After all the post-election talk of child protection taskforces, reforming failing children’s services, fixing the care system, strengthening special guardianship assessments, and David Cameron’s increasingly strident rhetoric on wilful neglect and adoption, the government’s comprehensive spending review and Autumn statement passed without mentioning children’s services.
In fact, the only nod to the sector – other than the already announced expansion of the controversial Troubled Families programme – was the protection of the Department for Education’s central children’s services budget, which will be kept at more than £300 million per year in cash terms, though this would represent a real-terms reduction.
More broadly, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said central government funding for local councils will fall by 24% by 2019-20, a £4.1 billion cut, which occurs in the context of “almost £10 billion in further demand-led cost pressures facing councils by the end of the decade”. The central government grant the Department for Communities and Local Government gives to councils will fall by 56% by 2019-20.
When all sources of local government revenue are taken into account, budgets are set to fall by 6.7% in real terms from 2016-17 to 2019-20. But this figure understates the impact of the spending review on all services other than adult social care, including children’s services. The chancellor said that authorities would be able to raise council tax by an additional 2% a year specifically for adult social care, raising an estimated £1.7bn a year by 2019-20; adult care would also benefit from extra money through the Better Care Fund, which will reach £1.5bn by 2019-20. This led chancellor George Osborne to claim real-terms spending on adults’ social care will have increased by 2020. But no similar relief was afforded to children’s services.
The £300m central budget for the Department for Education will be used “to help drive up social care workforce standards to improve support for vulnerable children”. It has previously funded the Adoption Reform grant, and is used for programmes to support vulnerable children, children with special educational needs and disabilities and children in care, but this does not do anything to mitigate funding cuts for frontline services under severe pressure.
Care applications could hit record levels this year, the number of looked-after children is at its highest level for 30 years, referrals for child sexual exploitation rose by almost a third last year, and just yesterday a Community Care investigation revealed how councils overspent by £8m in 2014-15 on section 17 support as social workers buy families items such as nappies, clothes and household appliances.
The number of children on a child protection plan at 31 March 2015 rose compared to the previous year, though there were a slight fall in referrals to children’s social care in 2014-15, and a Community Care survey found 72% of children’s social workers did not feel they had enough resources to protect children.
The chairman of the LGA, Lord Porter, said yesterday: “It is wrong that the services our local communities rely on will face deeper cuts than the rest of the public sector yet again.”
‘Doing more with less’
“Local services which people cherish will have to be drastically scaled back or lost altogether as councils are increasingly forced to do more with less and protect life and death services, such as caring for the elderly and protecting children, already buckling under growing demand,” Porter said.
Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT Fostering and Adoption, says the spending review shows: “As ever children’s social care is the poor relation to education and health.”
Responding to the review, Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), says local services can’t afford more cuts.
“The fact is we cannot meet the level of budget reductions outlined today through efficiencies alone and many local authorities across the country are faced with the reality of making real cuts in vital front line services,” O’Sullivan says.
She adds: “The government must recognise that local authorities offer a connectivity between children, their families and their local area and play an important role. We await more detail in the form of the local government settlement where it will become clear as to how this will impact on the vital services we provide for the most vulnerable children, young people and their families.”
The full local government settlement will be set out in December.
With such strong government rhetoric on adoption, child protection and the care system in recent months, should the sector have expected more than a potentially serious cut in funding?
“Increasingly we know that there is a disconnect between the Prime Minister’s statements and the actions of his government, and the consequence is that children, families, disabled adults and older people who need help are being left stranded,” argues Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University.
Jones says the government has undermined the safety and welfare of children, and that the Prime Minister’s “apparent concern to improve the lives of children in care and also enhance child protection increasingly rings hollow. His chancellor piles the pressure on to local government through further cuts, and social workers have the prospect of bigger workloads.”
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers, says the lack of announcement for children’s services is “really disappointing”.
“There needs to be greater spending, this needs to be a priority, and yet [there was] complete silence in the comprehensive spending review,” she adds.
“The comprehensive spending review in terms of completely ignoring child protection and additional resources for children in residential care is a message about vulnerable children and where they sit on the landscape. I think it’s quite a resounding message.”
There will be relief for some service users from the reversal of tax credit cuts, Elvin says, and that may have a positive impact on relatives who take out special guardianship orders. However, Elvin had hoped for something definitive on the post-adoption support fund.
“TACT would like to see this extended to those taking special guardianship orders as well, but at the very least it is vital that the Department for Education give local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies certainty on this to allow for planning of service provision capacity,” he says.
Mansuri also questions the government’s willingness to support the Troubled Families programme – which has recently been criticised for being “too good to be true” – rather than deliver extra for child protection.
She says: “I think we want an even handed [approach], if they can say they will commit millions to the Troubled Families scheme and keep championing that then they need to champion child protection services, especially the mainstream services. They are not luxury items – they are essentials. If they are committed to improving everything then they need to make sure the necessary resources are there to support that and that’s why I think a lot of us are very disappointed today.”
Other spending review announcements:
A £600 million investment in mental health services
Investing in the Troubled Families programme to help 400,000 families by 2020
The government will devolve and reform increased funding for managing temporary accommodation, by 2017-18, with the aim to give local authorities more control and flexibility
The government will increase the funding available to invest in ways of preventing and reducing homelessness. An increased level of funding will be devolved to local authorities to invest in preventing homelessness
£40 million will be invested in services for victims of domestic abuse