Concern Over Funding For Vulnerable Children

Financial support for some of Britain’s most vulnerable social groups is being undermined by the government’s decision to end ringfencing of grants from the Children’s Fund, experts have warned.

Evidence is emerging that cash has been directed away from organisations helping children who are disabled or have special needs, as well as young asylum seekers.

The cuts follow a restructuring of the way in which money is distributed. Between 2001 and March this year the Children’s Fund paid nearly a billion pounds towards “preventative” projects aimed at helping 5- to 13-year-olds and forestalling social problems.

The money was allocated through the voluntary and community sector. Since April, however, the cash – currently £132m a year until 2011 – has been routed through local authorities and pooled with other grants.

The removal of ringfencing presents councils with a tempting source of cash for favoured projects or those educational and criminal justice schemes deemed a higher priority by central government targets.

The National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations has warned that smaller community groups are at risk of losing expertise and experience. “Small organisations are faring less well in the current environment,” said a spokeswoman.

Paul Mason, a senior researcher at Birmingham University’s social policy department, who helped organise a national evaluation study of the Children’s Fund, said: “I know there are a lot of fears and I think they are wholly justified.

“Now that all the money is going into a single pot and you have underfunded areas, like social services, some of the money will go off there. There are a lot of competing angles and there’s not enough money to go round.

“Crime is a big government priority. The focus has moved away from open, universal access services to more targeted work.

“There are now 150 local children’s trusts. Some have built upon Children’s Fund work, others haven’t. So there’s a great deal of variation. It’s a very mixed picture. There are no more national evaluations and it is difficult to understand the national picture. But we do know that there’s a lack of investment in preventative services.”

In Manchester, the Routes Project, run by the Black Health Agency, provides support for the children of newly-arrived asylum seekers and refugees. It has lost £60,000, almost a quarter of its income due to the restructuring of the funding system. Three of the project’s multi-lingual staff have been laid off.

“It has led us to limit help for families,” said one of the remaining workers. “For now we have to concentrate on a narrower age group. We hope the [money] will be restored so that we can meet all of the needs.”

Manchester city council denied that any reduction had been due to it cutting support. “[The] council has not reduced funding. [It] recognises and values the important work of voluntary sector groups and is committed to supporting them with funding.

“The Children’s Fund ended in March 2008, but Manchester city council has continued to fund this year and has awarded £190,000 to the Routes Project for its continuing work.

“Over the last four years, the local authority, through Manchester Children’s Fund has allocated a total of £720,000 in grants to the Routes Project at an average of £180,000 per year.”

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Edward Lloyd Trust lost £27,000 this year because Children’s Fund money it had been receiving to run a Saturday play scheme for children with disabilities was not renewed.

“We are having to run it on a reduced basis,” said Sally Young, the trust’s chief executive. “It provides a lot for support and activities for those children. It gave them time to play and learn. We have lost half our funding.

“Quite a number of organisations that had services for disabled children in Newcastle lost their funding. We were told the criteria had changed and we no longer met the criteria.”

Newcastle council acknowledged that groups formerly supported were losing financial support. “[The] council has always prioritised support for children and young people with additional needs,” a statement said. “This year government guidelines about the use of Children’s Fund, which has been used to support the Edward Lloyd Trust, changed.

“Therefore, we have found some funding from other sources to continue support for the trust in the short term whilst at the same time working to identify longer term sustainable financial support for this and indeed other services for children and young people with additional needs.”

Explaining the national changes to the Children’s Fund, the Department for Children, Schools and Families maintains: “The Children’s Fund was a time-limited programme originally due to end in March 2008. Funding was initially ringfenced and distributed through local Children’s Fund partnerships, but has been moving towards funding being distributed to local authorities.

“Funding will now continue at £132m in each of the three years from 2008 to 2011. The money will be distributed through local authorities and pooled with other funding to form a new area-based grant. The government is encouraging local authorities and their partners to maintain a strong engagement of the voluntary and community sector in using these funds.”