplacements, the report said.

Northamptonshire underspent its fostering budget by £188,000 but overspent on independent residential care by £300,000, showing that it was putting children into homes rather than with families. "There was no childcare justification for this higher service cost," the report said.

The review found that good performance in one area of children's services was very easily undermined by poor performance in another.

"It is important to focus on the whole childcare system. It is not enough to have good policies and procedures if they are not applied consistently and appropriately," said Denise Platt, chief inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate.

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