Council spending on early support for vulnerable children has almost halved in real terms over the past decade, with families in the poorest parts of England hit the hardest, according to new analysis.
Taking into account inflation, councils in England spent the equivalent of £3.6 billion on early intervention services in 2010, falling 48% to £1.8 billion in 2020, the Children’s Services Funding Alliance said.
Families have been refused help because their problems are not “bad enough” and cuts to central funding is forcing councils to spend more on more expensive and disruptive crisis interventions, the charity alliance said.
Pro Bono Economics analysed figures from the Department for Education and Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government for Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau and NSPCC.
The report, seen by the PA news agency, found that some local authorities have cut early help spending by more than 80% in real terms between 2010 and 2020.
These include Sunderland (an 83% reduction), Walsall (81%), Stoke on Trent and Herefordshire (both 77%).
There is a real risk the situation will get even worse following successive lockdowns which have increased vulnerability among many children and young people and exposed them to new dangers
Mark Russell, The Children’s Society
The most deprived local authorities reduced early intervention spending by an average of 59% over this period, while in the least deprived local authorities the fall was limited to 38%.
The report also found that overall annual spending on children’s services fell by £325 million, with councils in the most deprived parts of England reducing their overall spending on children’s services by 14% per child.
Early intervention services help families before problems escalate, such as providing support for substance misuse, help with babies, respite care, and young offender and crime prevention services.
The charities say councils are trapped in a “vicious circle” where they are forced to reduce spending on early help and spend more on crisis interventions, which are more expensive and disruptive to children.
Late intervention spending has risen a third (34%) in real terms over the same period from the equivalent of £5.7 billion, taking into account inflation, to £7.6 billion, driven by a rise in children in care, the analysis found.
An approach centred on firefighting crises is not a strategy that protects children
Imran Hussain, Action for Children
The ongoing budget pressures faced by councils have been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, the alliance said.
The charities are worried that local authorities will not be able to cope with the additional need brought on by the crisis, and are calling for the Government to invest in early intervention services in the autumn spending review.
Mark Russell, chief executive at The Children’s Society, said: “We have heard of families being refused support because their problems were not ‘bad enough’ or their children were not going missing from home often enough.
“There is a real risk the situation will get even worse following successive lockdowns which have increased vulnerability among many children and young people and exposed them to new dangers.”
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, added: “It’s a moral disgrace and an economic waste that children are left to come to harm before they’re given the help they need.
“An approach centred on firefighting crises is not a strategy that protects children.”
Chairman of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England, Josh MacAlister, said: “There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more – the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long-term sustainability and better outcomes, or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate system.”
The charities said it is estimated that 1,000 children’s centres and 750 youth centres have been forced to close between 2010 and 2020.
Mother-of-four Victoria Brooks, 43, has two sons with severe physical and learning disabilities.
She said the support she used to receive from her local Action for Children-run centre before it closed in 2015 was “an absolute lifeline”.
She said: “If I hadn’t had their help, I’m sure I would’ve ended up with severe depression, or something worse – I can’t really picture what those early years would have been like for us a family without them.
“When you have children with serious additional needs, you want to blame yourself. You know deep down it’s not your fault but having professionals nearby you trust to support you meant everything.
“When my children’s centre closed, that all disappeared.”
The LGA said: “A total of £1.7 billion has been lost from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010, which has impacted on councils’ provision of early help and intervention services.
“By reinstating this funding the Government could ensure councils can help children and families earlier, rather than waiting for problems to reach crisis point.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “Keeping the most vulnerable children safe and well looked after is at the heart of our work, and this Government is already investing millions in the frontline charities directly supporting them, as well as championing family hubs to transform support available for families.
“Local authorities will receive an additional £1.55 billion of un-ringfenced grant funding this year, and we have made an extra £4.6 billion available in response to changing pressures including for children’s services.
“Our independent review of children’s social care, a manifesto commitment, is looking at how to reform the system to improve existing support for the most vulnerable.”