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Children’s Services: Funding

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 10 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to ensure that there is sufficient funding for local government children’s services.

My Lords, funding for children’s services is made available through the local government finance settlement. Local authorities are being given access to £45.1 billion in 2018-19 and £45.6 billion in 2019-20—an overall increase since 2017-18 of £1.3 billion. Core spending power is largely not ring-fenced, allowing local authorities to decide how best to direct their funding. Local authorities used this flexibility to increase spending on services for young people and children to around £9.2 billion in 2016-17.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which sounds remarkably like the Written Answer I received over a month ago. He says that local government has all this money to spend, but he will be aware that this is the total funding available for 800 different services that local government delivers, of which children’s services is just one. The National Audit Office says that local government funding has been cut by 50% in real terms since 2010, and the Minister’s figures show that local authority spending on safeguarding and looked-after children continues to increase year on year. What assessment has the Minister made of local government’s capacity to remain at this level of spend on vulnerable children, particularly in the light of the LGA’s analysis that councils are facing a funding gap of around £5 billion by 2020, of which £2 billion is in children’s services? Does the Minister deny that councils, such as my own in Brighton and Hove, have had to close Sure Start centres and youth services and end play provision and supervised parental contact? A crisis is emerging in children’s services.

I am glad that the figures are the same as the ones in the Written Answer given a few weeks ago. The noble Lord is right to say that, over the past eight or 10 years, local authorities have had to manage with fewer resources from the centre. I think that local authorities of all colours have done well to maintain good-quality services with access to reduced resources. They have done that by improving back-office services and front-line delivery. More recently, the Government have recognised that those constraints need to be relaxed: we have raised the cap on council tax increases to 3% before the referendum trigger is activated; we have put £2 billion into social care, taking some of the pressure off local authority services; and, as I said in my reply, we are putting more resources into the grant. On top on that, local authorities have access to £21 billion in reserves, up 47% since 2011. We believe that they now have the resources available to continue to provide good-quality services to children.

My Lords, the noble Lord has very helpfully agreed that local authorities have been squeezed and are being squeezed. Does he agree that in many authorities this is resulting in a reduction in preventive and family support work, and therefore local authorities are not intervening until such time as a crisis occurs? Could that be one of the reasons why more children are being admitted into public care?

The noble Lord has had a lifetime of distinguished career in social care. He may have been in the House yesterday, when my noble friend Lord Agnew referred to the troubled families programme, which indicated that the number of children defined as children in need declined by 14% after they had been involved in that programme. That, of course, reduced the demands that those children and families made on more expensive children’s care services. On top of that, last year the DfE invested nearly £5 million as part of an innovation programme to test the most effective ways to provide targeted support to reduce the need for most intensive forms of intervention—precisely the point the noble Lord has made—and thereby, it is hoped, reducing the pressure on children’s services departments.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the All-Party Group for Children is doing a report on children’s social services? It has become very clear to us that thresholds for intervention are rising, leading to the situation that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, just mentioned. The Children’s Commissioner published a report yesterday that indicated that the general public’s expectations of intervention for children in need are much higher than what they actually receive. Is the Minister aware of that, and is he going to do anything about it?

To some extent, children’s services are better placed within the local authority framework than other services because there are statutory protections for children that are not available for other services provided by local government. Spending on the most vulnerable children has increased by around £1 billion since 2010, and that includes safeguarding looked-after children and other children at risk. Since 2013, over 500,000 two year-olds have benefited from 15 hours of free early education a week. However, I am interested in the report that the noble Baroness has referred to, and I would like to write her with some more responses.

My Lords, did I hear the Minister correctly when he seemed to indicate that he wants to keep income tax down by pushing up council tax, pushing the problems that we are talking about away from the Government and on to local government?

I was not aware that I had made any such commitment at all. The question was about resources for local government; the words “income tax” never passed my lips.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the Government for the troubled families programme. In the course of evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, we have heard from many local authorities that are very grateful for that funding. Unfortunately, the resources that have come out of this area have been greater than the resources that have gone in. A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a virtual school head, a former Ofsted inspector who works with looked-after children, who was decrying the fact that so many services that support families to prevent them from rising to the higher level of need have had to be cut. I sense that the Government are looking at this area and I am grateful for that, but please may I get the sense from them that this is something that they are looking at very carefully?

I hope I indicated in my earlier replies that this is a subject that the Government take very seriously. I indicated that resources have been made available in more recent years in order to reduce some of the pressures on local government. It is also worth making the point that outcomes for all children are improving, and the development gap is narrowing between high achievers and lower achievers. However, of course I take seriously the point that the noble Earl has made, and the Government will continue to see what more they can do to look after children who are at risk.