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Political apathy is putting vulnerable children at increasing risk

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services last week, the Department for Education’s director of children’s social care, improvement and learning Graham Archer said it was unlikely “a lot more money” would be made available for children’s services in next year’s spending review.

One can imagine, following an almost constant stream of warnings and hard evidence that - as ADCS president Stuart Gallimore put it - there is “no fat left to trim” from services designed to protect children from horrific and lasting harm, delegates eyes were raised towards the ceiling in exasperation as Mr Archer said this austere approach was due to a “difficult fiscal position”.

The Storing up Trouble report published today by the all party parliamentary group for children is the latest in a long line of research into the current state of children’s social care in England.

Councils have worked hard to protect budgets during 10 years of arduous, grinding austerity and social care staff - from senior management to frontline social workers - have collectively managed to maintain a system that remains among the safest and most effective in the world.

But the hard-hitting and sometimes downright disturbing evidence presented in the report suggests this quality, albeit variable across the country, could be on the verge of being significantly and disastrously compromised.

It presents evidence that almost three-quarters of 97 directors of children’s services reported thresholds for ‘children in need’ support were variable, with almost two-thirds adding there was variation in thresholds for making a child subject to a child protection plan.

The report says analysis of Local Safeguarding Children’s Board threshold documents found “significant disparities” in how areas were addressing need, particularly in response to children who are self-harming, families with housing problems and, most worryingly, children experiencing physical abuse.

While the system can never be risk-free, and councils are rightly setting their own approaches based on local need and in line with the arrangements and wider strategies that are in place, the report suggests budget pressures are driving increases in that risk. With increased risk comes an increased likelihood that something could go badly wrong.

The inquiry heard evidence that funding levels are influencing “at least implicitly” decisions by social workers about whether to intervene to provide support to children. While these pressures were said to be more prevalent in early help services, the report says decisions on safeguarding a child at risk of serious abuse or neglect are also being influenced in this way.

Most members of the public, particularly those who remember Victoria Climbie or Daniel Pelka, would surely be horrified to know councils and practitioners feel forced to introduce such an element of doubt when it comes to vulnerable young lives.

Predictably, the Treasury will no doubt latch on to evidence given to the inquiry by academics that gaps in data collection across the children’s social care system “hinders the state’s ability to effectively distribute resources”.

As the face of the DfE’s latest charm offensive children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi has acknowledged that funding is a challenge but used his appearance at the ADCS conference to call for evidence for additional investment.

While strong evidence should inform policy decisions, these constant demands for further data and detail in the face of repeated, informed warnings and calls for action give the impression they are being trotted out by the government to deflect from what appears to be its political apathy towards children, despite the stakes being so high.

As risk grows in the system in line with increasing financial constraints on councils, additional funding in the short term aimed at ensuring children are kept safe in what is an increasingly fragile system should be a important political priority, ahead of implementing any planned wider strategy to drive up standards and consistency.

However, the lives of vulnerable children look set to remain sidelined.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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