Debate: Improving Outcomes for Children Annual Report

Janet:

Wales, of course, has the highest number of looked-after children on record. There were 6,845 children as of 31 March this year, a 65 per cent increase since 2003. The change has been even more extreme in some particular local authorities such as Anglesey, seeing a 190 per cent increase, Torfaen 195 per cent, and Monmouthshire 250 per cent. Moreover, Cardiff had 380 more looked-after children to care for this year, highlighting what continues to be a worrying trend in our communities. So, it comes as no surprise, therefore, Deputy Minister, that I certainly thank you for the report and the opportunity for us to debate this.

This brings me to the first priority—safely reducing the number of children in need of care. It is noted that, despite reports having researched the cause of increased numbers of children in care, these numbers continue to rise. It is too early to say that this is despite the First Minister's reduction in expectations. In July the Deputy Minister made a statement advising that only 16 local authorities had set targets to reduce their looked-after population. So, I wonder whether the other authorities have yet set their own targets.

I do appreciate the positive ambition, but at present I doubt that it will be achieved. Reductions must be secured safely, so I do welcome the reinforcement of moves towards the prevention and intervention agenda. Fifteen million pounds has been allocated to expanding these preventative and intervention services via the integrated care fund. Now, according to the Wales Audit Office, the fund's overall impact in improving outcomes for service users remains unclear, so I would appreciate some assurances today that the money is not being prevented from achieving its positive ambition. Indeed, I agree that there needs to be an agenda that is definitely more focused on prevention. Only last week I did call for the founding of family drug and alcohol courts here to help solve problems in families at risk of losing their children.413

We also do need more support for children's services, i.e. our departments, who have some fantastic people working on the front line, wanting to support families and wanting to support these children. For example, my own authority, Conwy Country Borough Council, has seen a 23 per cent increase in the number of looked-after children since 2016, and social services departments are set to have a £2.25 million overspend this financial year. In the short term, local authorities like Conwy deserve emergency financial support where an additional financial strain caused by the increasing number and complexity of cases can actually be proven.

Support for looked-after children is also provided by schools. However, sadly the percentage of children achieving the core subject indicator at key stage 2 fell to 58.3 per cent in 2018-19. We have the pupil development grant for the remainder of the Assembly term, but I suppose the question I would have is we do need to see how effective this is in helping with this combined agenda. The 'School Funding in Wales' report found that the PDG had actually, in some instances, been used to top up and bolster core funding. That cannot be right. Similarly, it is noted that £15 million has been provided to develop therapeutic services, but how much of a difference is this making? Almost 100 children from north Wales have been sent out of the region for mental health treatment in the last four years. The report identifies that it is difficult to access the right help at the right time because of thresholds to specialist services, so I would like to see some progress, working with the Deputy Minister on this. Likewise, we need positive change on the alarming finding that it is becoming more difficult to match children to appropriate placements: 9.2 per cent of children had three or more placements in 2018-19.

It is now a year since the Public Accounts Committee recommended a national strategic approach to commissioning placements. So, it is time for us to actually deliver this. Certainly, I welcome the report before us today, and the good work it outlines, but hope to have shown that more needs to be done to ensure that we safely prevent. We want to see all intended support reach our looked-after children and we all need to do more to help the front-line services we so heavily rely on to help our young people in care. Thank you.