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Cheshire East Council’s children’s services department has overspent its budget for the fourth year in a row and the problem has been exacerbated by safeguarding issues because of Covid, writes Belinda Ryan.

The council as a whole underspent by £1.2m last year, mainly because projects could not be completed because of the pandemic.

But children and family services overspent during the 2020/21 financial year by £1.7m.

Cllr Steve Carter, vice chair of the finance sub-committee, said there may be a very good reason for the constant overspend, but it needed explaining.

Cllr Carter (Macclesfield Hurdsfield, Lab), said: “You alluded to the fact that it’s quite a difficult service with lots of additional variations on cost impacts over the year… but it’s an area that we really need to get a grip on, because they are regularly overspending.

“All the other service areas are keeping within budget but children’s services isn’t.”

He added: “I don’t think it would be unreasonable to actually get the chair of that committee, and also the officer in charge of that area, to come in and actually talk us through why they are persistently overspending within their budget area.

“I’m sure there is very good reason for it, but I think in terms of getting an honest picture about the way public money is being spent, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to come here, and it be put on our agenda, for them to actually talk through why, over several years, they’ve overspent.”

Conservative group leader Janet Clowes (Wybunbury) said there had been an increase in the number of children in care and that was costly.

“What Covid has identified for us is that we have an ongoing rise of children in care, and you don’t need many children in care to rack up quite a budget,” she said.

“And what we do know, that over Covid, was that in terms of safeguarding issues, that did exacerbate the problem.”

She added she agreed it was something the council needed to keep a close eye on.

Regarding the council’s underspend, Cllr Carter sought assurances that the council was delivering services as it should.

“[If] we’re not spending the money that we’re bringing in, then we’re not actually doing what the what the public want of us,” he said.

He said he knew there had been an issue with recruitment, which was one reason why the council has extra money, but added: “I would implore all these service areas to start recruiting and filling those, spending that money, getting people back out, doing the job of Cheshire East Council.”

Alex Thompson, director of finance and customer services, replied: “We know delivery of services was significantly deflected to manage COVID issues.”

He added recruitment had been difficult during the Covid period and the council was looking to employ more staff where needed.

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