At-risk children 'left to fend for themselves' after service cuts

Funding for early intervention reduced by more than a quarter in five years, charity says

Thousands of children at risk of abuse and neglect are being left to fend for themselves because of substantial cuts to family support services over the past five years, a charity has warned.

Action for Children said its analysis of official figures published on Thursday showed council budgets for early help services designed to prevent families falling into crisis had shrunk by £743m – more than a quarter – over the past five years.

The cut includes a £450m reduction in Sure Start children’s centre budgets alone, which fell by 42% between 2013-14 and 2018-19.

Over the same period, spending on child protection and children in care rose by £597m (10%), which local authorities have said is a reflection of rapidly growing demand for emergency interventions driven by rising poverty levels and welfare cuts.

Imran Hussain, the director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “We know from our own work that without the safety net of well-funded early help services like children’s centres, thousands of children at risk of abuse, neglect or domestic violence are being left to fend for themselves until problems spiral out of control.

Budgets for children's early help services

“This failure to act with the right help, at the right time, will inevitably have devastating consequences for some children that last a lifetime.

“As these figures clearly show, it also makes no financial sense to cut early help as councils are then forced to spend vast amounts on expensive crisis interventions, ‘firefighting’ problems after they have escalated. The government needs to allocate additional, dedicated funding for children’s services at next year’s spending review. Without urgent action, we risk failing thousands more children across the country.”

The precarious finances of many councils have been blamed in part on the rising number of children being taken into care. Increased child protection spending is forcing some authorities to close Sure Start centres to balance their books. An estimated 1,000 centres may have closed since 2010.

County councils warned last week that accelerating demand for child and adult social care – which authorities have a legal duty to meet – would trigger nearly £1bn of “unpalatable” cuts to other services, from road repairs to bus subsidies.

The minister for children and families, Nadhim Zahawi, said the government had invested heavily in free childcare, with 1.3 million three- and four-year-old children receiving free early education and 15 hours a week of free childcare for deprived two-year-olds.

“A recent report showed that formal childcare can have a real benefit on their early social and emotional skills. We are spending more than any other government on early years education and childcare – around £6bn a year by 2020.

“Local councils can and should decide how to organise and provide the services for families in their areas, because they are best placed to understand how to meet the local needs – whether this is through children’s centre buildings or delivering services in different ways.”

The shadow children’s minister, Emma Lewell-Buck, said a Labour government would invest an extra £500m on Sure Start as part of a major expansion of early years support.

“Children’s services are a vital lifeline to thousands of vulnerable children and their families across the country, yet the Tories have imposed cuts to local government funding that are making it impossible for councils to deliver them.

“Every pound the Tories have taken means a service lost to the families who most need the support. Even worse, the cuts have been targeted at the early help that is most effective at transforming lives.”

Earlier this year the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said cuts to early support and youth services would result in an increase in vulnerable children “falling through the gaps” into care, school exclusion or gang violence.

The number of care applications in England reached record levels in 2017, while the number of children taken into care reached its highest level since 1989. There are about 73,000 children in the care system, up from 60,000 a decade ago.

England spends nearly half its entire children’s budget on those 73,000 children in the care system – leaving the other half for 11.7 million young people, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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