On 21 March, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children published a damning report on the state of children's services in England, 'No Good Options: Report of the Inquiry into Children’s Social Care in England.'  This powerful and comprehensive Report makes for deeply concerning reading, although the content is not surprising to those of us who act for and support vulnerable children. 

Increased Demand - Decreased Funding

The APPG has found that the system is struggling to meet demand: over the past five years, demand for children's social care risen, yet at the same time resources have taken a nosedive due to swingeing cuts.  The Report states that the Inquiry "heard compelling evidence that local authorities are struggling to keep up with the rise in demand."  The Report's Foreword, by Chair Tim Loughton MP, summarises the grim mismatch between rising demand and dwindling finances:

"Overall, the number of children on a child protection plan rose by almost 30 per cent between 2010-11 and 2015. In the same period, the number of children taken into care rose by more than 17 per cent. Simultaneously of course, resource is shrinking. Local authorities increased expenditure on children’s social care by just over two per cent between since 2010, during which time their overall expenditure reduced by more than 21 per cent." 

The Report highlights many areas of concern, but in this post I focus upon two in particular: its findings of (1) a "postcode lottery" for vulnerable children and families, and (2) a widespread failure, across England, to meet statutory obligations under section 17, Children Act 1989.

(1) Postcode lottery for vulnerable children and families

The Report finds that local policies and practice vary widely across local authorities. Statistics suggest wildly different approaches to early intervention, identification of "children in need", and to rates of children taken into care. It states that evidence suggests this variation does not result from differences in demography or resource, and that local policy decisions are leading directly to "stark contrasts in children’s outcomes, including the likelihood that they are taken into care." 

(2) Failure to support all "children in need"

A survey of directors of children’s services carried out by the Inquiry found that 89 per cent reported finding it increasingly challenging to fulfil their statutory duties under section 17 in the last five years - a statistic rightly described in the Report as "staggering."   The Inquiry also found that, where children are in touch with services, interventions tend to be focused on safeguarding and child protection concerns, rather than on identifying and responding to a broad range of needs.  

The National Children's Bureau (which provides the Secretariat to the APPG) has described how the Inquiry heard repeatedly that local authorities are having to target dwindling resources toward children who have already suffered abuse or neglect, or those at a high risk of harm, rather than "nipping problems in the bud. The shift toward late intervention makes it harder to engage with families before they reach crisis point."  This is, of course, a false economy - one result for some children which the Inquiry highlights is that, by the time children's services are involved, there is no option but for them to be taken into care.

These criticisms will resonate with many of us who have seen 'gatekeeping' by local authorities: the introduction of 'thresholds' for intervention under s. 17 which bear no relation to the statutory definition in s. 17 itself, and refusals to even assess the needs of (for example) many disabled children, children in contact with the criminal justice system, or children at risk of neglect, despite them plainly falling within the meaning of a "child in need" in s. 17(10).  Budgetary pressures are undoubtedly resulting in some children's services departments adopting a narrower definition of "child in need" than Parliament did in 1989, when the Children Act was passed.

Avoiding a Postcode Lottery and Supporting Every Child in Need - we called for this in 2012

Reading this Report, I spotted clear parallels between what the APPG's Inquiry has found and predictions made by the Every Child in Need campaign five years ago. This was a campaign I initiated in summer 2012, along with Doughty Street colleagues and a number of brilliant, committed solicitors with expertise in the Children Act 1989, due to serious concerns arising from the publication by the Government of proposals to remove minimum, baseline national standards for section 17 assessments, and instead allow more leeway to individual children's services departments to set localised targets.  The reasoning for the proposed changes was based on calls for more localised "innovation" in children's services, and the then Government's criticisms of "red tape."  Working with many expert organisations, which between them represent hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children, including child victims of trafficking, children in long-term hospital care and children in the criminal justice system, we called on the Government not to introduce the proposed changes.  Our concerns were summarised in this letter to the Telegraph, signed by members of the campaign including the Chief Executives of the National Deaf Children's Society and the Howard League for Penal Reform:

"The Department for Education is proposing replacing statutory guidance which has been in place for the past 12 years with a new document. If introduced, this will remove national minimum standards on how quickly local authorities must see children referred to them, and assess and meet their needs. 

