On the 17th of January, I spoke in a debate about the crisis in social care for vulnerable children. This has been caused by austerity, and especially by the vicious 50% cut to our council budgets over the last eight years. I made clear what this crisis means to communities like ours in West Ham. Here’s what I said:
I wish to raise several issues today, so I hope hon. Members will bear with me. I am afraid the list got a little longer each time this debate was delayed—it is a good job it is being held today, as who knows how long I would have gone on for otherwise.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and the first part of my contribution will focus on the point he rightly highlighted about the lack of effective early intervention. Hon. Members who were in this place before 2015 may know that I have been a critic of the troubled families programme, but I sincerely believe in early intervention. Working closely with families and having a joined-up approach across different public services is the only way to go, and those were the principles that underlined the programme pioneered and implemented by the previous Labour Government before 2010. Those principles also lie behind the troubled families programme.
It is therefore concerning to know that funding for the troubled families programme and its work across our country—both the good and the bad—is set to end next year, with nothing to replace it in sight. I am sure the Government know that there is support across the House for early intervention if it is properly resourced, managed and measured. My only hope is that the looming disaster of Brexit does not distract from the creation of a replacement programme.
It is important to talk about early intervention, because funding for such programmes has fallen massively even as need is soaring. Some 72% of funding for children’s services is now spent on firefighting because children and families are already in crisis, but that funding does not prevent such crises from happening. Early intervention and universal support services have been cut to the bone, with cuts of 60% in each area according to the Children’s Commissioner for England. Those cuts include £1 billion from Sure Start and an additional £900 million from services that work with children and young people. Such massive cuts have meant that social workers find it much harder to work with vulnerable children and families early and effectively. Caseloads have undeniably and inexorably increased, leaving much less time available for regular contact and for building up relationships, trust and understanding with families. That exacerbates family problems, leading to poor child development, school exclusions, more children being taken into care, increases in antisocial behaviour and crime, and signs of abuse or neglect being missed until—sadly, sadly, sadly—it is just too late. Last month, Ofsted’s national director of social care, Yvette Stanley, pointed out that the cuts are clearly a false economy, and that slashing non-statutory services is
“storing up problems for the future”.
Let me remind the Minister about practical early intervention services that are being cut. They include debt and financial advice services, parenting programmes to help families address the causes of disruptive behaviour —programmes that we know are effective—support for victims of domestic violence, and help for getting mums and children out of abusive situations and allowing them to recover. That now all comes out of the children’s services budget, because funding from elsewhere has disappeared.
The list also includes mental health treatment and substance abuse programmes for parents. The Government cannot claim to be pro-family if they continue to remove those forms of support, and the absence of such programmes is driving more and more children into the care of the state. I always try to appeal to what the Government would see as common sense, so let me say simply that it costs more money to take a child into care than it does to prevent them from going into care. Even with a balanced budget approach, the cuts are a massive mistake.
It is bad enough that resources have been cut so much, but demand has also been rising rapidly. Social security cuts and universal credit are undeniably increasing poverty, and poverty leads to more insecurity and massive stresses within families. Some 1.5 million people in the UK are utterly destitute and unable to afford essentials such as shelter, food, heating or clothing, and that includes 365,000 children. The stresses and strains on families’ lives are getting worse because of the Government’s failed and continuing austerity policy.
According to the Government’s own statistics, 1.5 million more disabled people, 300,000 more pensioners, 400,000 more working-age adults and over half a million more children are in poverty than in 2010. The most shocking rise in poverty has been among children with parents in work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has worked out that there are 710,000 more children in poverty in working households than in 2010. In-work poverty has actually risen faster than employment in recent years. We are talking about working families, many with lone working parents. Many are working long hours and multiple jobs to get by on low pay, constantly struggling to make ends meet. That means that parents are stressed and that they have less time to spend at home and focus on their children, making sure that everything is okay and creating a family whose health is equal to their love.
The worst consequence of child poverty—child homelessness—has also increased massively. That is a huge difference from when I was a child. My family was cleared from a slum in West Silvertown in 1963. We moved into a beautiful, brand-new two-bedroom flat overlooking the dying docks in east London. It was that flat that gave me everything. It was from that flat that everything else stemmed. My mum and dad had stability. They both worked in local factories to provide for us. That home, however small I sometimes felt it was, gave me the ability to study and to grow with my community. It gave me and my sister the opportunity to thrive.
Today’s working class children in the east end have it very different. One hundred and thirty thousand children were homeless over Christmas, an increase of almost 60% in just five years. Ten thousand of those children are stuck in bed and breakfast accommodation, often with a whole family in a single room. Most of the other 120,000 are in temporary accommodation, torn from schools, family and friends, the places they recognise and the support networks they rely on. They often do not even know where their local library is, because they have not been in a place long enough to be able to work it out.
I see the effects of that in my own borough, where I grew up in that secure and safe council flat. Now, appallingly to me, it has the highest level of homelessness in the country. I hear about children having to travel hours each way to school from a different part of the city; families sleeping in dirty, cold, rat-infested rooms; families who have not had a secure, safe place to call a home for year after year after year. How is a child supposed to learn to trust others and feel safe under those conditions? How is a parent supposed to muster the time and energy to engage with a social worker over weeks and months, and how is that social worker supposed to create and maintain a relationship when the family is so insecure?
I believe there is a direct relationship between the crisis in children’s social care and the increase in extremely serious harm caused by criminal gang exploitation in my constituency and the east of London. If the Government want to reduce serious violence, funding children’s services properly is an absolute must. We know that gangs pick on vulnerable children the most. Studies show that poor emotional health at the age of seven is the best predictor of future exploitation by gangs. That means that counselling is one of the most effective ways to prevent children from being exploited. They need to develop resilience.
We know that these children often have undiagnosed special educational needs as well. We should be supporting them, but instead the children and their families are left to struggle on, often alone. Once they reach secondary school, vulnerable children are far more likely to be excluded or off-rolled, increasing the risk of exploitation even more. As we know, exclusions have sky-rocketed by 67% over the past five years. That is the research, but it is also real life. I hear about the consequences from local mums terrified of what has happened to their children. As their MP, I am their last resort. They have already tried everywhere else. I see the same things in the serious case reviews of children who have been tragically and appallingly murdered in gang-related violence. Every review I have seen tells the same story: a vulnerable child; escalating involvement in gang violence; the failure of local agencies to intervene; and opportunities to help not taken. I have absolutely no doubt that cuts to resources are part of the cause.
The case reviews are a statutory responsibility, designed so that lessons can be learned. In summing up, I hope the Minister will tell me the lessons that he and the Department are learning. I have talked about a replacement for the troubled families programme, early intervention, universal preventive services and the cuts, but let us be clear: the crisis in children’s services is systemic. It is just as much about the increased stresses and struggles that families are having to go through because this economy, this social security system and this Government frankly do not work for them.