Bexley Council has predicted a ‘record’ overspend in children’s services of over £13million due to difficulties in recruiting staff and continued impacts of the pandemic.

Council officers said in a recent report that figures from February this year stated the deficit was forecasted to reach £13.3million by the end of the current financial year.

The majority of the figure was attributed to children’s social care, which contributed £12.4m of the projected deficit.

The topic was discussed at a Bexley Council meeting on April 24.

Labour Councillor Zainab Asunramu asked Conservative Councillor Philip Read, cabinet member for children’s services, what measures were being taken to combat the deficit, which she described as a ‘record overspend’ in the department.

Cllr Read said specialist placements and staffing budgets had contributed. Council documents from a cabinet meeting on April 16 stated that the use of agency staff as well as vacancies in the department had led to a forecasted overspend of £3.7m in staffing budgets.

Specialist placements were reported to have an overspend of £6.9m due to an increased use of independent fostering agencies as the council’s in-house service couldn’t handle the workload on its own.

Prices for residential placements in the past two years were also said to have increased to over £8,000 a week in some cases while the number of care leavers in semi-independent placements, instead of general needs housing, had also risen.

Cllr Read said £1.7m in savings had been identified to help reduce the black hole.

He added that monthly panels for care leavers and looked-after children were being used to review the highest cost placements and had already provided over £1.3m in cost reductions.

The cabinet member said: “We continue to see significant pressures on the service and those pressures have arisen because of the impact of the pandemic.

"However, there are early indications that the numbers of contact and referrals to our children’s social care service are reducing.

"It is still very early days and I do not want to presume anything but those [figures] over the last few months do appear to be moving back towards the levels seen immediately pre-Covid.”

Education also contributed to £945,000 of the overspend, just over a third of which consisted of special educational needs transport.

Council documents said this was due to new pupils with a high level of needs requiring assistance and eight new routes that had recently started to bring pupils to a new special needs unit.

The budget was reportedly expected to be brought back in line with the financial strategy for the upcoming year.

The overspend projection comes alongside Bexley Council publishing its priority action plan to improve special educational needs and disability services offered by the council and its partner, South East London Integrated Care Board.

The plan was approved by Ofsted and the Department for Education on April 16.

The approval came after the department was given the worst possible rating in a report from February this year.

The partnership said in a statement last week it planned to continue working to prioritise actions to secure immediate improvements in the services for children and their families.

The projected children’s services overspend comes as part of an overall forecasted budget deficit of £8.6m for Bexley Council.

Officers at the meeting on April 16 said that underspends in the corporate budget of £8.8m had mitigated deficits elsewhere and the authority’s financial planning reserve would be used to mitigate the overspend if necessary.