Failing children costs Council taxpayers half-million

Graph of rise in Surrey County Council fines

Fines paid out by Surrey County Council for repeatedly failing children and young people topped half a million pounds in the past year – more than doubling its previous worst level. The council paid £540,611.59 in the last year to families who raised complaints through the children and social care watchdog. 

It is an increase of £281,880,  or 109 per cent, on 2023’s figure – when the council said it was “working hard to improve services”. Part of the “notable increase” is due to a change in guidance from the Ombudsman, which encourages local authorities to provide financial remedies earlier, as well as on an ongoing basis for delays to education, health and care (EHC) plans.

The council said it has cut its backlog of delayed care plans and is approaching the national norm.

Opposition members said ombudsman complaints and fines were just the tip of the iceberg and the trauma caused to families has long-lasting effects.

Dr Julia Katherine, Surrey County Council’s interim director of education and lifelong learning said: “We are working hard to reduce spend on fines, which we know is higher than it should be.” She added: “However, we recognise that delays in issuing EHC plans have also contributed to missed provision and subsequent fines, and we apologise for any distress caused to the children and families affected. 

“As timeliness improves, provision will be put in place within normal service delivery rather than retrospectively through remedies and we naturally expect fines to fall in line with this. We have seen a 64 per cent increase in EHC needs assessment requests across Surrey since 2020, at a time of a national shortage of educational psychologists, and this has naturally had an impact.”

Dr Katherine said the council had prioritised how it was addressing timelines and had reduced the number of delayed EHC plan requests from 1,658 in October 2023 to about 100 by the end of May 2024 –  and is on track to eliminate the backlog altogether. 

She said: “This should ultimately result in improved timeliness of assessments, putting Surrey in line with national levels, from June 2024, and in turn an improved experience for families and a reduction in the need for financial remedies. We are resolute in our ambition to continue to improve services and outcomes for children and young people with additional needs and disabilities so that they are happy, healthy, safe and confident about their future.”

According to the council’s own figures, £107,102.50 was paid in “symbolic financial remedies” in recognition of the “distress and anxiety and time and trouble taken in pursuing” complaints,  an increase of £19,656.85 (11 per cent) when compared to the previous 12 months. 

The council paid £255,318 because of problems in its education services, including a single payout of £12,900 which included missed education and delay. There were also two one-off payments of £12,486 and £12,400 for loss of education provision and delay. Children’s social care shortcomings cost £74,441  with  £43,245 to one family to acknowledge financial support errors. The figures were released ahead of the June 5 meeting of its Audit and Governance committee. 

Councillor Catherine Powell, leader of the residents group at Surrey County Council, said  “I’m sad but it doesn’t surprise me. The half a million is devastating for the families,  it’s devastating that its money not being spent on services, but it’s all the other families that are not even able to take it to that point. To go through to the ombudsman, you kind of have to have money behind you and there are an awful lot of people who don’t and they just end up sitting in the system.”

She added: “Once you’ve traumatised a child you don’t untraumatise them, they learn to live with it and that’s where the long-term mental health issue can. “The parents of these children are under extreme strain. If we don’t support the parents in the right way, we are actually creating long term health issues for the parents as well because they are burnt out and unable to cope. I hear it’s a very isolating experience.

“If you have a child not in school regularly there are lots of things you can’t do,  you can’t work and you have to support the child in an intense day-to-day way. It’s very hard.”

Cllr Powell added (the council) has “put money into educational psychologists and the service believes it will get the backlog down but the reality is not just that,  but the support we provide along the way.”

Missed education provision meant the council had to reimburse parents £222,657 in symbolic financial payments to recognise each month missed. These are payments the council should be spending to meet assessed needs irrespective of a complaint being made. 

In the past year, Surrey County Council recorded a total of 1,661 complaints in its children, families and lifelong learning service – down from 1,771 the previous year. 

Only a “very small number of complaints” escalate to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, the council said, with the vast majority successfully resolved and responded to by the local authority.

Cllr Will Forster, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group said: “We have highlighted Surrey County Council’s awful record of protecting vulnerable young people before. All too often the Ombudsman has found the county council wanting. This is an awful way to spend taxpayers’ money, and on lawyers fees fighting these judgements. The cases that come to the ombudsman area only when parents have fought and pushed through the system to get to this point. There will be so many more failures that carers and young people aren’t able to complain about.”