Why we must protect most vulnerable, by director for children's services Jim Leivers

This comment piece has been published by the Oxford Mail

We’re in our sixth year of budget reductions, we’re in the process of saving £290m from 2010 to 2018 and we might have to save up to £50m on top of that by 2020.

At the first in a series of public meetings on our budget, the leader of the council said that our priority was protecting services for the most vulnerable people in Oxfordshire.

It was clear from the comments and questions that many people felt strongly that services provided by the council, including children’s centres and day services for adults, had helped them and their families during difficult times.

So what do we mean by protecting services for the most vulnerable people, and how can we say this while contemplating withdrawing funding from children’s centres and adult day services?

There are a number of legal obligations that councils have towards people in their care – be they children, elderly people or people with special needs such as mental health or learning disabilities.

But to put it simply, we are talking about children who are being abused or neglected, or at real risk of abuse or neglect.

Adult care means helping people with washing, dressing, eating and other personal care. That would either be in a care home or in their own home with visits and support from carers.

Some of those people may also attend day centres but predominantly day centres are for people whose needs are less than these.

About half our budget goes on providing services for two per cent of the population – that is, vulnerable children and adults in our care.

The crucial point is that demand for this care is rising so we expect it to account for three-quarters of our budget by 2020 as the county’s population ages and grows.

The council’s budget will continue to reduce, while demand for care services goes up. The number of people receiving home care has nearly doubled (94 per cent) from 2011 to 2015. The number of children on child protection plans has risen by 71 per cent since 2011.

To meet this demand, we’ve already put an extra £7.5m in to child protection services. That figure is strikingly similar to the saving we may have to make on providing universal services in children’s centres.

The council is keen to stress that while it is our legal obligation to provide services to people who need care, it is also a moral obligation. These are the most vulnerable people in Oxfordshire.

Essentially we are having to save money from across all of our services to make sure these crucial services are as well funded as we can make them. That is why there are 95 savings options currently out to consultation covering highways, trading standards, fire and rescue, libraries, aspects of adult social care and many others.

We’ve already made a huge amount of savings that do not affect the frontline by massively reducing ‘back office’ costs.

We’re engaging ever more with volunteers to keep services running – more than 800 volunteers provided 22,000 hours of volunteering in our library service last year. We’re going to need more help from our communities who are clearly passionate about many of the services we provide – as they show through protest when they hear that the budgets for those services are potentially going to be cut.

None of this is easy, but our priority is providing services for the most vulnerable people in society. They are the people we have described above and we have legal and moral obligations to them.

These are not choices we want to make – but the reality of our financial position means we must make them nonetheless.