A Brexit-driven political focus on “trade, economy and negations with the EU” is distracting attention from systemic failures to protect children’s human rights, according to a report from The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE).
CRAE’s ‘State of Children’s Rights in England 2017’ study published last week warned that ongoing local authority cuts threatened to undermine any potential benefits legislative reform via the Children and Social Work Act 2017 might bring.
The charity, which lobbies for the full implementation of the UN convention on the Rights of the Child within England, called for a statutory duty to be placed upon ministers to consider the impact of their decisions on children.
Experts told Community Care that the report underlined the “human costs” that would accrue without proper investment in children’s services.
CRAE’s report, which amalgamated original research and data from other studies, highlighted key areas of concern around children’s safeguarding, including:
- Local authorities being unable to meet their statutory duties to children because of budgetary pressures
- A five-year reduction of £1.7 billion in spending on early intervention services
- Increasing levels of neglect and abuse, as evidenced by figures for child protection investigations released this week
- Social workers having to work unpaid hours or clock on while ill to keep up with their caseloads
Among a series of recommendations, CRAE said the government should introduce a Children Act funding formula to distribute national taxation to councils according to local need, provide extra cash to authorities struggling to deliver early intervention services, and provide ongoing investment in social worker recruitment and retention.
Responding to the report, Alison Michalska, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said it underscored the urgency with which the government must address the funding gap faced by councils.
“The pressures local authorities face are such that there is no choice but to prioritise keeping children and young people safe from the immediate risk of harm, over providing early help and preventative services that we know can prevent problems from reaching crisis point,” Michalska said.
“The funding gap, if unaddressed, will only increase, resulting in greater fiscal and human costs in future.”
Action for Children’s head of policy and research, Eleanor Briggs, said: “Since 2010, the amount of money made available by central government for local authorities to pay for children’s services has fallen by a quarter.” Early intervention services such as family support had paid the “highest price”, Briggs added, with spending falling by 40%.
“Our research earlier this year found that up to 140,000 vulnerable children in England referred to social services are not getting help because their needs fall short of the criteria for statutory support,” Briggs added. “After their cases are closed to social care, the needs of this group would historically have been met by early help services – but as these have been reduced or closed, many now no longer receive any support.”
Briggs said that the government must now “sit up and listen” to the growing number of voices calling for action to address the funding gap for children services. “The consequences of continued underinvestment will be disastrous,” she said.
Temporary accommodation concerns
CRAE’s report drew attention to shortcomings in local authority policy that had been exacerbated by the housing crisis.
Almost a third of councils surveyed via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by the charity said they do not have a safeguarding policy that applies when transferring children from local authority housing to private-rented temporary accommodation.
Meanwhile more than half (56%) said they did not have one when transferring children to temporary or bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Several serious case reviews, including a recent one by Luton’s safeguarding children’s board, have raised concerns about how children living in insecure housing are protected – especially when they move between boroughs because of homelessness.
“The number of households placed in out-of-area temporary accommodation continues to rise — 7% from last year (from 20,660 to 22,050), [with] a staggering increase of nearly 300% since 2010,” the report said.
Mental health postcode lottery
The study also discussed the postcode lottery children and young people face around investment in and access to mental health services.
“Despite the additional £1.4 billion over five years pledged by the government in 2015 to transform CAMHS, a refusal to ring-fence this means there is wide variation in how it is being invested,” the report said. “FOI requests to clinical commissioning groups (CCG), local authorities and mental health trusts in England found that in 2016/17 only half of the CCGs who responded had increased their CAMHS spend to reflect their additional government funds.”
Briggs said it was a “cause for concern” that less than half of areas are expected to meet government targets for children and young people accessing mental health services by 2021.
“The government’s recent publication of a green paper to transform services for children and young people’s mental health is a welcome step,” she said. “But this now needs to be matched by the resources and investment to ensure all children have access to the support they need.”