An unprecedented surge in demand has pushed children’s social care services to “breaking point”, council representatives have warned.
Local Government Association found three-quarters of councils overspent on allocated budgets by £605m in 2015-16 in order to protect children at risk of immediate harm, with cuts to the early intervention grant totalling nearly £500m since 2013, severely restricting prevention work.
“The reality is that services for the care and protection of vulnerable children are now, in many areas, being pushed to breaking point”
Government figures show there were child protection enquiries about 172,000 children in 2015-16, compared to 72,000 in 2005-06, with the number of children on child protection plans increasing by 24,000 during the same period.
The LGA said it had estimated there would be a £2bn funding gap in children’s social care services by 2020. Under the four-year local government finance settlement, the grant is projected to reduce by a further £183m by 2020.
The association, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, said financial pressures have led to 365 children’s centres and 603 youth centres being closed since 2012.
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said that councils have “done everything” to respond to the “growing financial crisis” in children’s social care.
He added: “[Councils] are now at the point where there are very few savings left to find without having a real and lasting impact on crucial services that many children and families across the country rely on.
“The reality is that services for the care and protection of vulnerable children are now, in many areas, being pushed to breaking point. Government must commit to the life chances of children and young people by acting urgently to address the growing funding gap,” he said.
The County Councils Network argued that rural areas had seen the biggest increase in pressures on children’s social care services. It said figures for referrals to social services among its members show there were 250,000 in 2015-16, compared to 121,324 in 2005.
“We remain confident that the government’s review of the way councils are funded could finally iron out these discrepancies”
The CCN claimed this was treble the number reported in urban areas, which it claims have experienced an overall decrease in referrals during the period while receiving double the core grant to fund services.
Its children’s services spokesman Ian Hudspeth said: “We remain confident that the government’s review of the way councils are funded could finally iron out these discrepancies and give us a funding deal that will allow us to maintain these badly-needed services at the same quality as we are delivering now.
“We look forward to engaging with the review in due course,” he added.
A government spokesman said councils were doing “excellent work”. “We want to help them make sure they do even more,” he said.
“That’s why we set up our £200m children’s social care innovation programme to help them develop new and better ways of delivering these services,” he added.
Meanwhile, today, a charity warned that nearly 140,000 vulnerable children a year were “stuck” on the fringes of social care but receive no support.
It said budget cuts meant that essential family support services were often no longer available. In 2015-16, there were 184,500 children referred to social care whose cases were closed as ‘no further action’ after assessment.
Only 25% were referred to early help services such as children’s centres or domestic violence programmes, leaving “an estimated 140,000 children on the fringes of social care without support, although these children do not reach statutory thresholds, they are still vulnerable”, the charity said.