Benefit cuts main cause of surge in demand for children’s services, warn council leaders

Local authorities say cuts to financial support for families such as housing benefit have seen demand for child protection services rise to levels they are unable to meet

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 31 October 2017 01:09 GMT
Cuts to financial support for families such as housing benefit, amid increased poverty and hardship for many low income parents, have seen the demand for child protection services rise to levels local authorities say they are unable to meet
Cuts to financial support for families such as housing benefit, amid increased poverty and hardship for many low income parents, have seen the demand for child protection services rise to levels local authorities say they are unable to meet (Getty)

Benefit cuts and increased levels of poverty across the UK are a primary cause for an “unprecedented surge” in demand for children’s services in recent years, council leaders have warned.

Cuts to financial support for families such as housing benefit over the past two years, amid increased poverty and hardship for many low-income parents, have seen the demand for child protection services rise to levels local authorities say they are unable to meet.

A survey carried out by the National Children’s Bureau reveals two-thirds of local councillors responsible for children’s services said their local authority lacked the resources to provide universal services like children’s centres and youth clubs. More than four in 10, meanwhile, said they did not have enough money to meet one or more of their statutory duties to children.

Half of respondents said this was primarily due to increased levels of poverty and hardship, while 45 per cent said cuts to other services for families, such as housing support, were a contributing factor.

Nearly a quarter said rising levels of abuse and neglect was one of the reasons behind the increase in demand, while more than a third said it was in part due to professionals getting better at spotting the signs of a child in urgent need.

Confirming the increase in levels of need, nearly nine in 10 said demand for local authority support for children and families has risen over the past two years.

When asked what their top three priorities for spending would be if their annual budget increased by 10 per cent, more than half said they would target the money at early support for families, while half would prioritise children in care and nearly a quarter would improve support for children with mental health problems.

Three-quarters of English councils exceeded their budgets for children’s services last year, totalling a £605m overspend, while the number of young people subject to child protection enquires increased by 140 per cent – to 170,000 – in the past decade, according to analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA).

Council leaders warned at the time that funding cuts have pushed children’s social services to “breaking point” with action only being taken to protect youngsters once they are at imminent risk of harm.

It comes after it emerged that the roll-out of universal credit, a new benefits system aimed at making the system simpler to administer, was causing “acute financial difficulty” for families across the UK.

Households are facing a six-week wait before a first payment comes through, creating a “major obstacle” to the smooth running of the system – which has been blamed for plunging people into debt and sending them to food banks.

In light of the latest findings, Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that across England local authorities are struggling to meet the needs of children and young people, including those at considerable risk.

“We should be stepping in to help these children as early as possible, but with two-thirds of lead members saying they have insufficient resources to provide universal services, prevention and early help are falling by the wayside, as councils are forced to prioritise funds for those closest to crisis.

“Strikingly, half of lead members responsible for children’s services linked growing pressure on services with poverty, illustrating the impact of deprivation on children. It’s clear that demand is growing for other reasons too, including cuts to other services and more children living with complex disabilities.”

Ms Feuchtwang went on to urge that central Government must take action so that families can access the help they need “when they need it”, saying: “This starts with an immediate funding injection for children’s services, additional resources to tackle mental health problems, and better data-sharing.

“But no single action can address the deeper causes of increasing demand, such as poverty, poor housing and benefits cuts, and we need a detailed government plan that addresses these and shows how we can create a society that works for all children and young people.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said in response to the findings: “We know from our analysis with IPPR that families with children have lost more than any other group from cuts and changes to benefits, and cuts to support services pile pressure on families struggling to cope.

“Four million UK children are under the official poverty line now – most of them in working families – and the number is projected to pass five million by 2021. Unless we act we will store up problems for future generations. The Chancellor can help in next month’s budget by re-investing in universal credit and ending the cruel freeze on working age benefits.”

Robert Goodwill, the minister for children and families, said: “Every single child should receive the same high quality care, support and protection, no matter where they live. In 2015 we made more than £200bn available to local authorities for services up to 2019-20, and local authorities increased spending on children and young people’s services to over £9bn in 2015-16.

“In addition to this, we are investing £200m in our Innovation Programme so councils and others have support to trial ways to reform services to be more effective. As part of this, we have announced £20m to provide additional support to local authorities where risk of failure is highest.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in