 Ministers say these changes involve cutting red tape. We disagree. The current guidance provides an essential floor below which no local authority is allowed to fall. The changes would result in a postcode lottery, with some authorities acting speedily and others foot-dragging for weeks or months. 

 What causes us real concern is that the proposals are being driven through without any proper evidence base. No independent work has been undertaken to examine the likely impact upon the wide range of vulnerable children who will be affected. We were dismayed that the consultation exercise failed to consult properly with children and was carried out over the summer, when Parliament is in recess and schools are closed. We urge ministers to think again before removing this critical plank of our child welfare system." 

The campaign had partial success - for example, the resulting guidance did retain a long-stop national timescale for s. 17 assessments of 45 working days rather than allowing entirely localised decision-making (albeit that this is longer than the previous timescale, and the 45 day limit may be departed from in certain circumstances).  This was due to the then responsible Minister listening to concerns raised by the Every Child in Need campaign and others.  The Minister? Tim Loughton MP, Chair of the APPG on Children.  

"Innovation" and Children's Services

In 2016, the language of "innovation" and "freeing up" children's services departments to take decisions, free of the straitjacket of national standards, surfaced yet again.  This time, the proposal was far worse than the hurried proposals in 2012, affecting primary legislation rather than guidance: the Children and Social Work Bill contained an extreme measure which would, if passed, have allowed local authorities to opt out of the vast majority of their legal obligations to vulnerable children (an exemption clause).  Carolyne Willow described it as "bonfire of children's rights"  which was an apt description - it would have applied to more than 80 years of legislation, encompassing child protection, family support and services to children in care, disabled children and care leavers.  The proposals were made despite the absence of any evidence to show that legislation stifles effective children’s services. On the contrary, as campaign groups such as Article 39 pointed out, research for the Department for Education  discovered, unsurprisingly, that statutory duties had helped to shield services in the face of severe government cuts. (The researchers wrote, “statutory responsibilities limited the choices that local councils had available to achieve savings”.)

This deeply worrying proposal has, thankfully, been defeated, following a brilliant campaign by many children's rights organisations, over 100,000 people signing Carolyne's petition, and cross-party opposition - including from Tim Loughton MP, who has been a strong voice raising concerns about the Government's plans from its own backbench.  The APPG Report welcomes the Government's U-turn in the Children and Social Work Bill:

"Notably, although innovation is essential, and should be encouraged, the Government was wrong to seek to exempt local authorities from statutory duties. This would risk entrenching and legitimising the existing postcode lottery and we therefore welcome the last minute change of heart in the Children & Social Work Bill." 

What Next?

Welcome though the Government's U-turn has been, avoiding making matters worse, things are frankly pretty bad already.  This Report makes that clear.  So what next?  Of course local authorities must comply with their statutory obligations, and we as lawyers and campaigners in the field must continue to hold them to account when they fail to do so.  

But, importantly, the Inquiry Report also calls on central Government to take action.  Tim Loughton in the Foreword emphasises the Government's "crucial role" and the need for it to tackle two major issues:    

"First, it must act to address the funding crisis engulfing children’s social care, and in particular the lack of resource for preventative and early intervention services. Second, it must take steps to understand the cause of such significant variation in access to services and the impact on vulnerable children’s outcomes."

The APPG's Inquiry took place over the course of a year, from February 2016 to March 2017, and its conclusions are based upon an extensive evidence base - including written submissions, oral evidence and a survey of directors of children's services (precisely the kind of evidence base, incidentally, which the Every Child in Need campaign pointed out was needed in 2012).  And the APPG's Chair is a Conservative MP and former Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families.  This is a Report which the Government should take very seriously.  And we must hold them to account if they fail to do so.