Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is a member of Rother District Council.

I was recently approached by a local charity, Home-Start, to support its application to Rother District Council for a Community Grant. As expected, the application was declined as it did not match the criteria for funding: this type of funding falls within County responsibilities. As the charity is desperate for funding, it had nothing to lose by making the application. Many of our charities and voluntary organisations are at risk without government funding and it would be a tragedy if, under a Conservative Government, many had no other option but to close.

Home-Start delivers a practical and emotional support network within struggling families’ own communities. It is “a local charity, training local people, to support local families“.  Volunteers are trained by experienced staff members and visit families in their own homes.  The volunteers develop relationships with the families built upon trust, providing an essential service not only to the families, but also to local authorities and communities. Its services are in demand because many struggling, vulnerable families do not seek the help of social services for fear of state intervention and the possibility of their children being removed from their care by social workers.  The charity’s focus is on early intervention for pre-school children and aims to ensure that, with the right support, children are given the best start in life, improving children’s opportunities to fulfil their potential and contribute to society.

Home-Start has been providing contracted services to East Sussex County Council (‘ESCC”) for children with additional needs showing early signs of vulnerability. Early intervention can make a significant difference to a child’s future and a family’s wellbeing. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, recently praised Home-Start, stating that it ‘makes a significant improvement to people’s parenting ability, and helps them access services’ and ‘meet the needs of their children’.

So I was concerned to learn that ESCC will be cutting the contract worth £150,000 with Home-Start. This means that, unless the charity can raise an equivalent sum (on top of the additional £60,000 it already fundraises to meet local need), it is more than likely, probably inevitable, that the charity will close, leaving a gap in services available to families. I am unaware of any reason for the cut in funding, other than the necessity for ESCC to cut most of its voluntary sector funding in order to maintain its own frontline services as far as possible.

Whilst I have been informed by the Director of East Sussex Children’s Services that this decision will be kept under review, my concern is that if Home-Start’s services are urgently needed in a year’s time, it might not be in existence. The resulting gap in services may well be unbridgeable and it is our already vulnerable, at-risk children who will suffer. Councils all over the country are trying to protect frontline services by making cost savings. Some councils are cutting back on early intervention services, early years support and children’s centres. Many Councils are cutting back on voluntary sector funding, as ESCC is having to do (Community Care, Andy McNicoll, 16.04.2014).

Reduction in funding from central government leads to a reduction in the services available at local level. The issue is that volunteers need guidance and support and this requires funding: if the funding is not available, there will be no volunteers to fill the gaps.  I understand the challenge ESCC and many Councils have in balancing their reduced budgets, but I am concerned about the long term impact of cutting services which support vulnerable families with emerging issues. Without a buffer like the Home-Start home-visiting service, which can nip issues in the bud, a family’s problems are likely to escalate and lead to the need for more expensive, long-term, ongoing support and intervention requiring social workers and multi-agency meetings.

Removing children from the care of their parent(s) is a draconian measure. We must not overlook or waste any opportunity to step in and support families as early as possible to prevent issues escalating to such a level where State intervention is a necessity. Home-Start’s plight struck a chord with me because of my experience in my other public service role, as a magistrate in both the Family Proceedings and the Adult Criminal Courts, where I see the results of failed parenting time and time again. The cost of ‘cure’ is more economically and socially prohibitive than ‘prevention’. It has been mooted that almost a third of the adult prison population have once been in care. Nationally, fewer than 1% of our children are in care. Children aged 10-17 in care are more than five times as likely to be in trouble than other children (‘Care – a stepping stone to custody?’ Prison Reform Trust).

As a society, and as a country, we need to get our children and families right. We should be doing everything we can to help create strong, safe and stable families. For children who experience a poor start in life through neglect, abuse or otherwise, and whose education is interrupted, their life chances are severely diminished. These children often have or end up with no hope, no stability, no security. These are our young people and they are increasingly isolated from family. The Government needs to prioritise and invest in families as the crux upon which other policies can be built. The voluntary, charitable sector is available, at some cost, but priceless in its contribution – and certainly more cost effective as a preventative measure rather than a curative one. We should be maximising what is already available and proved to be effective as a resource. It follows that Government spending priorities need to be rethought and additional funding is required.

Stronger, safer, stable families lead to stronger, safer, stable communities.