Ministers talk up benefits of early intervention

Government talks up early intervention, but councils are unimpressed with funding arrangements. Judy Cooper reports (Picture: Rex)

(Picture: councils have been left trying to work out how they might pay for early intervention services in the future. Credit: Rex)

Government talks up early intervention, but, finds Judy Cooper, councils are unimpressed with funding arrangements

Ministers were keen to highlight their commitment to early intervention at last week’s National Children and Adult Services Conference in Manchester.

Sarah Teather, children and families minister, told delegates: “Early years matter and early intervention matters. That’s why we’ve created a dedicated early intervention fund that joins together lots of little pots of money to give you more flexibility to tackle this problem.”

She maintained that despite it not being new money, removing the ring-fencing meant councils would find it more useful in funding early intervention.

Yet informal chats with directors of children’s services at the conference revealed a far from enthusiastic response to the grant.

One director pointed out that the grant wouldn’t actually save a lot of early intervention projects in social care because almost all of the funding in it was committed to government priorities such as Sure Start and early years childcare: “Until we know exactly what existing services the money covers, it’s difficult to know how useful it’s going to be.”

The bulk of the £2bn grant is made up of the £1.3bn funding for Sure Start children’s centres. It will also include funding for disadvantaged two-year-olds to receive free child care, as well as the current funding for teenage pregnancy, antisocial behaviour and helping young people into education, employment and training.

Teather has made it clear that despite the lack of ring-fencing, the Sure Start money needs to be protected. “Councils would be very foolish not to fund Sure Start children’s centres since much of the policy coming down the track depends on them as a hub of services,” she told Community Care later.

Councils are also hampered by the fact the Department for Education has yet to reveal the full list of the existing pots of money which will make up the grant. It also has two reviews in the pipeline – Labour MP Graham Allen‘s commission on early intervention and the Munro review of child protection – both of which are likely to make recommendations on early intervention which require funding.

This, combined with the fact that the cuts to local government funding are front-loaded, forcing the most savage cutbacks in the first two years of the spending review period, is a killer, according to Matt Dunkley, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

“The uncertainty about the grants is unhelpful and the phasing of the settlement with the upfront cut next year is particularly unwelcome. That part of the settlement has been disastrous in terms of the challenge we face.” Although he welcomed the principle of the new early intervention grant, he said he would “save that judgement until I see the numbers”.

As one London DCS said: “Early intervention is important but the savings won’t be felt until five years down the track. The front-loading of the cuts means we have to target areas that can make us short term gains, such as focusing on keeping teenagers out of care since they need the most expensive placements.”

Perhaps the silver lining might come from both the Allen and Munro reviews. Allen will report on alternative forms of funding that early intervention programmes could attract, such as social impact bonds where private investors provide funding for programmes in return for outcomes. In conversations with Community Care, Allen appeared confident that the City would be willing to invest in such projects.

Munro is also looking at how universal services might take on more early intervention work, by building on the common assessment framework, which would not use the social care budget.

The key question is where social workers will fit into all of this. While some children’s services directors and councillors foresee social workers being pulled back to focus only on child-protection, there is an argument for more social workers to be embedded into universal services so teachers, nurses and the police are better able to participate in early intervention.

As Eileen Munro said in her session at the conference, “while universal services are very good at picking up non-parent problems, they find it more difficult to differentiate between the abuse or neglect that is low level and that which is serious”.

Even in early intervention social workers possess the key skills needed for services to be effective – but they are a scarce resource councils will have to start using imaginatively.

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