The government has been urged to address the gap in funding for children’s social care services and put in place a sustainable long-term funding settlement for early help and preventative services by a group of MPs and peers.
The plea comes after an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary group for Children found that vulnerable children face a postcode lottery when it comes to the support they receive from children’s services.
Tim Loughton MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and former Children’s Minister, said: “Children and families around the country with the same urgent needs are getting significantly different levels of help, and in some case, no support at all.
“This is true for families who struggle to cope on low income, living in poor housing which puts their children’s health in jeopardy. It’s true for children who are harming themselves yet are kept waiting for treatment because they aren’t at immediate risk of suicide. These people need help now, regardless of where they live,” he added.
The inquiry found:
- Four out of five directors of children’s services say that vulnerable children facing similar problems get different levels of help depending on where they live.
- Children often have to reach crisis before children’s services step in.
- Decisions over whether to help a child, even in acute cases, are influenced by budget constraints.
More than four in five children’s services directors surveyed by the inquiry described a postcode lottery of support, where children facing similar problems get different levels of help early on depending on where they live. Almost two thirds said this is the case even when the child was at significant risk.
Concerns about variations between services were supported by the inquiry’s analysis of ‘threshold documents’, which set out how local areas must respond to children’s needs. Some of these documents differed notably from each other in the response they prescribed, including help for children who self-harm, those in families suffering domestic violence, and those who need support with housing problems.
Seventy per cent of the 1,700 social workers surveyed said the threshold for helping ‘children in need’ had risen in the last three years, with half saying the point at which a child protection plan was triggered had gone up.
Funding constraints are affecting day-to-day decisions about whether to intervene to support a child and budget pressures particularly undermined decisions about how to help a child early on. However there was evidence of financial constraints affecting decisions around safeguarding when a child was at risk of harm.
Tim Loughton added: “In some places, the pressure on children’s services is so acute it is leaving social workers feeling that the only tool available to them to keep a child safe is to remove them from their family. As a result, families may look at these skilled and caring professionals with mistrust. But this is wrong. It is the woeful underfunding by government of a proper breadth of social care interventions that is to blame.”
As well as addressing the funding gap in children’s services, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children recommends that:
- The government consults on how to introduce a legal duty on local authorities to provide early help to children, young people and their families, providing a statutory ‘safety net’ for these services
- The government should expand its review of children in need to gather evidence on thresholds for accessing ‘children in need’ support under s.17 and what underlies variation in the proportion of children designated ‘in need’ across the country.