Cost-cutting Devon County Council leader John Hart has been told to “get to grips” with spiralling costs after a £6.9 million overspend was revealed just weeks ahead of plans to axe £25 million from the annual budget.
The Conservative authority spent an extra £6.1 million on adult and child protection, including £2 million on staff costs, a report to the cabinet yesterday revealed.
The sudden rise comes after Ofsted slammed children’s services in the county as “inadequate” last year, following an unannounced inspection, prompting opposition councillors to raise “huge concerns”.
Increased costs to turn around the under-performing service sparked the increase.
A total of £293,000 was spent to employ an agency team of social workers until the end of the financial year to deal with a surge in referrals following concerns over children.
Labour councillors yesterday called on Mr Hart for a reassurance he was “getting to grips with this”.
Group leader Richard Westlake added: “This is very serious and nobody can hide from the fact that we should be taking action.”
Fellow Exeter city councillor Jill Owen added: “It is a matter of huge concern and I cannot see how we are going to manage it down – it is very, very worrying.
“The pressures of safeguarding children are not going away.”
John Clatworthy, cabinet member for finance, told the meeting he is “confident” he can balance the books.
After the meeting, Mr Hart added: “The overspend comes at a time when demand for children’s care services has risen dramatically nationally in the light of a raft of disturbing cases of child abuse elsewhere in the country.
“We are now on the right track with our improvement plan for children’s services and we are working hard to control the overspend.
“I am confident that we will not be requiring other services to take bigger cuts in order to cover the deficit and I can give an assurance that I have a firm grip on the finances of this county council.”
In May last year, investigators from Ofsted gave services for about 5,000 vulnerable children the lowest of four ratings.
The council was subjecting youngsters to “unnecessary risk of serious harm”, they said in a report, which led to an overhaul of child protection.
Alan Wooderson, chairman of the county’s Safeguarding Children Board, quit in the wake of the published findings.
The head of children and adult protection Rory McCallum left his £95,000-a-year job at the authority just before Christmas.
The financial toll of the failing service was finally revealed this week in a report by the county treasurer which showed the People budget had climbed by £6.9 million, including an extra £886,000 in “legal disbursements”.
The overspend is expected to be contained within the service without impacting on other areas.
Social care commissioning is set for a drop of £1.6m while Education and Learning has already cut £388,000.