Three-quarters of local authorities are overspending on their children’s services budgets and services are being pushed to “breaking point”, council leaders have warned.
Analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA), published today, found that councils spent £605 million more than was budgeted on children’s services in 2015-16.
The association is now warning that pressures on children’s services are becoming unsustainable, and predict that there will be a £2 billion funding gap by 2020 unless extra resource is made available.
“The huge financial pressures councils are under, coupled with the spike in demand for child protection support, mean that the limited money councils have available is increasingly being taken up with the provision of urgent help for children and families already at crisis point, leaving very little to invest in early intervention,” the LGA said.
The predicted 2020 funding shortfall was first highlighted in the LGA’s submission to the 2016 Autumn statement. It calculated this by projecting how children’s services costs would rise in line with demand, inflation and population growth, on the one hand, and what would happen to funding levels, on the other.
Councils currently spent £11.1 billion a year on children’s social care and education services, and the LGA estimated that by 2019/20 a combination of increased costs and reduced grants would leave them £1.894 billion short.
This is not the first warning over the state of children’s social care funding. Late last year the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said councils were relying on “unstable” sources of funding, and warned of an approaching “tipping point” for services.
A survey carried out by the ADCS, and answered by 69 councils, indicated there would be an 8% reduction in children’s services budgets between 2015-16 and 2016-17, with leaving care support services and asylum seekers likely to be hit.
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said the sheer amount councils were overspending by demonstrated the scale of the “crisis” faced by children’s social care teams.
Watts criticised £500 million of cuts to the Early Intervention Grant since 2013 as something that had made a difficult situation worse. The grant was instrumental in paying for early support services like children’s centres and drug and alcohol misuse services for young people.
As a result of the cuts, Watts said councils “cannot afford” to invest in early intervention at the expense of child protection services, and have been forced to close hundreds of children and youth centres since 2012.
“The reality is that services for the care and protection of vulnerable children are now, in many areas, being pushed to breaking point. Government must commit to the life chances of children and young people by acting urgently to address the growing funding gap,” Watts said.
A government spokesperson said councils will receive £200 billion for local services up to 2020 as part of a “historic four-year settlement which means councils can plan ahead with certainty”.
“Councils are doing excellent work, spending more nearly £8bn in total last year on children’s social care, but we want to help them make sure they do even more. That’s why we set up the our £200 million Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to help them develop new and better ways of delivering these services,” the spokesperson added.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the LGA’s analysis, when read with recent research that showed that half of social workers wanted to leave the profession, meant the government had to act.
“The volume of referrals, high thresholds and the complexity of need and support for children, families and adults is ever increasing,” said BASW chief executive Ruth Allen. “BASW members are reporting high caseloads, finite resources and not having enough quality time to undertake direct work with the children and families they serve.”
“We urge the government to meet collectively with BASW, the LGA and other key organisations to discuss how we put vulnerable children, families and adults at the heart of government funding policy and invest in good quality social work and the social care workforce,” she added.
Chloë Cockett, policy and research manager at charity Become, said children in care feel social workers don’t have enough time to spend with them, are changed too often and their placements are unstable.
“These are all symptoms of a system under pressure, and which all have an impact on the lives of children who are cared for by the state,” Cockett said.
She added: “We have to ensure that all children get the support they need to thrive, both in and out of the care system, and we urge the government to reassess the way that it is currently funding children’s social care and ensure that local government is able to support all children properly.”