COUNCILLORS have called for a rethink on plans to cut staffing levels at part of Somerset children’s services.

Somerset County Council’s cabinet voted in September to pass more than 70 separate cuts in a bid to save £15million by April 2020.

Just over £2million would come from reducing staff numbers within the council’s GetSet services, in light of what the authority claims is a falling number of people being referred.

The council’s head of children’s services has said existing case workers could handle higher case-loads, and stressed the changes would not lead to a decline in the quality of services being provided.

But the cabinet has been asked to reconsider after councillors argued its members had not been given enough information to make a proper decision.

GetSet was set up in response to Somerset children’s services being rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, in a bid to improve early intervention (i.e. ensuring that children and families could get the help and support they need at the earliest opportunity).

People who are referred to the service are provided with support specific to their needs, and are referred on to other partners depending on how severe their needs are.

The extent of support people receive is organised into levels, starting at Level 1 (services currently used by everyone, like schools and GPs) and rising to Level 4 (a statutory social care intervention).

The cuts agreed in September concern Level 2, which caters for children and families who have additional needs, and Level 3, which covers more complex cases.

The matter was discussed in detail at a special meeting of the council’s policies and place scrutiny committee in Taunton on Monday morning (October 8).

Phillipa Granthier, the council’s assistant director for commissioning and performance, laid out how the staff changes would impact on case-loads.

In the past 12 months, the Level 2 team was handling an average of 276 cases (which can be either an individual or a family) each month – equivalent to 7.3 cases per case worker.

The Level 3 team handled an average of 203 cases per month in the last 12 months – around 4.2 per case worker.

If the staff changes were implemented, these case loaders would rise to 14.6 and 14.5 per worker respectively – both of which are considered “safe” workloads by the council.

Julian Wooster, the council’s head of children’s services, added: “Current demand has two elements – the referral level and the number of cases we continue to work with.

“Demand has decreased in both areas – which leads us through to the number of staff we need.”

Councillor Leigh Redman, who called in the cabinet’s decision, argued there was not enough evidence of a “steady decline” in referrals over the past year.

He added: “The information we’ve got is a greater level of detail than the cabinet had. Did they have enough detail to make the decision?”

Councillor Tessa Munt went even further, claiming the cabinet “made a decision in the dark”.

Eileen Tipper, who is involved with the Schools Forum, raised concerns that cuts to GetSet could impact on other early intervention efforts.

She said: “If you spot the vase before it begins to topple, you can stop it. But there comes a point where you can no longer stop it.”

Numerous support workers submitted questions to Mr Wooster anonymously, which were read out during a meeting.

One Level 2 support worker said: “I am scared that the future will see an increase in serious case reviews, where a child has been killed or subject to serious harm, along with more referrals to social care because things will be left until the last minute and children will be damaged for life. I don’t want this on my conscience, do you?”

After more than two hours of deliberation, Councillor Nigel Hewitt-Cooper put forward the following proposal:

  • That the cabinet should consider the data made available to the committee at its next meeting.
  • That it should review the GetSet staffing decision, with a view to deferring its implementation until a wider consultation on the service had concluded.
  • That a comprehensive proposal should come back before the cabinet in February 2019 The committee voted unanimously to approve this proposal, which will now be taken forward to the cabinet meeting on October 17.

Under the plans, in September, the staffing changes at GetSet would deliver £2,012,900 in savings by 2020 – of which £327,100 would be realised by the end of the current financial year.

If the cabinet votes to delay a final decision until February 2019, the overall amount of savings that would be generated would not change – they would simply be achieved entirely within 2019/20.