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A former Tory children’s minister has blamed the government’s “woeful
underfunding” of local authorities for a crisis in child protection that
is putting the safety of vulnerable young people at risk.
The MP Tim Loughton, who served as children’s minister in David Cameron’s coalition government, said pressure on safeguarding services in some areas was so severe that often the only way to guarantee safety for children was to take them into care.
Launching an all-party report into children’s social care, Loughton said a “postcode lottery” meant children and young people in serious need, including those who self-harmed, were physically abused, or in families where there was domestic violence, got varying levels of help, or no help at all, depending on where they lived.
Children at risk often had to reach a point where they were in grave danger before social services stepped in to offer support, the report found. There was also evidence that decisions on whether and when to intervene to help a child were overly influenced by budgetary considerations, it said.
“In some places, the pressure on children’s services is so acute it is leaving social workers feeling that the only tool available to them to keep a child safe is to remove them from their family,” said Loughton, who is the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for children.
“As a result, families may look at these skilled and caring professionals with mistrust. But this is wrong. It is the woeful underfunding by government of a proper breadth of social care interventions that is to blame.”
In many areas, spending cuts had led to the erosion of early-support services for families, and made it harder for them to access help, the report said. There was “compelling evidence” that thresholds for accessing services were rising, to the point that social work was now “effectively crisis management”.
This meant safeguarding interventions were becoming more invasive, rather than supportive, leading to families being broken up unnecessarily, the report said. “Social workers often feel that removing a child from their family is the only tool available to them to keep children safe.”
Social workers told the inquiry that the shift to a more invasive approach was driven by a risk-averse approach born out of fear of media scandal, by professionals’ lack of experience in supporting families, and a lack of resources.
One social work team manager told the inquiry: “Local support services such as family centres, family support units, [and] parenting classes are no longer available ... social workers feel unable to manage and work with risk without those services and therefore seek to remove children from home.”
The report comes amid concern that growing pressure on children’s services, fuelled by increasing numbers of youngsters being taken into care, is overwhelming the family justice system and threatening the financial stability of councils already struggling with shrinking budgets.
The group said in 2016-17 local authorities in England overspent by £430m on children in care and by £172m on safeguarding. Funding for children’s services fell by 24% in real terms between 2010 and 2015, while a £2bn budget shortfall was predicted to open up by 2020.
“It is unacceptable that children’s safety is potentially being undermined by a lack of sufficient resources,” the report concluded.
The inquiry called on ministers to tackle the funding shortfall for children’s social care and to consider introducing a legal duty on local authorities to provide early help services for children.
Loughton was under-secretary of state for children and families between 2010 and 2012. He led a previous AAPG inquiry on child protection in 2017 which concluded that nine out of 10 local authorities were struggling to meet their legal duties.
Anna Feuchtwang, the director of the National Children’s Bureau, which provides administrative support for the APPG, said: “It makes no moral sense that families are left to face crisis and children are put at risk of serious harm because services are chronically underfunded.”
Roy Perry, the vice-chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “This report is yet further evidence that children’s services are being pushed to the brink.”
By Patrick Butler
11 July 2018