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Cllr David Simmonds is the Deputy Leader of Hillingdon Council and the Deputy Chairman of the Local Government Association.
Becoming a parent is one of the key triggers of political engagement. Statistics for electoral participation show that the older we get, the more likely we are to vote. However, in council elections we see a marked increase in interest when responsibility for children becomes a factor in voters’ lives. The role of the council in accessing schooling, play, health services, sports, and youth activities, becomes a real, rather than an abstract matter.
Getting this right matters to lots of our voters and potential supporters. In this article I am going to focus on what we are achieving in our care system. Politically, this has a different kind of significance. Most families will go their entire lives without needing the services of their council’s children’s services department, but voters in general do want to know that there is an efficient and effective safety net out there. This has been reflected in a number of Conservative policy initiatives, such as the Troubled Families Programme, National Citizen Service, and the What Works Centres to share effective practice at turning round children’s lives.
Children’s services is the only area of council spending to have risen over the last decade, despite publicity suggesting the contrary. Although grants from central government have fallen, councillors have redirected funds to children’s services. Partly this reflects a growing number of children in our country, but also high expectations. There is extensive legislation governing children’s social care, making it a ‘must do’ for councils in legislative as well as moral terms. To frame the debate about what we want to achieve for our care system in future, it is worth reflecting on key facts about how it is today.
Firstly, comparative studies show we have one of the highest performing child protection systems in the world. The recent Bringing the Global to the Local report involving the NSPCC, Local Government Association, and Early Intervention Foundation, highlights that our system is improving over time. Measures, from the numbers of child deaths, through to the stability of placements for children in care, show improving trends. Children in care are much more likely to attend school regularly than the wider population, and the longer they spend in the care system, the better their outcomes are, compared to other children in need who remain at home with their families. According to the well respected Coram children’s charity, an academic study showed that:
Our policy response, therefore, needs to be framed as improving a high performing system, rather than fixing a broken one.
Secondly, the Bringing the Global to the Local report highlights a trend which councils have been aware of for many years: that an additional pressure on our system is that the UK is a destination country for trafficking and exploitation. In particular, the risks for young people at the margins of adulthood who arrive at our borders are a major concern. The numbers of child refugees in the care of councils has doubled compared to pre-2015 levels without there being money to pay for their care. This is a fairly simple equation in costs and government needs to vote through the money to match the sentiment that the country should do more to support child refugees.
Finally, the other major trend is the rise in the level of concern across the population about children at risk. There has been a massive increase in the numbers of children referred to councils in part because friends, neighbours, teachers, and GPs among others, have concerns about their welfare. In some respects this is welcome trend because it reflects greater awareness and a desire to intervene in a helpful way. But making sure increasing numbers of children are safe comes at a price. To date, that price has been paid by councillors diverting money that would have otherwise funded other local priorities to meet this demand.
In summary, as we look to the future, I would like to see the debate reflecting these facts. Our task is to improve a system that is already very effective, albeit far from perfect. And if we will the end – improved life chances for children under the protection of our state – then we must will the means.