Written evidence submitted by Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau [SRF 021]
The UK’s leading children’s charities – Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau – have monitored trends in funding and spending for local authorities children’s services over several years; most recently in relation to the impact and effect of delivering these services to children, young people and families during lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. We are pleased to have the opportunity to share our evidence with the Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee as part of the inquiry into the Spending Review and local government finance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure on families, reduced children’s access to support and made it harder than ever before to protect those at risk of harm. There needs to be increased funding for children’s services and an ambitious long-term plan to boost outcomes for children and young people, without which the on-going effects of the crisis will define a generation
1.1. Our report, Under Pressure: Children’s and young people’s services 2010-11 to 2018-19, analysed the latest data on funding available for children’s services, and local authority spending. It found that, even before COVID-19, the children’s social care system was under immense strain. Over the last decade, demand for statutory children’s services has risen, but funding available for children’s services has plunged, with local authorities having £2.2 billion less available in 2018/19 than they did in 2010/11.[i] The financial stability of local authorities is being severely challenged as business rates, council tax and other revenue streams are diminished by the economic impact of the pandemic. The strain on these finances will be further intensified as, since the onset of COVID-19, children’s social care has become increasingly expensive. Overall, local authorities spent an additional £136 million on children’s social care between March and July due to COVID-19.[ii] Four in five local authorities reported a rise in weekly foster and residential placements costs due to coronavirus between April and August.[iii]
1.2. Despite the £1.6 billion of emergency funding made available to local authorities during this crisis,[iv] this increasing pressure is forcing councils to make reductions to their support offers for children. In September, three local authorities announced multi-million pound cuts to children services spending,[v] which reverses the slight increases in spending that all three had instituted in 2017/18-2018/19.[vi]
1.3. COVID-19 has led to increased pressures on families trying to cope with lockdown and social isolation, insecurity, or loss of employment and housing can increase the risk of child abuse and neglect.[vii] In the first (national) lockdown the vast majority of children were not attending schools for much of the period, and had less contact with professionals or other adults outside of the home.[viii] Their welfare has been much less visible, and concerns much more easily missed. Referrals to children’s social care services from 27th April to 19th July were between 10% to 30% lower when compared to the average in the same week across 2016 to 2018.[ix]
1.4. Referrals began to increase between10th August to 16th August to reach a point 12% higher than the three-year average of the same week across 2016 to 2018.[x] Equally, the NSPCC helpline saw contacts increase by over 40% during April to July – up to 29,000 – with contacts about physical abuse increasing by more than 50%.[xi] Evidence from the NHS also showed fewer children using services, with more delays in seeking medical assistance, and a potential increase in babies with non-accidental injuries.[xii]
1.5. The pandemic has seen the lowest earners suffer a disproportionately large hit to their finances,[xiii] and BAME communities have been disproportionately impacted by both the physical and economic harm of the crisis. On top of this, local authorities with the most deprived communities have suffered the greatest reductions in spending power over the last decade and are therefore facing an even steeper gradient of heightened need and reduced capacity.[xiv]
1.6. If need does increase, and the capacity of children’s services to respond does not expand to meet that demand, we are likely to see an acceleration in the trend towards late intervention spending, and loss of investment in early intervention services, that was already clear before COVID-19.
2.1. Our analysis has found that, even as estimated funding available for local authority children and young people’s services fell by 23% between 2010/11 and 2018/19, spending fell at a considerably lower rate, decreasing by only 6%, or £536 million.[xv]
2.2. This situation has left many local authorities in England operating from a deeply insecure financial position. Approximately 91% of local authorities overspent on children’s social care in 2017-18 by £872 million[xvi], with local authorities faced with little choice but to draw down on their reserves or pull resources from other services.
2.3. It has been reported that limited resources are one of the main challenges facing services trying to keep children safe, [xvii] and that increasing child poverty and decreasing resources are placing the system under increasing and unsustainable strain.[xviii]
2.4. During the judicial review of The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, this strain and its impact were summarised, noting the children’s social care system “was already facing significant pressures prior to COVID-19”. As Mrs Justice Lieven DBE summarised, “these pressures manifest themselves in the fact that as at March 2020 only 50% of local authorities were judged good or outstanding by Ofsted with 21 local authorities judged inadequate. There is a vacancy rate nationally amongst social workers of 16.4% with much higher rates in some local authorities. The problems within the children social care sector are longstanding and extremely well documented, not least in judgments from the Family Division of the High Court.”[xix]
2.5. Local authorities are legally obliged to ensure that statutory services are delivered and funded. Cuts to funding, in combination with rising demand, has meant that there is less money available for investment in non-statutory ‘early intervention’ services which enable professionals to step in before problems escalate. Local authority spending on early intervention services for children and young people fell from £3.5 billion to £1.9 billion between 2010/11 and 2018/19 – a 46% decrease.
