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Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes. He chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Commission on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Care.

The number of children in care has never been greater. Over 68,000 children were living apart from their families in June 2020 – an increase of three per cent over the previous year.

Already before the pandemic, the care system that should support these children was under pressure. In 2018 Ofsted judged 58 per cent of local authorities to be ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires improvement to be good’ with regard to their children’s services.

But the pandemic has made things much worse. In the first six months of the pandemic, incidents involving death or serious harm to under-one year olds because of suspected negligence or abuse increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2019. Among one to five year olds, it increased by 50 per cent.

Directors of Children’s Services reported that, as a result of Covid-19, families face less support, more investigations and more removals of children in response to their difficulties.

But the pandemic has also tapped an extraordinary voluntary movement in this country. Small local charities have worked in innovative ways to help feed, educate and advise families. Charities provide ideas, energy, and cost-effective interventions.

By relying on these under-used grassroots voluntary organisations, service professionals can reach deep into the community, engaging with the most disengaged. Using informal networks – including youth organisations, church groups, local volunteers – complement statutory services to support the most vulnerable. Free of bureaucracy, place-based and highly flexible, this community-level support can transform outcomes for children at the risk of going into care.

Vulnerable families like volunteers because they are local, less intimidating, and often unpaid. They also invest the kind of time that social workers, overwhelmed by caseloads, cannot afford to dedicate.

One model is the wrap-around service offered by the charity Safe Families for Children. A church-based volunteer organisation, Safe Families for Children delivers temporary foster care to support families in crisis.  The charity offers a befriending service whereby a volunteer will act as a mentor/befriender for the family in crisis and offer financial support for the family in terms of goods or skills. They host the family, and will support them for months on end, developing a strong relationship with family members.

The programme has reduced the flow of children into care by between nine to 16 per cent, and is now working with more than 30 local authorities. It numbers 4,500 volunteers from over 1,000 churches and community groups, and 100 professional staff.

The West London Zone for Children and Young People, a charity I set up in one of the most unequal areas in the country, is another example. WLZ covers an area with 60,000 school-age children and young people, among whom one in five is at risk of leaving school without the proper skills to thrive. Twenty-nine schools across four councils refer children to the charity because of needs such as low grades, poor attendance, wellbeing concerns, low levels of parental involvement. All children referred are below the threshold for additional statutory support.

Service professionals should welcome such collaborations, as they offer a way to scale programmes in a cost-efficient way. But, all too often, grassroot organisations report a defensive, “territorial” mindset among statutory partners. A survey of the 400 plus Centre for Social Justice Alliance’s charities found that members felt undermined by statutory services:

  •  “It’s as if they see themselves in competition with us”.
  • “It has not always felt like a mutually respectful platform”.
  • “I think some budget holders see us as competition eg. we have had occasional times where the cost benefit the LA has been willing to attribute to services has been down scaled because of concerns it would result in them losing staff.”
  • “It’s as if they see voluntary as secondary.”
  • “The demands to fall in line with “clunky” operating systems and LA databases can be prohibitive from a resource perspective with a small staff structures.”
  • “There is a definite sense that we are helping them with “their” cases. “

They also reported facing serious obstacles in getting funding from local government and non‑governmental organisations.[5]  One reason for this is that government funding comes in a large number of discreet, time-limited funds, pilots and initiatives which are too short-term for small charities to cope with.

Government can enforce the stipulation that public service commissioners’ contracts meet “social value” criteria. The taxpayer spends £300 billion a year on goods and services through hundreds of thousands of separate contracts that follow guidance laid down by government.

The Public Service (Social Value) Act 2011 required commissioners to consider the wider social value of bids when awarding contracts for services. Despite this, Social Enterprise UK found that only eight per cent of the £300 billion public sector procurement budget actively champions socially and environmentally responsible business practice.

Government can also ensure that Job Centre Plus staff are aware of the amount of volunteering claimants can take part in, and correctly informing them of it; and it can include information on volunteering in the pensions pack sent to those who reach retirement age, as was recommended by the House of Lords committee on civic engagement.

The post-pandemic economy will see a surge in unemployment. Channelling the energy and creativity of job-seekers and the job-less, especially among the young, into community engagement will benefit these individuals and the local area. According to Department for Work and Pensions guidance, volunteering can count for up to 50 per cent of a jobseeker’s time that they are spending taking reasonable action to find a job.

The introduction of the government’s Innovation Partnership model may help counter this: it allows commissioners to work with potential providers on the design of a contract, seeking to leverage their resources to support the public budget using simpler, outcomes-based contracts.

It would be a shame for the goodwill, energy and flexibility of the voluntary sector to be wasted by bureaucracy and wrong assumptions. Government must act urgently to ensure that charities are allowed to carry out their work: our most vulnerable children need them.

The CSJ’s report Safely reducing the number of children going into care was published this week.