Chancellor urged to level up local authority finances to help England’s poorest children

  • Cuts to council budgets coupled with a sharp rise in coronavirus infections threatens to push children’s services to breaking point
  • Children's charities call on Rishi Sunak to fill the funding gap resulting from a decade of under-investment and pandemi-related pressure

The Chancellor is being urged to ensure that local authority children’s services can give the most vulnerable young people the help they need during these unprecedented times. 

New analysis from five leading children’s charities (Action for Children, Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau and the NSPCC), submitted to the Treasury ahead of the anticipated Comprehensive Spending Review, reveals that even before the pandemic hit these services were facing a funding crisis.

Local authorities were operating in 2018/19 with £2.2 billion less funding for children than in 2010/11, and their decreasing resource was affecting their ability to support and protect young people.

The pandemic has placed these services under further pressure. Local authorities have had to spend an additional £136 million on children’s social care between March and July, even as their income from business rates retention and council tax has plummeted.

There are also signs that the pandemic has led to children being at greater risk of harm due to the perfect storm of increased economic and housing insecurity and stress at home; reduced oversight from professionals and other adults; and increased time online leaving some young people vulnerable.

Children’s charities say that now is the moment to make an investment in children’s social care that is sustainable; able to level up communities by distributing according to need; and delivered through a mechanism that will encourage early intervention.

Coronavirus has placed an already struggling system under unsupportable strain, and is likely to worsen the trend in spending that has seen early intervention services, which aim to prevent situations from reaching a crisis point, lose 46% of their funding over the last decade.

Instead, the ever-diminishing pots of funding available to local authorities have been increasingly spent on the services local authorities are statutorily obliged to deliver and fund.

Spending on these areas, like safeguarding and children in care, rose by 29% since 2010/11. This is partly due to the cost of individual interventions soaring (spending-per-head for Looked After Children was £10,000 more per child since 2010/11), and partly due to an increase in the number of children in care.

22% more children were subject to child protection plans in 2018/19 than in 2010/11, which some local authorities connect to the lack of early intervention work to prevent problems escalating.

However, this increased spending is not leading to improved outcomes for children. Research has highlighted the low educational outcomes for children who have been in contact with the social care system, and they are massively overrepresented in both youth justice and the adult justice system.

Analysis also reveals that these pressures have not been felt equally. Since 2010/11, central Government funding for local authorities with areas of high deprivation has fallen at twice the rate of those in the most affluent parts of England.

These are also the areas where children are facing the greatest challenges, with high levels of unemployment, free school meal eligibility and domestic abuse.

And the need, and poor financial situation, of these authorities is likely to continue to deteriorate: it is the areas with significant levels of deprivation that are most likely to be vulnerable to ongoing disruption from the pandemic.

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said:
“Children’s services were already on the ropes from a steady succession of cuts, but they now have the extra demands on them brought on by the pandemic to cope with. We fear that this added pressure could push some councils over the edge.

“In this context, the notion of intervening early to support children and families is being dropped, as services focus scarce resources on emergency cases. The government must step in and properly fund local authorities so they can reach out to children, young people and families before their problems escalate.”

Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, said:
“A decade of under investment by central Government meant local authorities across the country cut back on preventive and early intervention services while spending more on increasingly expensive care placements.

“The crisis will dramatically worsen this unsustainable situation as the risks to children increase while the financial impact undermines local authority’s ability to respond, especially in more deprived areas that have already experienced greatest losses in funding.

“The Chancellor must act decisively to rebuild the capacity of local areas to provide the crucial evidence based support services that will be fundamental to helping children recover from this crisis.

“Papering over the cracks of an underfunded system is simply not an option if the Government is serious about delivering a recovery that levels up for the children most vulnerable to the long-term impact of the pandemic”

Mark Russell, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said:
“Building back better needs to be more than just a slogan. The Prime Minister needs to put children at the heart of recovery, it is time for urgent investment in children’s services and to make sure the futures of young people from our most deprived communities are the top priority.

“These shocking findings tell us that the areas with the highest levels of children who need the support of social services are those where this help is most at risk owing to a decade of cuts.”

“This analysis also shows that this need is more urgent than before, particularly as these same are the worst hit by the Covid crisis.

“The levelling up agenda needs to be about more than roads and 5G – it needs to deliver sustainable investment in social infrastructure such as children’s centres, youth services and providing top quality support to children in the care system. In turn, these services will strengthen families, support children, and unlock the potential of young people everywhere”

Javed Khan, Barnardo’s Chief Executive, said:
“Even before the pandemic, too many vulnerable children were missing out on vital support. COVID-19 and the recession are driving many more families to breaking point, with mental health needs rising, growing numbers of children in poverty, and the prospect of even more children entering the care system. Particular groups of children, including those from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are at greatest risk.

"This is why Barnardo's is delivering a Government-backed programme called See, Hear, Respond, in partnership with more than 80 other organisations, to respond quickly to the needs of young people and their families during the pandemic.

“However, to achieve sustainable, lasting change for children, we need a longer-term funding commitment from the Government to invest in earlier intervention for families in need of help.

“But we also need to spend those resources wisely. That’s why Barnardo’s is taking a radical new approach - working with national and local partners and investing our own resource to co-design and deliver services that change children’s lives, and the system around them, for the better.”

Imran Hussain, Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “The coronavirus crisis has crashed into the lives of vulnerable families after a decade of decline in funding for early help services designed to help them before they reach crisis point.

“Now more than ever we need the Prime Minister to put his ‘levelling up’ agenda into action and he should start by adequately funding councils so they can deal with family problems at an early stage.

“It would be irresponsible to have an NHS offering only A&E departments but no primary care or public health services, yet this is the short-sightedness we’re facing in children’s services. A system geared only for crisis guarantees more children will end up in crisis.”