Children’s Fund projects face uncertain future

When the government announced last July that the Children’s Fund was to be extended for three years until 2011, initially there was relief among many programme managers that seven years of invaluable preventive work with children and young people aged five to 13 was not going to be jettisoned.

But there was a sting in the tail of the announcement: the promised £396m – £132m in each of the three years – would no longer be ring-fenced. Instead it will be routed through councils, with no guarantee that existing projects will be safeguarded.

Dave Roberts, Children’s Fund programme manager in Devon, says the government’s announcement was “slightly confusing”, with projects initially not realising that their future would now depend on being commissioned by their local children’s trust rather than accessing funding through a Children’s Fund partnership.

Voluntary sector fears

In many areas, confusion has since given way to concern about the future. A recent National Council for Voluntary Childcare Organisations survey found that 65% of Children’s Fund managers expect voluntary and community sector (VCS) services to be decommissioned from March 2008, and 58% of service providers foresee their project or service coming to an end then. Among VCS respondents, 38% expect to issue redundancy notices to staff working on Children’s Fund projects.

However, other providers are more optimistic, pointing out that the fund’s extension has given local authorities time to get their commissioning structures in place, and given voluntary sector organisations the chance to get used to the idea of engaging in a tendering process.

Andrew Gilyead, regional director of the Children’s Society, says that his charity has been largely successful in negotiations with partner local authorities in establishing “certainty about the future of preventive services for children, and certainty about what this means for staff”.

Diverted funds

But Kate Mulley, policy and research manager at children’s charity NCH, strikes a more critical note, warning that removing ring-fencing may result in money being diverted from key areas. “That could mean services being forced to close, and the most vulnerable children losing out,” Mulley says. “We want guarantees from both central government and local authorities that this will not happen. Existing budgets must be protected.”

Prior to the July announcement, Barnardo’s was involved in 41 Children’s Fund projects. Yet the charity’s head of corporate planning, Meg Fassam-Wright, predicts there will be a £1.6m reduction in its service delivery in England come March.

“Now that the money is no longer ring-fenced, some authorities are taking things back in-house,” she says, pointing out that others have indicated they will extend existing contracts, and that others are still undecided.

Local variation

Diana Read, chief executive of Ormiston Children and Families Trust, a large voluntary sector organisation providing family support services to several authorities in the eastern region, confirms that local authorities are at different stages of developing their commissioning processes.

Read says that some councils have extended projects’ Children’s Fund funding for a year without making organisations jump through hoops to get it, while others have been granted a six-month extension. One authority is keeping the voluntary sector on tenterhooks by stipulating that programmes wanting an extension must apply then wait to hear if it will be granted for three or six months.

In Devon, Roberts says that, following a review last year, all Children’s Fund projects had their contracts extended until September 2008 “with a view that, by then, the area’s Local Area Agreement priorities and joint commissioning plans and structures within the children’s trust would be established”. He says the council took this approach because it would have been counterproductive to allow projects to close through a lack of funding, only for the children’s trust to decide later that it wanted to commission similar services.

But not all local authorities have been as decisive or accommodating. In Warwickshire, the council decided to wind up local Children’s Fund projects. A spokesperson explains: “Many authorities are planning to mainstream their activities and discontinue with separate teams. We have decided to follow suit, while ensuring that the current work of the fund is mainstreamed into existing structures.”

By contrast, in neighbouring Worcestershire, the council has sought to protect the ethos of the Children’s Fund and ensure that money for preventive services is effectively ring-fenced by migrating it to a new department called Community Capacity.

Uncertain futures

There is less certainty about the future of Children Fund projects in Stoke-on-Trent. “Nobody knows what the situation will be post-April 2008,” says Children Fund programme manager Sue Thomas. However, she adds that she remains “cautiously optimistic” about the future of preventive services, despite the fact that the local authority has so far given “only an indication” that it might extend funding of existing Children’s Fund projects by six months.

In Lancashire, the Children’s Fund partnership acted swiftly following the July announcement by presenting a set of guidelines to the Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership on how future funding would be allocated “to ensure the good work is not lost”. Initially, only effective services vulnerable to closure were considered for further funding. A report to the CYPSP recommended that 29 services should be mainstreamed, 21 of which were deemed suitable for further funding.

Even if commissioning processes are successfully put in place, Read is concerned to ensure they are fair to the voluntary sector and not balanced in favour of local authorities, which she believes are often able to appear to deliver services cheaper because their management costs are hidden,

However, the overriding concern for programme managers and practitioners is that the three guiding principles of the Children’s Fund since its inception in 2000 – prevention, partnership and, uniquely, participation of children and young people in the design of services – may be lost. As Read warns, the speedy response that voluntary sector organisations can have when working in local partnerships will be replaced by a formalised commissioning process “which is at risk of being sterile in comparison to real partnership working”.

This article appeared in the 28 February issue under the headline “A farewell to ring fencing”

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