Cllr Dave Evans is the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People and Lead Member for Children’s Services on Stoke-on-Trent Council.
Social care in England must sit as one of the longest running soars of any issue for any government. Governments of every colour have proclaimed that fixing social care is their top priority, only to find that other more politically sensitive areas such as education and health care have usurped this laudable statement. Although understandable, given their importance, it is this inherent failure to understand the impact the social care system, be it for adults or children, can have on these wider issues.
It is a sad fact, replicated across every city in the country, that when adult social care runs into difficulty; when practice is not robust; or when capacity in the system is unable to meet demand, pressure inevitably builds. Hospitals back up and are unable to discharge patients back to their home in a safe, sustainable way or into another safe setting. General practitioners are pulled from pillar to post dealing with minor ailments which should be done by other professionals.
Similarly, we know that poor social care for children impacts on other areas. Children with a poor home life are unable to utilise the education provided, irrespective of the quality of the school, its OFSTED rating or indeed the teaching. Nationally, 52 per cent of young people who are care leavers are not in education, employment or training. This must speak volumes about the essential role social care departments across the nation have on the economic success of our country.
Further, we know that poor quality social care and early intervention services completely change the life chances of many young people. The over prevalence of young people in care within the criminal justice system and the increased likelihood they will receive a custodial sentence – all indicators of the need to drive change in social care both for adults and children.
We have seen challenges in Stoke-on-Trent, both in terms of adults and children services. Both have received damning judgements by their regulators in recent years after decades of poor performance. Both judgements have stirred action. In the case of adult social care, previously we had one of the highest rates of delayed transfer of care (people unable to leave hospital after they were declared medically fit). After intensive work, this has been turned around making us one of the best performing areas. In the same vein, we received a challenging OFSTED rating for our children social care in 2019, pushing us onto an improvement journey which will not only improve our services, but reshape the way we prioritise them across our council and our city.
It is this experience that has led me to the view that for us to really pursue the levelling up agenda which the Prime Minister rightly speaks of, we need to give that equality of opportunity to all our residents regardless of background or circumstance. Social care needs more than just words, it needs to leapfrog up the political agenda and be truly recognised as the enabler of better public services and life chances. I believe that by creating a separate department within government, bringing together both children and adult services, would be the way to deliver this change. It needs to have its own budget; its own team working with local government to drive change in social care practice.
A separate department with its own machinery of state can bring this much needed focus, it will put social care where it needs to be, as an equal partner to health and education. By bringing the focus to adult care, working with providers, commissioners and local authorities, we can create better care arrangements, really get to grips with the home-first models adopted in places like Stoke-on-Trent and create a fit for purpose service which is both financial sustainable and able to provide the care we would want and need for our own loved ones, of which they deserve.
For young people the change can be even more significant. Giving the focus to a sector which has the potential to radically change the lives and prospects of young people by giving them a future, and in places like Stoke-on-Trent the economic and talent potential that can really drive forward our left behind communities. It is a reality that being a child in care becomes a life-defining event. In many cases, these young people are not given the support they need and aren’t prioritised in the way they need to be. Anna Longfield, the previous Children’s Commissioner said that the government ‘seemingly doesn’t know what to do with children in care’. A dedicated department would put a firm line in the sand to say we want more for our young people, they matter to us and we will be relentless in securing the best for them. We would truly be the one nation government I believe in.
Our party, the Conservative party, has always been, and will always be the party of opportunity. That opportunity must extend to everyone. We need to act now, and I’d urge the government to look at this seriously to make a significant change for those in our society that need it most.