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