Children’s care system in Scotland needs replacing, review finds

Severin Carrell

The Guardian, 5th February 2020

A major review of failures in the Scottish care system has called for it to be scrapped and replaced by a new unified service.

The independent care review, set up by Nicola Sturgeon in 2017, estimates that the “fractured and bureaucratic” system operating in Scotland costs the country more than £2.7bn a year.

“It’s clearly not a system,” said Fiona Duncan, the review’s chair. “It’s lots of different bureaucracies and rules that all operate alongside each other and bump into one another.”

The review called for a new unified children’s care service and strategy, based around a 10-year plan written by all the services and agencies involved in the current care system, which need to be properly funded by Sturgeon’s government.

Sturgeon told MSPs on Wednesday afternoon that the review was one of the most important during her tenure as first minister. Scotland had let too many care-experienced children down, she said, often damaging lives.

With opposition parties promising support in implementing its recommendations as quickly as possible, she said the reformed system “should have love and nurture at its heart. [The] priority must be the provision not of a series of placements and arrangements driven by the needs of bureaucracy, but one of stable, safe and loving lives.”

In what is thought to be most forensic analysis ever undertaken, the review said £942m was spent each year by councils and agencies on the formal care system, including fostering, adoption, secure care and the youth justice system.

There are about 15,000 children currently in the Scottish care system. Another £198m is spent on other public services linked to those services, including mental health provision.

In addition, the review estimates a further £875m is spent on fixing the system’s mistakes and failings, leading to a total cost to the public sector of over £2bn.

The review’s analysts said nearly all that spending can be attributed to devolved services overseen the Scottish government. Its overall budget is just over £30bn a year, implying that nearly 7% of its budget goes on supporting care-experienced children and adults.

Drawing on analysis and studies from across the UK, they calculated that another £732m in taxes and national insurance payments was lost because care-experienced adults have significantly lower incomes, adding to the system’s overall costs.

The review, which included 5,500 interviews with care-experienced people and those who worked or lived with them, said the care-experienced were two-and-a-half times more likely to be excluded from school and almost twice as likely to use drugs moderately.

Children living in the poorest 10% of neighbourhoods were 20 times more likely to be taken into care than those in the wealthiest 10%; care-experienced people were twice as likely to have no educational qualifications and twice as likely to experience homelessness.

On average, their incomes are three-quarters that of non-care-experienced workers and they are more than three times as likely not to have had a full-time job by the age of 26.

“They’re over-represented in places where they shouldn’t be over-represented, like homelessness and justice, and they under-represented in places where they should have the same opportunities as everyone else, like education,” Duncan said, as she launched the review’s conclusions.

Across nearly 80 recommendations, it called for children and young people to have far greater say in their care; far greater investment on building life-long relationships and a heavier focus on keeping families intact.

“There’s a legislative labyrinth which pushes people around a system that actually isn’t enabling,” Duncan said. “We don’t have an enabling legislative environment in Scotland for us to do the right thing for children and families.”