Early prevention hit as funding is diverted to support children at immediate risk

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Children’s social care budgets have been overspent by more than £3 billion in the last five years in a bid to keep up with demand and support those in immediate danger.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is warning that local councils are diverting limited funding away from early help and prevention services in a bid to protect those immediately at risk.

It is calling upon the government’s review of the children’s social care system – which was promised in the Conservative general election manifesto – to look at investing in early help and prevention services.

There are now more than 52,000 children subject to a child protection plan to keep them safe from harm – an increase of 53 per cent since 2009. This equates to an additional 18,160 children.

The number of children in care – 78,150 – has increased by 28 per cent in the past decade as well and is up from 75,370 in 2018.

Statistics published in October (DfE, 2019) show how the number of referrals to social services has risen from 593,500 in 2012/13 to 650,900 in 2018/19.

These referrals came mainly from the police (29 per cent), schools (18 per cent) and health services (15 per cent).

Mirroring the rise in referrals, the figures show that the number of assessments completed by local authorities has increased from 550,800 in 2014/15 to 644,700 in 2018/19.

The number of children classified as “in need” has also risen, although the proportion per 1,000 has remained steady. For every 1,000 young people aged under-18, 33.4 were “in need” as of March 2019 (this equates to 399,500 young people) compared to 34.1 in 2010 (375,900).

The DfE figures show that the most common factors for children in need are domestic violence, mental health, emotional abuse, drug and alcohol misuse, and neglect.

The LGA, which represents most of England’s 152 local authorities, says that early help and prevention work is at risk because of cuts in central government funding for councils. For example, it points to figures showing that councils spent 25 per cent less on children’s centres in 2017/18 compared with 2014/15.

The LGA’s analysis shows that while children’s social care budgets have risen by more than £600 million a year over the last five years, “unprecedented demand and cost pressures mean they have still had to overspend on children’s social care budgets … by a total of £3.2 billion over the same five-year period”.

In September’s Spending Round, the government pledged £1.5 billion extra for social care from this year. The LGA says this money will “help meet demand and cost pressures this year” but that long-term, sustainable funding for children’s services will be needed in the forthcoming Spending Review.

Judith Blake, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “These figures show the unprecedented demand facing children’s services and the care system. Councils want to make sure that children can get the best, rather than just get by, and that means investing in the right services to reach them at the right time.

“Councils need to play a lead role in the government’s review of the care system alongside children, families and partners, to make sure it looks at what really matters and what can really make a difference.

“A long-term sustainable funding solution would enable councils to protect children at immediate risk of harm while also supporting early help to prevent problems escalating in the first place.”

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