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Cash-strapped Derbyshire council considers charging some parents for childcare support

Cash-strapped Derbyshire County Council is considering charging some families to help cover the costs of caring for children in need of help and support while the authority’s recent decision to close down ten of its 22 children’s centres faces a review.

The Conservative-led council’s Cabinet approved the closure of ten children’s centres at a meeting at County Hall, in Matlock, on April 29, where it was also agreed to launch a public consultation from May 7 into proposals to possibly charge parents who agree and wish for their youngster to go into temporary care.

Cllr Julie Patten, Cabinet member for Families and Children, told the meeting the local authority has a statutory duty to protect children at significant risk of harm when a court order is requested and in such cases it will take responsibility for the child’s care and cover costs.

But, in some cases where these circumstances do not apply, a family can still agree for a child to come into the council’s care and the council can recover costs, and it is now considering requesting a 50 per cent contribution towards its weekly fostering allowance for the care of such youngsters.

Cllr Patten said: “Despite not being legally obliged to fund this kind of care, we have been prepared and able to do so in the past, but unfortunately now find ourselves in a position of unprecedented financial challenges creating the need for us to consider changing our contribution to care policy.  

“Our situation has been made even more unsustainable by the spiralling cost of the private care placements we sometimes have to use – and which we’re campaigning at national level to address – to balance that market to make it fairer for all local authorities finding themselves in similar positions.” 

The council revealed weekly fostering allowances in April 2024 for youngsters aged 0 to 4 stand at £170.20 so a 50 per cent contribution would equate to £89.60; for those aged 5 to 10 they stand at £198.57, equalling a 50 per cent contribution of £99.26; and for those aged 11 to 15 they stand at £226.69 so a 50 per cent contribution would be £113.35. 

In instances where a temporary care arrangement has been established with the council, parents, who retain parental legal responsibility, can be asked for a contribution up to a child’s 16th birthday, which Derbyshire County Council has never done before.  

The council’s latest proposal is one of many money-saving plans aimed at balancing an estimated budget deficit of nearly £40m for the current financial year, and the authority claims this proposal could play a key part in helping to keep council tax at an acceptable level. 

Like many authorities nationwide, the council has suffered from high inflation rates, the cost of living crisis, uncertainties with government funding, rising costs and rising demands on services, and the impact of costly pay awards. 

Council Leader, Cllr Barry Lewis, has also repeatedly called for action from the government to provide extra funding to deal with the ‘runaway’ costs of looking after children in care while dealing with profit-making private providers. 

Cllr Patten added: “If the proposal is approved following this consultation, families coming to us requesting we look after their children would be fully assessed and exemptions would apply, therefore we would anticipate any change would not have an impact on many families. 

“We also hope any change may encourage parents who are struggling, to work with their social worker and all the support services available before considering we take their children into care to help us ensure accommodation in these cases is only used where absolutely necessary.” 

The eight-week consultation will be aimed at the public, families, and children’s services staff and the council has stated social workers working with families being supported by the council will discuss the consultation with concerned parties. 

Based on council records over the last six months it is estimated that if the proposals are approved, between 14 and 28 families whose children enter care in these circumstances would be eligible to be charged. 

If approved, the council will carry out a financial assessment on any family requesting care before calculating any contribution to ensure this would not unreasonably affect their household income. 

Families’ specific circumstances and any immediate risks and needs would also be assessed before any decision was made, according to the council. 

If the proposals are approved, exemptions would apply for eligible families such as those who receive benefits and the council stressed that despite legislation allowing for a child to be personally charged from the age of 16, the council has no such plans. 

The council stressed it will continue to pay for a child where there is a statutory duty to protect those who are at risk of significant harm, and where risks are unmanageable within the home, and where it has been necessary to take action to remove a child from their parents’ care under the Children’s Act 1989. 

In the meantime, opposition Labour councillors have ‘called in’ the Conservative-led council’s controversial decision to close ten children’s centres as part of overall saving plans for this matter to be reconsidered on the alleged grounds the council had not fully considered the impact of closures on families, and the possible extra costs of dealing with children in crisis without the affected centres. 

This matter has been referred to the council’s ‘Improvement and Scrutiny Committee – People’ for consideration before it decides if this matter should be referred back to the Cabinet for further reconsideration on any final decision. 

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