The Autumn Statement provided little help for local authority services aimed at vulnerable children, argues Anna Feuchtwang.
For those of us expecting a very sombre occasion last Wednesday, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review provided some surprises. Rather than giving in to the NHS call for an additional £4bn, the chancellor gave the health service £6bn. Rather than just alleviate the pain of tax credits cuts for working families, he reversed the plan completely (although the cuts will still hit down the line under Universal Credit). This was all welcome for those who depend upon a national health service struggling to meet rising demand and for the families who were expecting to have to cope with a sudden average cut of £1,300 to their yearly household income.
However, the lack of any clear vision or investment plan for children's services in the Spending Review was a real blow for children’s well-being, and for society as a whole.
Too many young children are starting life on the back foot – one in ten children starting school are obese and four in ten do not reach a good level of development at age five – and the gap between rich and poor and between the English regions persists and is unacceptable. We know that demand for children's services is increasing, with the number of children in care at a thirty year high and similar increases in child protection cases.
In this context NCB had hoped to see additional investment for children in care and child protection services, action to help local authorities protect early intervention services that families need and a sign of real commitment to building up public health service provision. Disappointingly, our expectations were not met.
Commitments around social care spending were focused firmly on adults, with a power for local authorities to increase council tax to raise funds for adult social care and an increase in the Better Care Fund, promoting greater join-up across health and social care. There is no equivalent fund to enable services to work together around the needs of children. And it is not clear whether these measures, along with the ability to retain more of their business rates, will help local authorities address the funding gap left by a 24 per cent cut in the central government grant.
Funding for public health – now sitting with local authorities – will be reduced by 18 per cent by 2020-21, which NCB estimates equates to a cut of over £500 million per year, putting pressure on health visiting, school nursing and sexual health services – support that has the potential to make a permanent reduction in demand on NHS care. An announcement that gained little attention was the planned £600 million cut to the Education Services Grant, funds that go to local authorities to provide education welfare support and health-related services through schools, important for keeping children on track when they are growing up in complex circumstances or with additional therapeutic needs. This is on top of cuts of more than 50 per cent in government funding for local authority early intervention services over the last five years.
So while Wednesday’s news was better than had been trailed by the Chancellor, the implications for children and families continue to be a cause for serious concern. NCB will continue to call on government to transform services for children so that we can intervene early to stop problems becoming crises. Otherwise, I fear, at Spending Review 2020, we’ll still be talking about an underfunded NHS and adult social care services struggling to cope with demand.