Let’s put the children first

18 Jul 18

If children are our future then we need to put the money into protecting them, argues Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson

There is a lot of talk these days about intra-generational inequality and how older people benefit at the expense of the young.

It is usually mentioned in the context of house prices, or the Brexit result – but for looked-after children caught up in the maelstrom of a complex upbringing, the problems caused by poverty are depressingly familiar.

Last month, the Joseph Rowntree Trust reported that more than 300,000 children are now growing up in destitution – living without basic necessities – a situation exacerbated by benefit sanctions.

By “basic” we’re talking food, clothing, heating and lighting. A damning indictment of the political choices made in recent years in what remains the fifth largest economy in the world.

Leaving the world in a better place for the next generation must surely be the biggest priority for all of us in local government, regardless of party.

But as a country, we are simply not “walking the talk” when it comes to protecting vulnerable children, with existing provision in children and youth services unequal to the task at hand.

As I see it, there are two problems.

As ever, the first is cash. This is not meant to be government-bashing, but it is blindingly obvious there simply isn’t enough money in the system to meet demand.

Nationally, we have a £2bn funding gap in children’s services, while my own council has a £6m overspend this year (and £12m in 2018–19), which we are currently plugging with our reserves.

Like many other large councils, we have seen a two-thirds cut to our budget – £444m – since 2010. At the same time, we have seen an 11% increase in demand on children’s services, with almost half of children in Liverpool (41,000) living in the top 10% most deprived wards in the country.

The second problem is that the system isn’t agile enough to cope with rising pressures.

There are supply-side issues that need to be addressed, with a recruitment shortfall in the numbers of potential foster carers and adoptive parents perhaps the most obvious weakness in the system.

Nationally, we need more than 7,000 new foster carers, and there are particular shortfalls in those willing to look after sibling groups and older children.

This was powerfully brought home recently by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, when she published her Stability Index last month.

‘It is blindingly obvious there simply isn’t enough money in the system to meet demand’

This found that although most children in care are receiving stable and consistent care, thousands more are still “pinging” around the system.

Almost 2,400 children changed home, school and social worker over the last 12 months. Over the past two years, more than 3,000 children had to move home four or more times. Over three years, about 2,500 children moved home five or more times.

Liverpool has around 600 foster carers – but half of them come through private agencies because we do not have enough of our own, costing us, we estimate, £6m extra a year, which clearly goes straight into the coffers of companies.

We are reviewing our approach in order to strengthen our offer with things like a council tax waiver and free gym membership, while our new council-owned housing company is tasked with building homes specifically catering for the needs of foster carers.

But it is a hard nut to crack for a single council.

A concerted government-led national advertising campaign to recruit more carers would help. Given that four out of five children in the care system are placed with foster carers, this is a national issue that demands ministerial attention.

Local government has made real headway in recent years in putting the needs of the adult care sector at the front of the political debate.

We must now see a concerted effort to do the same for children’s services if we are ever to make good on the casual boast that young people are our future.

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