By Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics

Channel 4 News’ despatch from Staffordshire in July shadowing Alice, a local charity supporting vulnerable families, was a distressing watch to say the least. The report contained stories of children with no clean clothes to wear or beds to sleep in, including one teenage boy who had resorted to sleeping on a wooden pallet. Accounts of such destitution are hard for many to comprehend in modern Britain.

But recent research by Pro Bono Economics, commissioned by the Children’s Services Funding Alliance, provides some vital context to the challenges facing the country’s most vulnerable children. Among its findings, the study revealed that spending on early intervention support, such as children’s centres, family support services and services for young people, in areas of England with the highest child poverty fell by 53 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

Today, the House of Lords Public Services Committee has published its report, Children in crisis: the role of public services in overcoming child vulnerability, which calls on government to pledge to return to 2010 levels of investment in early intervention services and set out an urgent strategy for the nationwide roll-out of Family Hubs (centres where families and young people get joined-up help with a range of problems). This follows the Chancellor’s announcement at last month’s Budget of £82 million to fund 75 local authorities to set up new Family Hubs.

The committee’s recommendations draw on evidence provided by a wide range of organisations, including PBE. As part of the committee’s inquiry, we undertook analysis of how changes to early intervention spending on children’s services by local authorities have developed across the country.

Over the last decade, real terms spending on early intervention services by local authorities has declined by 48%. However, those cuts have played out unevenly across the country. In Milton Keynes, for example, spending on early intervention services has fallen 47% over the last decade, while next door in Bedford spending has fallen by just 2%. 

And while a variety of factors have contributed to this, there are also notable trends that indicate that children in areas of greatest disadvantage and deprivation have experienced greater cuts to these early intervention services than those children in areas of lower disadvantage. 

Spending on early intervention services in the areas of England with the highest levels of child poverty fell by £766 million between 2010 and 2019, a real terms reduction of 53%. This halving of spend resulted in an average per-child reduction of £141 in the areas where child poverty is highest. In areas of England with the lowest levels of child poverty, spending on early intervention services reduced by £182 million or 38% over that period, an average per-child reduction of £61. This has left areas of England with the highest levels of child poverty taking on 45% of the £1.7 billion real terms cuts in annual spending that have been introduced over the last decade.

You can explore how Local Authority expenditure on children’s services has changed in your area on the interactive map below.

But it’s not the scale or even the distribution of the cuts which are the real concern, but the effect that they are likely to have had on both children’s outcomes and the public purse. The London School of Economics has estimated that the economic cost of failing to invest in the early years in 2018/19 was £16.1 billion, playing out in costs associated with child injuries and mental health problems, children’s social care, crime and antisocial behaviour, school absence and exclusions and youth economic inactivity – as well as the long-term costs of later mental and physical health problems, and social consequences such as homelessness.

Unless serious action is taken, the impact on the public purse is only likely to worsen. Without preventative measures achieved through early intervention services, the number of young people and families that go on to develop more severe difficulties is likely to increase. In turn, this is likely to require additional expenditure on late intervention measures, reducing the funding available for early intervention in a vicious cycle. That this circle is particularly pronounced within the areas of the country with the highest levels of child poverty and deprivation should concern those that are invested in both children’s outcomes and the efficiency of public expenditure.

The £500 million for family support the government has pledged to unwind some of these effects is timely and important. In Staffordshire, where early intervention children’s services have been cut by 70%, the key question is whether the Alice charity continues to see need for its services grow. Or will the government’s action succeed in reducing the desperate situation of many children and families here, and across the country? As the Public Services Committee points out, the next important step is the strategy which sits behind the spending earmarked for the nation’s vulnerable children.

November 19, 2021.