Children’s social services in England have faced £4 billion worth of budget blackholes over the last six years with demand far outstripping council resources – and the North is worst affected.
Analysis by NationalWorld reveals spending on children’s services rose 1.6 times faster than budgets between 2014/15 and 2019/20 – despite councils upping the latter in an effort to keep up with spiralling demand to help at-risk children.
Earlier this month the Government launched a national review of the tragic murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, pledging to learn the lessons necessary to protect other children.
But social workers and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) say it can start by putting funding back into the pockets of the councils tasked with keeping children safe.
Cuts to benefits and family support services under austerity have heightened demand from vulnerable families, they said – and hindered councils’ ability to respond.
NationalWorld analysed annual budget and spending reports submitted by councils to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) – now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) – between 2014/15 and 2019/20. The MHCLG says figures before 2014/15 were not directly comparable.
We found that net spending on all children’s social services in England rose by 11.5% in that time, after adjusting for inflation, from £8.9 billion to £9.9 billion (in 2019/20 prices).
But budgets – already oustripped by spending – only increased by 7.1% during the same period, from £8.5 billion to £9.1 billion.
Councils collectively overspent by more than £4 billion in that time.
Five out of six local authorities (85%) overspent in 2019/20, up from 67% in 2014/15. Councils in Dorset have been merged into one in the analysis, to account for boundary changes in that time.
Councils in the North and London are seeing the greatest pressure.
In the North East, all 12 councils charged with delivering children’s services overspent in 2019/20. They also overspent by the greatest margin – spending was 13% higher than their budgets, versus an average of 9% across England.
Marcus Johns, research fellow at IPPR North, says research has shown councils in the North East have shouldered the “deepest cuts” from austerity.
Rising poverty combined with cuts to welfare, housing allowance, and to council-run services – such as for drug and alcohol programmes or support for parents – has contributed to deteriorating family lives and a rise in demand on social workers, he said.
“The whole context of the last decade has been pushing up demand in children’s social care,” he said.
“The relative fall in council spending on services was highest in the North East. At the same time you generally have higher rates of poverty, particularly child poverty in the North East.
“That does suggest overall that children in the North East are being disadvantaged.”
Between 2010/11 and 2017/18, the Government cut funding for councils by almost 50%, according to spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO).
The same report found that councils were being forced to cut back on preventative services to protect those they legally have to provide for children in the very greatest need, such as those taken into care.
“There is no choice for local authorities,” said Mr Johns. “They are having to cut more and more of the other services to keep supporting the social services that they are required to provide. It is not a choice they should have to make.”
The cuts have come amid a staggering increase in demand, with councils increasingly having to step in to protect children at crisis point, and huge rises in the number of children in care.
NationalWorld’s analysis shows spending on children in care has risen by 26% in just six years, while spending on safeguarding rose by 22%.
The safeguarding section covers the work of social workers dealing with at-risk children.
At the same time funding for Sure Start centres and early years services (for 0 to five year olds) has been cut by 44%, while services for young people, such as youth centres, have been cut by 32%.
In 2014/15, net spending on looked-after children and safeguarding accounted for 67p in every £1 spent by councils. By 2019/20, that had risen to 75p.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, warned in June of this year that there was an “urgent need” for more funding “both to keep children safe and to make sure they aren’t left behind in the nation’s” Covid recovery.
Final council spending figures are not yet available for 2020/21, but provisional reports suggest net expenditure across England rose again, to £10.5 billion (2020/21 prices). Councils had only budgeted £9.8 billion.
Dr Paul Shuttleworth, a social worker and researcher from the British Association of Social Work, said investment was “always missing” from discussions on children’s social work.
“There’s arguments about efficiency and sufficiency – we have to be efficient with funds, we know that, but there also has to be sufficient funding so that children can have the care and protection that they need,” he said.
“We need more time. We need more resources. These children deserve more time and more resources. And that’s how we can battle it so we aren’t always firefighting.”
Children’s charity Barnardos says without action to address funding shortfalls by the Government, children will fall through the gaps and their futures will be put at risk.
“The challenges facing vulnerable children have only intensified during the coronavirus pandemic, which is why we believe that investment targeted at helping families earlier must be at the heart of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ strategy,” said interim co-chief executive officer Lynn Perry.
A Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the challenges councils are facing, including the pressure on children’s services, which is why we are providing local authorities councils with £4.8bn in new grant funding to help maintain vital frontline services, including children’s social care.
“Our regional recovery fund is tackling the most pressing issues for vulnerable children, and we are making transformational investment in new social care placements, to increase quality and root out bad practice.
“We have also improved how safeguarding agencies work together and the Education Secretary has taken steps to ensure that we learn from these recent and shocking cases.
“There are clear processes in place to hold agencies accountable and ensure improvements are made where they are needed. The ongoing independent review of children’s social care will also address some of the major challenges facing the sector.”
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