Philip Hammond has gone to great lengths to make clear that today’s Spring Statement was not going to be a major fiscal event, with announcements on tax and spending pushed to Budget 2018 later this year. However, diplomatic tensions with Russia aside, all eyes were on the Chancellor, in the hope he would hint, at least, at a brighter future for our children and young people. Today, unfortunately, he did not deliver.
Yes, the Chancellor told us there’s ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – with a welcome commitment to increase public spending from 2020 if positive economic forecasts bear fruit. Yes, we heard that real wages will begin to grow this year, thanks to lower inflation, which could mean more for families to make ends meet.
However, there was no sign that action will be taken now to address the urgent issues for children, families and the professionals that work with them every day.
Demand for child protection and welfare services is up. Since 2010, the number of children needing a child protection plan has increased by over a third. At the same time, local authorities are struggling to meet that demand, with a 24% real terms cut in funding for children’s services and evidence that reserves are being eaten up to meet need . It’s no wonder that four in ten local counsellors say a lack of resources is preventing them from meeting their statutory duties to children. It’s clear that local councils can’t wait until 2020. Their calls for up to £2bn to fill the funding gap in children’s services must be heard.
The ambition that every child should get the help they need early has been sorely undermined by closures and reductions, up and down the country, in services that can prevent families falling into crisis. Our own research found that spending on these services has gone down by 40 per cent since 2010. This means fewer children’s centre services, less family support and insufficient accessible care for children with complex needs. It’s vital that the autumn’s Budget 2018 and subsequent spending review includes a sustainable plan for funding these vital services, helping to reduce pressure on social care and the NHS.
And nowhere is early intervention more urgent than in relation to our children’s mental health and well-being. Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem, so the government’s proposals to work with schools are welcome. But, for those plans to reach more children and young people sooner – to reach more than a quarter of the country by 2023 indicated in the Green Paper – Budget 2018 must commit additional funds to help schools and local services turn the ambition into reality.
These challenges are compounded by poverty and deprivation, which will be a reality for more and more children. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that 4.3 million children will be living in poverty by 2020, and, today, more children growing up in poverty are in families that work. Waiting until the 2019 spending review to take action will be too late. Government must end the freeze on benefits and begin work urgently on a strategy to end child poverty.
Yes, today was not supposed to be a ‘fiscal event’ with new announcements on government spending. But it was an opportunity for the Chancellor to commit to action to address the urgent challenges facing our children and young people. Budget 2018 must deliver.