The Observer cite Sutton Trust research on Sure Start centres in an editorial on children’s services.
For decades, local councils have been responsible for maintaining the safety net of last resort for those most susceptible to falling through the cracks. Vulnerable children at risk of neglect or abuse, older people who can’t afford care, adults with disabilities, the homeless: all rely on local, rather than central, government for support. When councils fail in their responsibilities, the consequences can be horrific. Who can forget Baby P, the toddler who, among other injuries, suffered a broken back, a fractured shinbone and a ripped ear before he died at the hands of his carers in 2007? Or Victoria Climbié, subject to months of torture then murder in 2000?
So when a Conservative former children’s minister, Tim Loughton, warns that it is only a matter of time before we see headlines that echo the tragic cases of the past, we need to take heed. As we report today, councils in England collectively overspent their budgets for children’s social care by £816m last year. Spending on such care has risen by almost 10% over the past decade, despite the fact that central government funding for councils has been slashed by an eye-watering 49% since 2010.
These cuts are the consequence of the unnecessary austerity being pursued by Theresa May’s government. Since 2010, Tory chancellors have maintained that the country can’t afford to maintain its spending on services for the most vulnerable. It’s a barefaced lie: cuts to these services are effectively being used to pay for tax breaks for more affluent families and businesses, who don’t need them.
There is a double injustice. The most deprived areas – which have the highest level of need – cannot rely on the council tax and business rate revenue of more affluent areas. So it is here that spending on services has shrunk most: spending on children’s services in the poorest areas has fallen six times as fast as in the most affluent.
This leaves councils in deprived areas facing budgets a fraction of what they were a decade ago, but the number of children being referred to social services is up 100,000 since then. Nearly a third of councils say funding children’s social care is their most pressing concern, while the National Audit Office warned this year that up to 15 councils could go bust in the next few years as a result.
It is true that some of the extra load on social services may be as a result of councils taking a more cautious approach. The number of council care orders spiked by 21% the year after the announcement of Baby P’s death. Where justified, this is welcome. There is no power the state has that is more intrusive than removing a child from their family. Yet it is sometimes unquestionably in a child’s best interests, and sometimes social workers can be overly optimistic about the capacity of parents who are neglecting or abusing their children to stop doing so, with the result that children are left to suffer more damage at their hands than they should be.
But it would be preposterous to think this is the only explanation for the increase in cases being referred to social services. Social workers report that families actually now need to fall deeper into crisis before qualifying for help. There is a link between deprivation and contact with children’s services and thanks to benefit cuts, child poverty rates are forecast to reach record rates by 2022.
Moreover, as cash-starved councils have desperately tried to protect their emergency provision for children in most serious crisis, they have had to cut funding for the early-intervention services that prevent families ending up at the door of social services in the first place – by 40% on average. Austerity has ravaged the network of children’s centres that the Labour government set up to support families with young children – a third have closed since 2009.