David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner
Throughout this pandemic, government has extended support for children and families. From furlough, to uplifting Universal Credit, to rolling out the holiday food and activities programme for future school holidays, to keeping vulnerable children learning throughout the pandemic. These have been appropriate and important interventions. However, the foundations upon which we seek to strengthen and support families are growing increasingly unstable.
Councils are at the forefront of delivering life-changing support keeping children safe and families strong. They are duty-bound to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their families, insofar as this is safe and in the child’s best interests. They are also required to deliver a balanced budget. Before this pandemic, the challenges facing local government finances and rising need for support meant that Children’s Services were placing a significant and unsustainable pressure on local authority budgets. At a time when funding was falling, councils were being asked to do more and not less. This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and despite additional resources from government during the pandemic, there is an acute cash flow problem developing in the sector that means the measures required to balance budgets in year will have a long term impact on children.
Leading children’s charities have also reported recently that those areas the government has promised to ‘level up’ are amongst those where funding for children’s services has fallen the fastest. These also happen to be communities where indicators of demand for children’s services such as rates of domestic abuse, parental mental ill-health, and free school meal eligibility are the highest. Levelling up people and places must mean investing in children and families.
As a former Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, I know the true potential of children’s services: providing relationship support to help keep families together, helping new mothers struggling to adjust to parenthood, working with families and communities to protect children from abuse or neglect, giving children in the care system a second chance at a happy and safe childhood, and care leavers a supported transition into independent living. I also know the impossibly difficult decisions that colleagues in local government are taking right now as they try to balance the books.
They will be thinking about where they can deliver dramatic savings as they have in most years of the past decade. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed this Government to champion family hubs. It is exactly this type of provision that is needed, but that councils find impossibly difficult to fund as there is no duty or resource to do so. Perversely, this inability to fund early intervention will increase costs to the public sector in the long run as emerging problems go unaided until urgent and crisis-based intervention is required, adding pressure on other services such as the police and A&E. The life-long human and financial costs associated with childhood trauma can be significant – we ought to reinvigorate our collective efforts to prevent this.
Councils have done an incredible job of maintaining support by a combination of creative partnerships with other councils, charities, and the private sector, but as we see in adult social care, rising costs and market conditions are creating significant headwinds. We are already well down this path with the numbers of children in care the highest they have been for several decades and rising still, and the cost of care placements skyrocketing as demand outstrips supply; and as costs have risen we have not seen a corresponding improvement in outcomes.
Helping families is core to who we are as Conservatives. As a former Local Government Minister, the Chancellor will be very aware of pressures on council budgets. I recently spoke with a number of Conservative colleagues heading Children’s Services in local government. They were each honest about the difficulty of the challenge before them and they were all too aware of the cost of failure. But they were also proud in the knowledge that every day their teams are doing the best they can in unenviable circumstances for their families and vulnerable children. The Spending Review is Rishi Sunak’s moment to deliver urgently needed investment to place children’s services on a sustainable footing. If we are to build back better for children and families we need to stabilise the foundations. Only then will we truly be able to stand with families through the tough times ahead and turnaround the outcomes of vulnerable children.