Urgent investment needed in children’s social care as serious harm rises by a fifth

Council leaders are calling for urgent investment as new research predicts a £3bn funding ‘black hole’ next year alongside serious child-related incidents reported by councils rising by almost a fifth in the past year.

27/08/21

Urgent investment needed in children’s social care as serious harm rises by a fifth

Councils in England, Wales and Scotland are grappling with huge budget deficits of almost £3bn for the next financial year, according to new research.

According to trade union body UNISON, the record shortfall – totalling £2.996bn – in 2022/23 will lead to service and staff cuts at local authorities across Britain unless the Government urgently finds the money to protect communities.

Many councils have already suffered massive cuts to services in recent years, and UNISON says any further reductions would “strip even more essential services to the bone or remove them completely”.

Hampshire County Council is grappling with the largest budget deficit and faces making more than £65.9m savings next year, while Leeds City Council and Kent County Council have deficits of £65.7m and £64.6m respectively.

UNISON general secretary, Christina McAnea, said the funding shortfalls will result in cuts that are likely to hit the poorest in society hardest.

“Children struggling in class won’t be able to get the extra help they need to succeed. Families of the elderly and people needing support will be denied the services on which so many of them rely. Access to much-loved parks, libraries and community facilities are at risk of being taken away.

“The Government must step up and help local councils desperately trying to keep afloat. If Boris Johnson is serious about levelling-up, this money must be found. Ministers cannot allow a two-tier society to develop where some of the most in need are left behind.”

The research follows an announcement earlier this week from the Local Government Association (LGA), which said it is extremely concerned about children’s safety amid extra pressures on families during the pandemic, with acts of abuse more likely to go unseen “behind closed doors” during successive lockdowns.

It says that despite pressures on funding, councils have tried to protect budgets for the services that protect children, investing an additional £1.1 billion over the last two years by diverting funding from other local services. Despite these efforts, soaring demand for safeguarding services means councils still overspent their children’s social care budgets by £832 million in 2019/20.

Serious incident notifications were up by a fifth since the start of the pandemic, new Government data has shown.

Between April 2020 and April 2021 there were 536 serious incident notifications – 87 more than the previous year.

The largest increase in the total number of serious incident notifications (60) occurred during the first half of the year compared with 27 in the second half of the year.

The rise in 2020-21 follows a fall of 49 notifications between 2018-19 and 2019-20 – from 498 to 448 notifications. The longer-term trend shows that notifications have fluctuated between 2014 and 2021, but overall there has been an increase of 151 notifications between those time-periods.

The number of notifications relating to child deaths also increased by 35 to 223, making up 42% of all notifications. Notifications relating to serious harm increased by 31 to 284 in 2020-21.

The LGA says this is clear evidence of the urgent need for the forthcoming Spending Review to invest further in children’s social care. This includes sufficient funding to provide preventative and early help services to help avoid situations escalating into acts of abuse and harm on children and young people. The LGA has repeated its call for the £1.7 billion removed from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010 to be reinstated.

The LGA is also calling for a cross-Whitehall strategy that puts children and young people at the heart of recovery and ensures local safety nets are properly resourced and well organised.

It says the Government’s independent review of children’s social care is a vital opportunity to help ensure sufficient resources are available to give all families and children the support they need and deserve.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said the rise in serious incident notifications is particularly harrowing and a huge cause for concern.

“The pandemic has put extra pressure on families, particularly those living in difficult circumstances, which can fuel harmful acts of abuse or neglect on children. Councils have been working hard with their partners to identify this and provide the help children need, but it is vital that children’s social care services are funded to meet this need.

“The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has already identified that there is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more to keep children safe. The Government must heed this warning.

“We also want to work with government to produce a cross-Whitehall strategy for children and young people, clearly articulating the role that all departments will play in keeping children safe and well. It is only by working together that we can effectively safeguard our most vulnerable young people.”

Commenting on council budget deficits, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) Vice President, Steve Crocker, said the impact of rising council deficits on children’s services cannot be overstated.

“Council funding was in a parlous state before the pandemic hit with local authorities having had their budgets cut by around half over the last decade. The past 18 months has created a perfect storm for our finances as costs have significantly increased and many vital income streams have reduced. Indeed, research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted that councils faced a £2bn funding shortfall in the previous financial year to deal with the costs of the pandemic.

“Local authorities have sought to manage these pressures but in order to ensure our communities thrive in a post Covid-19 world we need proper, sustainable, and equitable funding from central government. If we don’t get the funding we need, councils will have to make difficult choices about the future of valued local services and exhaust their reserves when we should be focussing efforts on the continued effect of the pandemic and helping children, families and communities recover.

“Councils have worked hard to manage demand and protect the most vulnerable, but they have been left with no other option but to perversely cut the very services that enable us to intervene early before crisis hits. This is a false economy and is storing up huge financial and human costs for the future. Now more than ever we need to work with children and families who are at risk of poor outcomes at the earliest possible stage, but only with adequate long-term national investment can we continue to provide this vital support.”

View a breakdown of the budget shortfalls for each council: https://councilcuts.unison.org.uk/data-visualisation/p/1

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