A £1m overspend is being racked up every month by an under-pressure council service, a meeting has heard.

Children’s services at Cumbria County Council face a £12m annual overspend by the end of next month – up £2m since December.

The authority is legally bound to safeguard children but said rising numbers coming into council care and soaring costs was too blame.

The council has about 700 children in care. They are estimated to cost the council an average of £4,000 a month to “look after”.

The overspend was strongly criticised by Conservative county councillors but defended by Anne Burns, the Labour cabinet member in charge of overseeing the department.

Mrs Burns said nine out of 10 local authorities faced the same overspending on children’s services.

She told councillors: “What do we do if someone says that a child needs to go into care? Do we say ‘no, we’re sorry, we’ve overspent on our budget by £12m?’

“Do we tell them they have to continue to live in an unsafe situation? No we, humanely take these children into a safe place because we can’t leave them in a dangerous situation.”

Mrs Burns said companies had capitalised on the pressure facing councils and hiked charges to take children in.

She said: “If a child comes into the care system at 4pm on a Friday and you phone around to find a bed to place that child, the companies know that councils are desperate. They know they can charge a premium price, and they know we have to pay.”

The Labour councillor said a number of new initiatives, investment and early help for families was being trialled by the council to cut spending.

Lord Roger Liddle said the issue was not solely confined to Cumbria.

The Labour councillor for Wigton said: “The majority of children’s authorities are suffering from this situation – it is a national crisis. Why is it happening?

“The financial pressures that are being put on poor working families as a result of austerity. Old people have been protected and poor working families have been made to bear the burden which contributes to the breakdown in family relationships.”

Council leader Stewart Young, for Labour, praised Cllr Burns’ commitment to the role, while Tory opposition leader Cllr James Airey said the council needed to get “a grip”.

Conservative Councillor Hilary Carrick said the council had carried on paying “ever-increasing bills” and was “incapable” of tackling the cultural changes required, askingrns: “Why have they not focused attention sooner on providing customised support for those with the greatest need and why have they not reduced the numbers of young people coming into care?”