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Spending on early help services halves in decade

Spending on early intervention for services has halved over the last 10 years, charities have warned.

Between 2010 and 2020, local authorities in England reduced spending on early intervention services from £3.6bn to £1.8bn, analysis of council budgets by a group of leading children’s charities has revealed.

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%.

A thousand children's centres and 750 youth centres have been forced to close since 2010, estimates reveal.

Michelle Lee-Izu, Corporate Director, Development and Innovation at Barnardo’s said: “For many years, local authorities have been forced to make tough decisions, with rising demand for services and reductions in available resource.”

“As a result too many vulnerable children are having to reach crisis point before they can access support.”

“It is critical that children can access the right services at the right time to give them the best possible chance of a positive future.”

“Helping children and families early must be at the heart of the government’s strategy for ‘levelling up’ and at the heart of spending decisions to be made this autumn,” she added.

The analysis of local authority 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 circle.

Due to a lack of funding, they 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.

The analysis reveals that families in the poorest parts of England are suffering the most, with some councils reducing spending on early intervention services by over 80%.

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).

Overall spending on children’s services in the most deprived areas has fallen by 14% per child.

Analysis of late intervention spending reveals it has surged between 2010 and 2020, from £5.7bn to £7.6bn, a 34% 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.

This is against the back drop of the average annual cost of a child in care rising from £53k to £64k.

The group of charities 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.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have exacerbated problems for local authorities in terms of offering early intervention services for families over the last 15 months as councils have struggled to balance their budgets. 

The charities are urging the government to use the Spending Review expected this autumn to invest directly in services for children and families. New investment should be focused on achieving a genuine shift from crisis support to earlier intervention.

As well as significantly increased spending, the charities want the recommendations from recent and ongoing reviews of children’s services, such as the Best Start for Life Review and the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, to be implemented. 

Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said: “It is the human costs of these funding cuts that are really worrying. 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.

“We have heard of families being refused support because their problems were not ‘bad enough’ or their children were not going missing from home often enough.

“There is a real risk the situation will get even worse following successive lockdowns which have increased vulnerability among many children and young people and exposed them to new dangers.”

Chair of the Independent Review of Children's Social Care in England Josh MacAlister said: “This report is welcome and timely. The independent review of children’s social care made clear last month that 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,” he concluded.

All figures were taken from official Department for Education statistics and the annual returns that local authorities make on spending to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

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