Children’s Fund programme managers found out about government
plans to cut their budgets over the next two years when a letter
landed on their desk four days before Christmas.
The letter from Tom Jeffery, the director of the government’s
children, young people and families unit, cast a shadow over the
festive period for many managers, as they faced up to telling staff
it was quite likely some of them would lose their jobs come
Between 2003 and 2006 a total of £600m was due to be ploughed
into the Children’s Fund. The letter suggests that part of the sum
originally earmarked for 2004-5 and 2005-6 is likely to be diverted
elsewhere by government ministers (news, page 8, 8 January).
“Ministers are considering the budgets across the directorate and
we won’t be able to let you know the outcome before January,” it
There was no indication of the level of the cuts, only a rather
weak commitment that next year’s budget would enable preventive
services for children and young people “to continue to be
This all comes just months after the debacle over this year’s
allocation, where the government “clawed back” unspent money after
assuming local programmes would still be underspent by the end of
the year. Programmes actually spent close to budget and Jeffery
puts the move down to an administrative error. He also reassured
managers that money had been found to prevent local programmes from
being forced to break contractual agreements with service providers
because of the clawback, as some had feared.
However, that’s where the good news ends. Jeffery admits the budget
cuts will result in a reduction in individual fund allocations –
budgets were set for three years at last year’s spending review –
and warns that new contractual commitments should not be taken
Sue Blake, the independent chairperson of the Essex Children’s
Fund, is worried that programme managers’ time will be taken up
with quarterly financial monitoring – a new requirement – at the
expense of canvassing service users’ opinions.
“That takes time. A deviation of managers’ time into answering
financial questions has a penalty in terms of the work they could
be doing in supporting new and existing services,” she adds.
Frank O’Malley, the independent chairperson of the Leeds Children’s
Fund, says the cut could take the flexibility out of the system by
channelling limited resources into more mainstream, established
“My fear is that the imaginative approaches to developing services
could be lost because they haven’t been running long enough to show
they really work. These are new ways of working, such as crime
reduction officers tackling health inequalities. We only have
anecdotal evidence that they work whereas you need a couple of
years’ figures to prove it,” adds O’Malley.
While many are reserving judgement until Jeffery announces what
each individual fund is to get, some are already preparing
themselves for the worst. Even the more optimistic believe it is
unlikely there will be any money available to set up new projects,
while others are worried existing projects could be forced to
Camilla Turnball, independent chairperson of the Milton Keynes
Children’s Fund, says the changes could mean all their programmes
are at risk. She adds that Milton Keynes had been authorised to set
up three-year agreements with service providers. “Now we are being
asked to walk away from these. Any cutbacks will have a severe
effect on their viability and there is a danger we could lose all
Chris Hindley, director of information services at the National
Youth Advocacy Service and programme manager for the NYAS-run
Birmingham signposting service, funded through the Children’s Fund,
says he has to look at reducing staff.
“A cut of more than 10 per cent would be catastrophic. A lot of our
costs are staffing and if we have to start making redundancies it
calls into question the viability of running the project from this
building which we have invested heavily in.”
The service provides a telephone helpline for young people. Last
June Hindley began recommissioning contracts for the service
because he thought he knew what his budget would be. “By September
we had a clear idea where we were heading – it was wonderful – then
to hear this was a real kick in the teeth. We have done the right
things and planned wisely only for the carpet to be pulled out from
under our feet. Working with the unknown is the hardest thing – I
have had to come up with 10 different costing scenarios,” he
If redundancies are made, telephone advisers will miss more calls
and young people will not be able to talk through problems, says
O’Malley has already calculated that 49 staff working across
Children’s Fund projects in Leeds could be affected by a cut in his
budget. And the longer the uncertainty drags on – “it’s looking
increasingly unlikely we will get a decision by the end of January”
– the more likelihood there is of staff leaving.
He says that the Leeds fund is guaranteeing staff a three months’
paid notice period (if jobs are affected by budget cuts) – even
though this will go beyond 31 March – to try and prevent them from
leaving beforehand, “just in case there is a last minute change of
heart and we can keep projects running”. This would be paid out of
reserves, adds O’Malley.
“I expect one or two of the programmes to close next year. It has
undermined the whole point of a three-year spending cycle.”
O’Malley says another consequence of the funding debacle is that it
could put people off becoming a Children’s Fund chairperson. “It
has turned the job into a bit of a nightmare. I suspect it will be
difficult to find somebody next year.”
All believe that the lack of communication with local managers
about the cuts and subsequent uncertainty it has caused has made
the situation even worse. “If we’d been consulted I think there
would have been a willingness to resolve things,” says Dave
Roberts, manager of the Devon Children’s Fund.
O’Malley also says the situation has started to undermine the trust
client groups have in service providers “and makes them think it is
another short-term initiative that is going to be taken
It is thought that the cash is going to be put into meeting the
policy commitments of the children’s green paper or to be refocused
on those aged 0 to five. Wherever it is going is of scant
consolation to Children’s Fund managers, staff and users.
Despite this, most still applaud the government for setting up the
Children’s Fund and recognise that it has enabled professionals to
reach a group of people who had been largely ignored. However, it
is always harder to give something up than if you’d never had it in
the first place, and Jeffery can expect letters from a lot of
disappointed managers when he reveals where the cuts will fall.
What is at stake
The prospect of cuts has caused uncertainty over the future of some
of the 150 Children’s Fund programmes nationwide and could threaten
valuable services for some of the hardest to reach groups.
The Children’s Fund was envisaged as a means of developing and
delivering innovative services to children aged 5-13 and their
families, bridging the gap between Sure Start and Connexions.
Central to its philosophy are the twin themes of partnership and
participation – of children, young people and their carers – which
together inform the programme of services and ensure these are
developed from as broad and well-informed a base as possible.
Programme managers fear this could be undermined by the cuts.