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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:19 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 1:19 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this timely and important debate.

Listening to the wise words and experience of your Lordships, three points arise in my mind. First, while this is the area of perhaps the most severe cuts in recent years, other areas have had huge cuts as well. I think particularly of the Prison Service and the fact that so many prisoners have to spend 23 hours in their cells because there are not enough prison officers to take them to useful activities and exercise. I have been reading today about the courts. I know less about this but apparently the computer system has failed throughout the system and this is attributed to the lack of funding over several years.

The Government have a huge task ahead of them. We have been hearing about the concern for those left behind—the just-managing families. I commend the Government for meeting those words with investment, particularly in housing, which I warmly welcome. But of course I am now going to ask for more money. I have to do that.

The second point is that it seems that the political system in this country is becoming more extreme. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems that we are moving from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut—from one extreme to another. I hope that your Lordships might look to Germany and see how it has achieved more continuity in policy. It is a prosperous country which also cares for the vulnerable, and where there is a wide dispersion of power across the nation—not one central city which dominates the nation.

My third and final point is that Germany is a prosperous nation but it has higher levels of tax. In particular, it taxes the wealthy more. I have an interest in this, I suppose, as a landowner. We cannot expect local taxpayers to pay so much for the welfare of vulnerable children, for instance, who are very far from their own kind. It has to come down to the general taxpayer.

I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the Local Government Association. I urge the Minister with all my heart to listen to the concerns raised around the House about funding for essential services for children and families. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised these issues very powerfully and several other noble Lords have raised them too. It is heartbreaking to see the good progress made in accommodating children and young people leaving care being reversed due to lack of funds. Ten years ago a third of children were leaving care at 16 or 17, often going into unsuitable accommodation. Much good progress has been made in addressing that. But a fortnight ago an article in the Observer highlighted that this kind of thing was happening again, and contained an account from a young woman who had been placed in a hostel. Others were being placed in bed and breakfasts. I had hoped that her familiar story—feeling very unsafe among all those men coming out of prison or recovering from substance misuse—was a thing of the past.

Barnardo’s, the National Children’s Bureau, Action for Children and the Children’s Society have called for the Government—and I agree with and support strongly their call—to put in place an interim funding arrangement in order to stabilise the crisis in early intervention services and prevent more children and families reaching breaking point. They have asked the Government to address the £3 billion shortfall in children’s social care funding and to put children at the heart of the forthcoming spending review. I believe that local authorities predict a £3 billion shortfall by 2025.

There is a terrible irony in the Government’s welcome recognition of the importance of perinatal mental health, secure attachment for babies and infants and the vital early years of children’s lives, which comes at the same time as the underfunding of essential local authority services to support these just-managing families and their children. As the charities and others have told us, tens of thousands of children have to be referred to children’s services multiple times before receiving the support they need—often reaching crisis point. I warmly welcome the inter-ministerial group led by the Leader of the other place, the right honourable Andrea Leadsom MP, which is examining support for early family relationships. Ms Leadsom, the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith and senior MPs from all parties—Frank Field and Graham Allen, for instance —have led and promoted work on early intervention and support for families.

The coalition Government successfully rebuilt the profession of health visiting. Health visitors visit families at the very earliest stage after the birth and play a crucial role in early intervention. Responsibility for health visitors moved from the DoH to local authorities three or so years ago. Now health visitors are again in serious decline.

The right honourable Norman Lamb MP chaired a Science and Technology Select Committee report looking at successful interventions in the early years. One of the chief findings was the essential role that health visitors played in effective early intervention. The APPG for Children has produced successive reports on the functioning of local authority children’s services. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to them. Officers, of which I am one, were grateful for Children’s Minister Zahawi’s contribution to the evidence for our latest report, published last autumn. We appreciate his recognition that funding for children’s services needs urgent consideration. One of our main findings was the decline in early intervention for vulnerable families. There is no duty on local authorities to intervene early. Without such an early intervention duty, intervention has been stripped away. In evidence, we heard of the crucial contribution that the troubled families initiative has made to sustain at least some services and we are most grateful that this funding stream has been maintained by the Government. I would like to say a little more on early intervention if there is time, but there probably is not.

As vice-chair of the APPG for Looked After Children, Young People and Care Leavers, I am very aware of the rising numbers of children arriving into local authority care. Several of your Lordships have referred to this. The previous President of the Family Division warned that the burden on the public family courts was becoming intolerable.

There is so much that could be done to make better futures for our vulnerable children and families. We have an ageing population. Every child is precious to us. I urge the Government to look most closely at the funding of children and family social services, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.