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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.