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Councils forced to cut spending on services for vulnerable children

Council spending on crucial services that help stop children reaching crisis point has almost halved over the last decade, with the poorest parts of the country being worst hit.

A report published by the UK’s leading children’s charities reveals that between 2010 and 2020 local authorities in England reduced spending on early intervention services from £3.6bn to £1.8bn.

The group of charities estimates that government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% from £9.9 billion to £7.5 billion in real terms between 2010/11 and 2019/20.

The impact of the pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention services for families over the last 15 months as councils across the country struggle to balance their budgets 

Early intervention services help children, young people and their families before their problems escalate – for example through substance misuse support; help for young parents with babies; young offender and crime prevention services; respite care for families and disabled children; youth services, children’s centres; and family hubs.

An analysis of council budgets, commissioned by Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau and NSPCC, shows that local authorities are trapped in a vicious circle. Faced with a lack of funding, they are forced to reduce spending on early support services which leads to a greater reliance on crisis interventions and care placements, which are both more expensive and more disruptive to children’s lives.

The research, conducted by Pro Bono Economics, shows overall spending on all children’s services between 2010 and 2020 fell by £325m, despite there being a 4% increase in the number of young people across the country (with a similar rise in the number of vulnerable children).

It lays bare the challenge of truly levelling up the country, with cuts falling most heavily in the poorest parts of the country, on the children and families who need the most support.

The most deprived local authorities in the UK reduced early intervention spending by an average of 59% between 2010 and 2020, while in the least deprived local authorities the fall was limited to 38%.

It is estimated that since 2010, a thousand children’s centres and 750 youth centres have been forced to close.

Just one example of someone affected by these closures is 43-year-old mum-of-four Victoria Brooks.

Until 2015 when her council was forced to close her local children’s centre to meet central government savings targets, she received early help support for her two sons, who have severe physical and learning disabilities.

Victoria said: ‘The support I used to get at the Action for Children-run centre in my village was an absolute lifeline.

‘The team were there to help me with anything I needed when I was pregnant with the boys and bringing them up, including helping me liaise with doctors to get the right diagnoses, securing appointments, signposting me to advice, and, critically, for giving me the confidence and emotional support I needed. I was even able to check in with the workers over the phone in the evenings and weekends if it was an emergency.

‘If I hadn’t had their help, I’m sure I would’ve ended up with severe depression, or something worse – I can’t really picture what those early years would have been like for us a family without them.

‘When you have children with serious additional needs, you want to blame yourself. You know deep down it’s not your fault but having professionals nearby you trust to support you meant everything. When my children’s centre closed, that all disappeared.’

girl covering her face with both hands

Analysis of late intervention spending reveals it has surged between 2010 and 2020, from £5.7bn to £7.6bn, a 34% increase. 

Part of the reason for this is the rising expenditure of supporting children in care, with average annual costs increasing from £53,000 to £64,000.

And with more families needing support during the pandemic, the group of leading children’s charities are deeply concerned that local authorities will not be able to cope. 

The charities believe it is essential the government uses the Spending Review expected this autumn to invest directly in services for children and families. That new investment should be focused on achieving a genuine shift from crisis support to earlier intervention.

As well as significantly increased spending, the charities want the recommendations from recent and ongoing reviews of children’s services, such as the Best Start for Life Review and the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, to be implemented.  

Mark Russell, chief executive at the Children’s Society, said: ‘It is the human costs of these funding cuts that are really worrying.

‘Behind the figures showing increased numbers going into care and becoming subject to child protection measures are heart-breaking stories of children facing sometimes horrific risks inside and outside the home, including neglect, abuse and exploitation.

‘We have heard of families being refused support because their problems were not ‘bad enough’ or their children were not going missing from home often enough.

‘There is a real risk the situation will get even worse following successive lockdowns which have increased vulnerability among many children and young people and exposed them to new dangers.’

Michelle Lee-Izu, corporate director, Development and Innovation at Barnardo’s said: ‘For many years, local authorities have been forced to make tough decisions, with rising demand for services and reductions in available resource.  

‘As a result too many vulnerable children are having to reach crisis point before they can access support.

‘It is critical that children can access the right services at the right time to give them the best possible chance of a positive future.

‘Helping children and families early must be at the heart of the Government’s strategy for ‘levelling up’ and at the heart of spending decisions to be made this autumn.’

Commenting on the Children’s Services Funding Alliance report, the chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England Josh MacAlister said: ‘This report is welcome and timely. The independent review of children’s social care made clear last month that while costs are escalating, funding is increasingly skewed towards acute services and away from effective help.

‘This report adds further evidence to the case for changing children’s social care and ensuring local services are designed to provide the early support families need to prevent them moving into a crisis situation.

‘There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more – the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes, or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate system.’

Responding to a report, cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:

‘A total of £1.7 billion has been lost from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010, which has impacted on councils’ provision of early help and intervention services.

‘By reinstating this funding the Government could ensure councils can help children and families earlier, rather than waiting for problems to reach crisis point. Rising demand for support and funding pressures have meant that councils have been forced to divert limited resources away from preventative services and into support for children most at risk.

‘Support for children and families goes far beyond the remit of children’s services. Councils have a vital role to play to ensure no child is left behind as we recover from the pandemic and have called for a cross-Whitehall strategy to improve children’s lives and put children at the centre of our COVID-19 recovery.

‘We want to work with government to ‘Build back local’ and help give all children a great childhood and help families to thrive, rather than struggle.’

Photo Credit – Caleb Woods

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