Social care services for children face cuts of 40%, warns charity

NSPCC says local authorities will look to make savings despite rising demand for child protection services

Local authorities are cutting children’s social care budgets by as much as 40%, a worrying false economy that will lead to councils face rising demand for child protection services, the NSPCC has warned.

An analysis by Britain’s biggest children’s charity highlights its concerns over the scale of cuts to a broad range of local authority services – ranging from youth clubs and Sure Start centres to fostering and child protection – saying that spending on children across England and Wales decreased by £1.86bn this year.

This means that, outside of education, local authorities will spend £150 less a child than in 2010 – putting expenditure a head at £478, a level not seen since 2005. The study conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) is further evidence that the brunt of the government cuts is being borne by children’s social care budgets.

In England councils are reducing such budgets by an average of 24% this year, “significantly more than the overall real-terms reduction in local government spending of around 10%, and more than the budget reductions for most other local authority services”, says the study. By contrast adult social care spending is being reduced by less than 2%.

Seven councils plan to cut children’s social care spending this year by more than 40%, while a further 38 plan reductions of more than 30%. “The cuts are most apparent in English urban areas and those authorities that have a high proportion of looked after children,” says the report.

The biggest cut is in Tower Hamlets in deprived inner London – where spending on the under-19s is being reduced by almost 45%. In riot-hit Southwark, the council is cutting its budgets by more than 25%.

The NSPCC says that “youth justice is the only protection service that is highly likely to be subjected to budget cuts – although these reductions will prove difficult to deliver in those areas affected by the recent riots.”

The NSPCC says that with the increase in referrals for children in care, there is little room for councils to continue making cuts at this pace – which would see local authorities halving budgets within five years. It cautions that “deep cuts to discretionary early intervention services may lead to a further increase in the numbers of children in need and looked after.”

It also warns that services focused on prevention, such as Sure Start, are particularly vulnerable to cuts – and comes just a day after the government confirmed the number of Sure Start centres has fallen by more than 100 since the general election. Given that such “preventative” services such as youth justice and Sure Start amount to less than £1.6bn of spending, even if all were scrapped, another £250m in savings would be required.

The costs of reducing services that “prevent” children from entering the care system – whether that is youth clubs or advice services – can be immense. The NSPCC say that for every additional child who is taken into care the cost to a council is £57,385. A 10% rise in children being pushed onto the threshold of “being in need” would require an extra £258m of spending.

The NSPCC chief executive, Andrew Flanagan, said: “We believe such unprecedented cuts in children’s services may be a false economy. Well-resourced support services prevent family situations from deteriorating. They reduce the need for costly child protection plans and care placements at a later stage and actually save money.”

The government acknowledged the “NSPCC was right”, but argued it had decentralised power to councils.

The children’s minister, Tim Loughton, said: “We’ve given local authorities freedom exactly so they can directly target the children and young people that need the most help. It is not for government to tell elected councillors how to do their job – they are accountable to local people and need to make careful, long-term judgments based on what is needed.”

But David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “This report fails to recognise that councils are facing the combined pressures of a 25% reduction to the central funding for children’s centres and services, and a huge increase in demand for vital child protection services.”

Labour said that “slashing and burning now is an irresponsible way of trying to balance the books”. Shadow children and families minister Sharon Hodgson said: “Whitehall has piled huge pressure on town halls with cuts that go too far, too fast, and unfortunately the evidence suggests that the children and families who rely most on the services that councils deliver are being targeted disproportionately.”