Cash-strapped Wigan Council has halved spending on services for young people in the last five years, as a leading charity warns of a “perfect storm” in child social services.
The Local Government Association has warned that children’s services in England will face a £3.1bn funding gap by 2025, despite seeing a significant rise in demand.
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This means councils are being forced to divert their limited funding away from preventative work, and into services for children at immediate risk of harm, they said.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s said the consequences of failures to step in early were clear to see.
“In every community, children face growing challenges, from knife crime and gangs, to cyberbullying and online grooming, to a crisis in mental health,” said chief executive Javed Khan.
“Children are suffering from trauma, affecting their education, health and happiness, with lifelong impact.”
Wigan Council does not dispute the figures but bosses today both itemised the huge amounts of budgetary cuts they have been forced to make due to government-induced austerity measures and also flagged up achievements during these difficult times.
So what do these cuts mean for children in Wigan?
Overall, Department for Education figures show spending on children’s and youth services in Wigan has seen a real-terms drop of 12 per cent over the last five years.
But within this, spending on services for young people – those aged 13 to 19, or up to 25 if they have learning difficulties – is down by 53 per cent.
Councils in England are legally required to provide a range of services for young people, including advice and support services for issues such as housing, employment and substance abuse, as well as recreational and educational services including youth clubs.
In 2012-13, this spending in Wigan stood at the equivalent of £7.8m in today’s terms, adjusted for inflation. By 2017-18, it had fallen to £3.7m.
Across England, spending fell by 53 per cent over the same period, from £883m to £416m.
Councils in England must also establish youth offending teams, to help prevent children and young people becoming involved in crime, or to stop reoffending.
In Wigan, spending on youth justice has fallen by 24 per cent in real terms since 2012-13, from £2.9m to £2.2m.
Across England, spending is down by 22 per cent, or £75m.
The Local Government Association said youth offending teams had an outstanding track record but had been “victims of their own success”.
“As the numbers of young offenders has fallen, so has the grant from central government to continue the preventative work that caused the fall in the first place,” a spokeswoman said.
“Councils must be given the resources they need to work with young people and prevent their involvement in crime in the first place, rather than simply picking up the pieces after offences have been committed.”
In 2012-13, spending on looked after children – those in residential or foster care – made up 37 per cent of Wigan Council’s total children and young people’s budget.
By 2017-18, this had risen to 49 per cent. It was a similar story across England, where the proportion rose from 39 to 48 per cent.
James Winterbottom, director for children’s services at Wigan Council, said: “Making sure our young people are given the right support at the right time in their life is extremely important to us, and we work tirelessly with our partners and community organisations to make that happen.
“Wigan Council has had to make savings of £141m since 2010 due to the cuts in our central government grant. We have approached these budget cuts through investment in prevention and in our communities and by changing the way we work in order to reduce demand rather than cut services. The Local Government Association has identified that there is a £3.1 billion funding gap nationally for children’s services as the costs of meeting the needs of our young people is growing.
“Through the Community Investment Fund a further £1m has been earmarked for schools across the borough.
“Our long-standing investment through The Deal in early intervention and prevention has made a significant contribution to the reduction in the number of young people entering the youth justice system or reoffending, with Wigan’s outcomes in this area consistently out performing statistical and regional comparators.
“The borough now has fewer 10 to 17-year-olds entering the youth justice system than the rest of the North West, with a 34 percent reduction since 2014. Wigan borough has also seen a lower reoffending rate than the average rate for England.
“We have worked hard to ensure our response is a lot more flexible and based in communities and that we work with young people and families to find positive solutions. We’ve established a number of youth groups across the borough and we continue to support our world class youth zone in Wigan.
“Nationally there is an increase in the numbers of children being taken into care and an increase in the numbers of those young people who are cared for outside of their home borough. In Wigan this is not the case because of our approach through The Deal, where we are seeing a safe and sustainable reduction in the numbers of children in care and a reduction in the need for out of borough placements for children.
“We have invested in continued improvements to our practice, in approaches to increase the number of foster carers in the borough and changed the way we work, co-designed with young people, to support children in care to be cared for in families in their communities. An example of this is the new ATOM service which has been developed with the involvement of some of our young people in care.
“Our ‘Deal for Foster Carers’ and Mockingbird service has been implemented to support our amazing foster carers and to encourage more local foster carers to come forward. This means that more young people can be cared for in families in Wigan borough and we still need more carers to care for children in the borough.”
A spokesman for the Children’s Commissioner said: “All of this shows that less money is being spent on low-level work and more money is being spent on children in crisis.
“Essentially, what this means is we are supporting many fewer children, but are supporting them in more expensive ways.”
In response to the fall in spending on children and young people’s services, a spokesman for the Department of Education said: “We must help parents who face difficulties to strengthen their family relationships so they can properly support their children.
“That is why we’re putting an extra £410 million into social care this year, including children’s, alongside £84m over the next five years to keep more children at home with their families safely, helping reduce the demand on services.”