The vulnerable children missing their only chance for support

Spending cuts have deeply affected the help available for vunerable families -- and soon, this will

The Coalition Government made a commitment to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of spending cuts. This commitment has been supported by reviews, policies and initiatives including the review into child protection, the Early Years Foundation Stage, child poverty and early intervention.

The introduction of the Early Intervention Grant, the focus on the "foundation years", ongoing support for the children's centres network, the introduction of the Pupil Premium and the commitment to turn around the lives of the 120,000 families with multiple problems are further evidence of the recognition by the coalition government that services must be able to step in to support families and individuals before problems escalate or become entrenched.

We set out to establish whether the commitments given and the measures taken so far have indeed protected the most vulnerable amidst unprecedented public spending cuts, radical reform of the welfare state and public service delivery and the changing relationship between the central state, localised decision making and individual citizens.

As headlines were grabbed by economists and political analysts on the day of the 2010 Spending Review, Action for Children began to track and monitor how those decisions were actually playing out in communities. Our response was clear: the most vulnerable children, young people and families must not pay the price for the economic difficulties facing the UK, or the political and economic decisions being made subsequently.

Our resultant Red Book offers clear and evidence-based analysis about how the needs of the most vulnerable children, young people and families have changed over the last year and, crucially, the resources that are available to meet that need. Our findings show that while there is greater need for support, cuts to the budgets of vital services mean that increasingly this need cannot be met.

We found that 42 per cent of services have seen a rise in demand for the services that we provide in the last year. What's more, 48 per cent reported this demand has further increased in the last three months. To compound that, we found that 68 per cent of our frontline children's services have had cuts to their budgets, and over a third (37 per cent) of these services have seen cuts of between 11 and 30 per cent this year alone.

We are increasingly working with families who are reaching breaking point; where children are at risk of neglect and entering the care system, getting into trouble with the law, or where parents are no longer able to cope.

The scale of change and the cutbacks could have serious and lasting consequences. It is a false economy to cut services that prevent family breakdown, prevent children unnecessarily entering care and prevent young people entering the justice system. Children, communities and ultimately the state are at risk of paying the price for the decisions made now, both socially and economically. Research shows that if life-changing services, such as intensive family support, are cut across the UK, it will cost the UK economy £1.3 billion per year.

Furthermore, we are at risk of reaching a point where decisions that are directly affecting the most vulnerable children and families cannot be reversed. If existing local infrastructures, such as children's centres, are stripped back too far, it may not be affordable to replace them in the foreseeable future.

Most importantly, the children that are missing out now will not get the chance for vital support again and the opportunity to help and support them during their childhoods will be lost.

We are concerned at the scale of change and cutbacks that we are seeing and believe that their consequences could be serious and lasting. It is still early on in the life of this Parliament, however. Many decisions and choices are not yet finally made so there is time to reconsider, in light of the emerging evidence, and take action.

Helen Donohoe is the director of public policy at Action for Children

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.