Children’s services budgets are being diverted into children at crisis point while preventative services are being slashed, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.
Analysis carried out by The Institute for Fiscal Studies for the children’s commissioner revealed that almost half of the entire £8.6 billion children’s services budget in England is now spent on 73,000 children in the care system while the remaining half has to cover 11.7 million children.
Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The LGA has warned for some time that the current situation facing children’s services is unsustainable. Last year saw the biggest annual increase in children in care numbers since 2010, and councils are now starting more than 500 child protection investigations every day on average.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies research into the levels of government spending on children between 2000 and 2020, ahead of next year’s Spending Review, found that levels of government spending on children have been broadly maintained over the last 20 years.
Total spending on children from the main government departments which fund services for children – but excluding healthcare where data is limited – in 2017 was over £120bn or £10,000 per child under 18. Spending per child is 42% higher in real terms than it was in 2000–01, although 10% below its high point of £11,300 in 2010–11.
However, 72% of children’s services budgets go towards helping families in severe need. Mainstream and acute services, such as 4-16 education and support for children in care, are protected at the expense of targeted preventative services. There has been a “significant reorientation of spending” in recent years towards statutory help for children in crisis, yet overall children’s services spending has been largely frozen since 2009–10. Spending on preventative support, such as Sure Start and young people’s services, has consequently been cut by around 60% in real-terms between 2009–10 and 2016–17.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, responding to the IFS findings, said: “This analysis shows that while overall public spending on children has been broadly maintained over the last twenty years, millions of vulnerable children who are not entitled to statutory support will be missing out because of the huge cost of helping a small number of children who are in crisis.”
“While every child should receive the support they need, the economic and social costs of this current strategy are unsustainable. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support will last a lifetime. Every day we are seeing the consequences of helping children too late – in pressures on the family courts system, special schools and the care system and in the spiralling numbers of school exclusions and the consequent increase in younger and younger children linked to violent street gangs.
“I hope this analysis will help to move the debate on from one simply about the amount we spend on children, to a debate about how we spend it. Next year’s Spending Review offers an opportunity to step in and support these children falling through the gaps, avoiding government silos and designing cross-departmental services built around a clear identification of the unmet needs of kids. Spending allocations should be seen through the prism of the child, not the prism of which bit of Whitehall thinks it can spend it best,” she added.
The report adds that public spending on benefits for families with children, divided by all children in England, is currently £5,000 per child and will fall to £4,700 per child by 2019-20, reflecting a total 17% fall since 2009-10. This will leave spend per head the same as it was in 2006-7, and 33% higher in real terms than it was in 2000-01.
The IFS warns that benefit spending per pensioner in 2019-20 will remain at around £10,000, some 27% higher than it was in 2000-01. The rate of child poverty today is therefore roughly double the rate of pensioner poverty.
The LGA’s Cllr Watts said: “Councils across the country have worked incredibly hard to protect funding for the most vulnerable in our communities despite significant and ongoing government funding cuts, and continue to provide essential help and support for thousands of children and families every day.
“However this report paints a stark picture of the reality facing councils, who cannot keep providing this standard of support without being forced to take difficult decisions and cut back on early intervention services which help to prevent children entering the care system in the first place.
“It also highlights the growing pressures around supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities, which reinforces our call for an urgent review of how this provision is funded.
“Children’s services are being pushed to the brink, and face a funding gap of almost £2 billion by 2020 just to maintain current service levels. The Government urgently needs to commit to fully funding these services so that councils can manage the rising demand for help, while also providing the additional resources they need to support families before problems escalate to the point where a child might need to come into care,” he added.