2.6. Local authorities have been forced to allocate ever greater proportions of their spending to statutory areas such as safeguarding and children in care. Spending on late intervention services for children and young people rose from £5.6 billion to £7.2 billion between 2010/11 and 2018/19 – a 29% increase.
2.7. With 22% more children becoming subject to child protection plans in 2018/19 than in 2010/11, spending per head for looked after children rose by £10,000 per child to £61,805 – an increase of 19%. Of note, in 2019, not only was budgeted spend per person on acute children’s social care 2% higher than in 2009/10, but that councils had overspent relative to those budgets by 8% on average over the last four years.[xx]
2.8. Evidence shows this system is not delivering for children, highlighting the low educational outcomes attained for children who have been in contact with the social care system. They are less likely to achieve a strong pass in core subjects, less likely to attend higher education[xxi] and are massively overrepresented in both the youth and adult justice systems.[xxii]
2.9. Research interviews with staff making decisions about services for children in three different local authorities in England showed, despite their differing situations, all three were facing financial constraints. They were all seeing an increase in demand for children’s services, all were overspending and drawing from other budgets and reserves to bridge funding shortfalls, and all felt that they had long since reached the limits of innovation. [xxiii]
2.10. Participants highlighted there had been reductions to early years services and to targeted support for those whose needs had not reached a critical stage. Cutting non-statutory services was viewed as a comparatively “quick win”. However, there was universal understanding that stripping back early intervention services would cause difficulties in the future, as participants connected a lack of preventative work with an upsurge in the number of children taken into care. One told us: “we are saying early help is most important in the lives of these children and young people. And that juxtaposition of having to say this is really important but this is where we’re going to take the money from, I think, is the real challenge of where we’re at in this point in time.”
2.11. Many participants worried about the quality of service being provided to looked after children. Participants believed limited numbers and availability of residential care and fostering placements was driving up costs, as some authorities felt they had no choice but to commission very expensive placements from independent agencies. The cost of delivery, and kind of support that can be made available to children, needs to be revisited to prevent an ever-increasing share of the available pot being spent on a small number of the most vulnerable young people.
Our analysis suggests areas with the highest levels of deprivation have experienced a higher proportion of cuts to children’s services funding, and may have an impact on children’s outcomes and the knock-on effect on the desire by the Government to “level up and invest in people and places”.[xxiv]
Our Under Pressure[xxv] report found that since 2010/11, the most deprived local authorities have seen more than twice the size of cut to funding available as the least deprived areas. Unsurprisingly, spending in the most deprived areas has dropped by 14%, whilst spending in the least deprived has increased by 9%[xxvi]. Where local authorities have had to cut spending this has often been to early intervention services such as children’s centres – which are of particular benefit to those in deprived areas. It is likely also to have a particular impact on children from certain ethnic minority backgrounds – 46% of children who are from a black or ethnic minority background were in poverty, compared to only 26% of white British children.[xxvii]
Table 1: Potential correlations between local authority areas likely to be subjected to ongoing restrictions, deprivation, and children’s services funding
Cumulative Count of Infections (8/09/2020)
Deprivation (1 most deprived to 5 least deprived)
Percentage of Children Eligible for Free School Meals (1 highest proportion-5 lower proportion
Sources: Cumulative count of infections (LGA); Deprivation: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Governments
[v] Oxfordshire: https://mycouncil.oxfordshire.gov.uk/documents/s52576/CA_AUG1820%20Annex%202.pdf; Luton: https://engage.luton.gov.uk/childrens-services/ifrs-consultation/; Croydon: https://www.croydon.gov.uk/democracy/budgets/the-council-budget
[vi] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/section-251-2017-to-2018; https://www.gov.uk/guidance/section-251-2018-to-2019
[xi] NSPCC (2020b). Internal NSPCC helpline and Childline statistics
[xii] Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) (2020) Impact of COVID-19 on child health services tool: results. [Accessed 27/07/2020]; Sidpra J. et al. (2020) Rise in the incidence of abusive head trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic. Archives of Disease in Childhood, Published Online First: 2 July 2020.
[xxviii] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Governments ‘The English Indicators of Deprivation 2019’.
[xxix]Source: Children’s Commissioner Local Map Data
[xxx] Source: Children’s Commissioner Local Map Data - This is the modelled prevalence of the rate per 1000 CYP living in households with domestic abuse
[xxxi]Source: Children’s Commissioner Local Map Data Source: Children’s Commissioner Local Map Data - This is the modelled prevalence of the rate per 1000 CYP living in households with mental health issues
[xxxii] Source: NOMIS
[xxxiii] The Institute for Fiscal Studies (2015) The most deprived councils are likely to continue facing the sharp end of local government spending cuts [online] Available at: https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/7732.