Leading children’s charities and local councils have called on the Government to urgently close the funding gap facing children and young people’s services as new research reveals a sharp rise in families reaching “crisis point”.
An open letter signed by five major organisations warns that children’s social care is being pushed to breaking point, with a £2bn funding gap expected to open by 2020. It urges ministers to “step up” and use the Autumn Budget to invest in vital services in order to save youngsters from serious harm.
The signatories, which include Barnardo’s, Action for Children and the Local Government Association (LGA), state that between them they have “spent years warning successive governments that a failure to invest in these vital services will have long term consequences” for the UK’s children and families.
The letter, seen exclusively by The Independent, comes as a report by three leading children’s charities reveals “crippling” central government cuts have left councils with no option but to close services designed to detect early signs of child neglect and abuse – forcing them to direct to a “crisis” fire-fighting model.
Demand for crisis support for children has risen sharply as council spending on services that are designed to spot signs of neglect and abuse early has fallen by 40 per cent between 2010/11 and 2015/16, the report shows. Central government funding for children and young people’s services has seen a real terms decrease of £2.4bn in that period, while local authority allocations for these services has fallen by £1.6bn.
At the same time, there has been a 108 per cent increase in child protection investigations, as demand for council help soars.
The research, from The Children’s Society, Action for Children and the National Children’s Bureau, also reveals stark geographical discrepancies, with the most deprived councils in England having cut spending on children’s services by almost a quarter (23 per cent) – six times as much as the least deprived councils.
The open letter to ministers reads: “Children’s social care is being pushed to breaking point, with an unprecedented surge in demand leaving services across the public, voluntary and community sector struggling to cope.
“We believe that all children deserve the chance of a bright future. That’s why we are uniting today to urge the Government to use the Autumn Budget to close the funding gap facing children’s services, which will reach at least £2bn by 2020.”
It states that the number of children needing child protection plans has nearly doubled over the past decade, and last year saw the largest annual increase in children in care since 2013. The organisations also highlight that local authorities overspent on children’s services by £365m in 2014/15 just to keep children safe, and a huge £605m the following year.
“Our children and young people deserve better than the gradual decline of services – particularly those services that help children early – that have been shown to make a real difference to their lives,” the letter adds.
“Councils and the voluntary sector are committed to getting the best for every child. Now we need the same commitment from our government, starting with urgent action through the Budget to give local services the resources they need to help children and families thrive.”
The number of young people subject to child protection enquires increased by 140 per cent – to 170,000 – in the past decade, according to research by the LGA earlier this year.
A separate study more recently revealed that benefit cuts and increased levels of poverty across the UK were the primary cause for this “unprecedented surge” in demand for children’s services, while a lack of resources to provide universal services like children’s centres and youth clubs also played a significant part.
In light of the new report, Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said Government cuts to children’s services budgets had been “nothing short of devastating”, and that services that could intervene early to stop problems escalating have been the hardest hit.
“Whilst more and more children are reaching crisis point, local authorities have found themselves less and less able to respond,” he said.
“All too often central government shrugs off responsibility for council spending decisions but the figures are stark and undeniable: councils are being denied the funding they need to provide safe, effective children’s services and spending on vital support is collapsing as a result.
“We are at a tipping point with more cuts yet to come. The Government must step up and give councils the funds they need to protect our children.”
Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive at Action for Children, said: “Crippling central government funding cuts have left local authorities with no option but to close early help services designed to spot signs of abuse and neglect and move to a ‘crisis’ fire-fighting model.
“Leaving local authorities without the necessary resources to help children and families at an early stage has a devastating cost, both in social and financial terms.
“With no long-term solution on the table, children’s services are on an unstable and dangerous footing. We’re calling on the government to prioritise the services children need before this crisis turns into a catastrophe for the next generation of children and families.”
In response to today’s report, Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said local authorities had worked hard to minimise the impact of these cuts, but “simply cannot” continue to provide adequate support for children and young people unless “urgent action” is taken to provide the funding necessary.
“With the number of children on child protection plans almost doubling over the past decade, councils are having to support tens of thousands of additional children each year while simultaneously managing significant reductions in central government funding,” he said.
“Last year saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010, and councils simply cannot continue to provide the level of support that these children and young people need without urgent action to provide the funding necessary to do so.”
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“With such high demand for child protection services, councils have been forced to scale back the early help that can make such a difference in reducing the need for this support in the first place.
“This report suggests that government funding for early intervention has fallen by £1.7bn since 2010, leaving local councils with the impossible task of attempting to continue delivering these services while also providing help and protection to the growing number of children at immediate risk of harm.”
A Government spokesperson told The Independent: “We want every child, no matter where they live, to receive the same high quality care and support. That’s why more than £200 billion has been made available to councils for local services, including children’s services, up to 2019-20.
“Councils have a duty to provide appropriate care for the children in their area, including responding to referrals. We are supporting them to deliver efficient services by investing £200 million in the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme – this includes projects providing targeted support for children in need.”