Early help funding slashed by a half in a decade, and cut by 80% in some areas
Council spending on early help services to prevent children reaching crisis point has almost halved over the last decade, with the poorest parts of the country being worst hit.
A report published by a coalition of children’s charities reveals that between 2010 and 2020 local authorities in England reduced spending on early intervention services from £3.6bn to £1.8bn.
The research estimates that government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% from £9.9 billion to £7.5 billion in real terms between 2010/11 and 2019/20.
Families in the poorest parts of England are suffering the most, with some councils reducing spending on early intervention services by over 80%. Sunderland City Council faced the biggest cuts, with early help spend slashed by 83%, followed by Walsall Council (81%), Stoke-on-Trent City Council (77%) and Manchester City Council (75%).
The impact of the pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention services for families over the last 15 months as councils across the country struggle to balance their budgets.
An analysis of council budgets, commissioned by Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau and NSPCC, shows that local authorities are trapped in a ‘vicious cycle’.
Faced with a lack of funding, councils are forced to reduce spending on early support services which leads to a greater reliance on crisis interventions and care placements, which are both more expensive and more disruptive to children’s lives. Subsequently, demand for late intervention outweighs capacity, cost increases and authorities spend even less on early help.
The research, conducted by Pro Bono Economics, shows overall spending on all children’s services between 2010 and 2020 fell by £325m, despite there being a 4% increase in the number of young people across the country – with a similar rise in the number of vulnerable children.
The most deprived local authorities in the UK reduced early intervention spending by an average of 59% between 2010 and 2020, while in the least deprived local authorities the fall was limited to 38%.
It is estimated that since 2010, a thousand children's centres and 750 youth centres have been forced to close.
Analysis of late intervention spending consequently reveals it has surged between 2010 and 2020, from £5.7bn to £7.6bn – a 4% increase. Part of the reason for this is the rising expenditure of supporting children in care, with average annual costs increasing from £53,000 to £64,000.
With more families needing support during the pandemic, the group of leading children’s charities are “deeply concerned” that local authorities will not be able to cope. The charities believe it is essential the Government uses the Spending Review expected this Autumn to invest directly in services for children and families. They say the new investment should be focused on achieving a genuine shift from crisis support to earlier intervention.
Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, says there is a real risk the situation will get even worse following successive lockdowns which have increased vulnerability among many children and young people.
“It is the human costs of these funding cuts that are really worrying,” Russell said. “Behind the figures showing increased numbers going into care and becoming subject to child protection measures are heart-breaking stories of children facing sometimes horrific risks inside and outside the home, including neglect, abuse and exploitation.”
Imran Hussain, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action for Children, said it is a “moral disgrace” and an “economic waste” that children are left to come to harm before they’re given the help they need.
“An approach centred on firefighting crises is not a strategy that protects children. We will only be able to genuinely start preventing children coming to harm when we overhaul funding of early intervention services and can act quickly.”
Commenting on the data, the Chair of the Review of Children's Social Care in England Josh MacAlister said the report is “welcome and timely”.
“While costs are escalating, funding is increasingly skewed towards acute services and away from effective help. This report adds further evidence to the case for changing children’s social care and ensuring local services are designed to provide the early support families need to prevent them moving into a crisis situation.
“There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more - the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes, or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate system.”
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