With a rising population of children in care at a time when council funding faces enormous cuts, I know that the pressures on local authorities are intense.
The figures back this up. Total spending on children’s services decreased by 9% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2013-14. However, I have some sympathy when councils tell me they are stretching every sinew to meet their responsibilities to children who are highly vulnerable when you consider spending per looked-after child by the average council decreased over the same period by just 4%.
Indeed, the Local Government Association has said that in 2015-16 councils overspent their children’s social care budgets by £605m in order to protect children at immediate risk of harm. As readers of this publication will know, they forecast a £2bn funding gap by 2020.
I share widespread concerns that the pressures on local authority budgets are leading to risks of a reduction in quality and tightening of eligibility for children’s services.
At a time of unprecendented short-termism in national thinking, there is an overwhelming need to look at the bigger picture
Many say that they are maintaining services for children in crisis only by reducing services that prevent family crises developing.
LGA analysis shows that government funding for the early intervention grant has been cut by almost £500m since 2013, and is projected to drop by a further £183m by 2020 - representing a 40% reduction by the end of the decade.
Even the most rudimentary assessment of the long term viability of such a strategy will conclude that this can only end in disaster. Disaster in economic terms certainly, as the high cost of crisis-care continues to accelerate, but also, and most importantly, in moral and social terms if vulnerable children are left without help as preventable conditions worsen.
Earlier this year, I published my first report on child vulnerability in England. To be updated each year, the report set out to identify the scale and nature of vulnerability.
The statistics were shocking. Half a million children are so vulnerable that the state has had to step in with care or support. A total of 680,000 are living with parents with their own high risks and problems.
Over coming months, I will focus systematically on the groups of vulnerable children to shine a light on the help they need and the support they get.
By identifying who these children are, the priority must be to reduce the risks they face.
But the stark reality is that the majority of vulnerable children are invisible to the authorities with most, depending on the area they are growing up in, falling short of the level of need that will trigger support.
If the predictions by the LGA and others are right, the number of vulnerable children can only increase, with dire consequences.
That’s why, at a time of unprecedented short termism in national thinking, there is an overwhelming need to look at the bigger picture.
Investing in new transitional funds for preventative work would allow much needed services to be rebuilt while crisis support is maintained.
Early intervention is never going to be a quick fix and cannot replace the need for specialist services and care.
However, if we are going to reduce the risks for vulnerable children, which in my view we must, we have to take the bold step to invest in the kind of support that children need to prevent their problems escalating.
Every week I meet children who have been overlooked and fallen between the gaps in services – often with very negative consequences.
This needs to change. As my team embarks on research into the public’s views on what should be spent on children, I will be interested to see if most people agree with me.
Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England
The majority of vulnerable children are invisible to authorities