1. Inquiry into vulnerable children and public services

In February 2021, the House of Lords Public Services Committee launched an inquiry into the extent to which public services tackled the underlying causes of child vulnerability in families. It said it would look at the various different forms that child vulnerability might take, including: children who have special educational needs, disabilities and/or poor mental or physical health; young carers; and children at risk of or experiencing neglect or abuse. The committee said the underlying causes that might lead to children becoming vulnerable could include domestic abuse, and whether their parents were suffering from poor mental health and addiction.

The committee said it would look at the support provided through early intervention and preventative services, intended to provide support to vulnerable children and young people at risk of poor educational and other outcomes. Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, the chair of the Public Services Committee, said the inquiry considered the effectiveness of all services for children and families, including those provided by the private, voluntary, and charitable sectors. She also said the committee considered the impact of Covid-19 on the services offered to vulnerable children.

The committee’s final report was published on 19 November 2021. It concluded that the UK faced a “crisis in child vulnerability”. It argued public service providers were often failing to intervene at an early enough point in a vulnerable child’s life. It said this failure would result in too many children having poor health and education outcomes, and more children going into care.

The committee argued a lack of coordination by central government and national regulators was undermining the ability of local services to work effectively with families. It also concluded there was a short fall in funding available, arguing local authority early intervention services had experienced a “decade of underinvestment” since 2010. As a result, the committee said too many children were “invisible” to the providers of public services, receiving no support. The committee argued that this issue had been exacerbated by restrictions on the availability of in-person services during the Covid–19 pandemic.

1.1 Committee recommendations

The committee made the following recommendations. It said the government should:

  • Publish a national strategy on child vulnerability. As part of this strategy, the committee argued the government should encourage greater collaboration between local statutory service providers and the voluntary sector.
  • Provide support for this national strategy through a multi-year funding allocation for early intervention. It also argued that funding for early intervention should return to the same level as in 2010 and be ringfenced for future spending rounds.
  • Create a new statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and police to collaborate in order to improve children’s life chances.
  • Improve data sharing guidance and training for frontline workers in order to increase proactive data sharing between agencies. It recommended that the government should create a digital record containing key information for all children from ages 0–19.
  • Update the Cabinet Office’s guidance for local public service commissioners in order to increase “co-production” with children and parents. Co-production is the process by which providers of services work closely with the people who use them, in order to shape the way in which those services are provided.

The committee also recommended that the Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services and Ofsted should develop a joint framework for assessing the extent to which local agencies are effectively collaborating in order to improve long-term outcomes for children in their areas.

In addition to these recommendations, the committee made a number of recommendations concerning the government policy on ‘family hubs’. Family hubs are intended to serve as a “one stop shop” for families, coordinating the support available from the public, private and voluntary sectors. In August 2021, the government announced it would be providing funding from the Treasury’s shared outcomes fund to support the establishment of family hubs in ten new areas. This number of new areas was increased subsequently to twelve in November 2021. In the October 2021 autumn budget and spending review, the government announced that an additional £82mn would be allocated over three years to support new family hubs in a further 75 local authority areas in England. This brings the total number of new local authority areas that the government has said will receiving funding to establish family hubs to 87.

The committee said in its report family hubs were an effective provider of early help to the families of vulnerable children. Specifically, the committee commended the fact that family hubs provided help to children at all ages, rather than just during their early years. However, the Committee argued the roll-out of family hubs had been too slow and restricted to certain parts of the country. The committee recommended that the government should increase the number of ‘family hubs’ available. It recommended the roll-out of family hubs should form the core of a national strategy on child vulnerability. It also said the government should define more clearly what the minimum requirements for an effective family hub should be.

1.2 Supporting families programme

The committee also considered the development of the government’s Supporting Families Programme (previously the Troubled Families Programme). The government has said the aim of this programme is to provide families in England with support by addressing multiple disadvantages such as unemployment, domestic abuse, and poor mental health. It is currently delivered by local authorities in partnership with other agencies. The committee welcomed commitments made by the government to expand this programme. However, it said the government needed to provide greater clarity on how it planned to achieve this.

2. Government response

The government published its response to the committee’s report on 11 March 2022. The government said that it was focused on prevention as a means of addressing the problems faced by vulnerable children. The government said it was doing so through the following types of support:

Universal support delivered through mainstream settings such as schools, primary and community health care and GP surgeries; targeted support to provide help and support at the right time to children and their families to prevent needs from escalating, such as through Supporting Families; and specialist support directed at specific children and their families to tackle particular issues they are facing and prevent escalation.

The government said it was taking a strategic approach in order to meet the needs of vulnerable children. For example, it said that the Department for Education’s priorities for supporting vulnerable children through “high quality education and local services” had been outlined in the Department for Education’s 2021–22 outcome delivery plan. However, the government said it did not intend to publish a national strategy as recommended by the committee. It argued a single strategy covering too broad an area of policy risked becoming unmanageable, limiting the flexibility of the government’s approach.

The government said, while it did not support the establishment of a national strategy, it strongly encouraged greater collaboration between statutory services and the voluntary sector where possible. It said the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was developing plans to support government departments to increase the level of involvement by the voluntary sector in the development of policies.

The government rejected the committee’s conclusion that early intervention had not been adequately funded. It said the government was providing councils with £4.8bn of new grant funding. It also said a £500mn package of support had been announced as part of the 2021 spending review, including £82mn funding for establishing new family hubs.

In its response to the committee’s report, the government also said:

  • It did not intend to introduce a new statutory duty to require greater collaboration between local authorities, the NHS and police as recommended by the committee. However, the government said it was supporting greater collaboration between local service providers through the Supporting Families Programme.
  • It recognised that data sharing was challenging for many local areas. It said it was developing new digital personal child health records for all newly born children, covering their early years. However, the government said it did not currently have plans to introduce digital records covering the later years in a child’s life, as recommended by the committee.
  • It did not plan to update its guidance on co-production of services with children and families. However, the government said it had announced in March 2021 that it would establish parent and carer panels. The government said these panels would be made up of parents and carers who are pregnant or have a baby under the age of 24 months and were intended to work with local service providers to codesign and evaluate services.
  • It had published a draft ‘Family hub model framework’ in November 2021. It also said it would continue to expand the number of areas where family hubs were available.

3. Recent developments

3.1 Independent review of children’s social care

In March 2021, the government launched an independent review of children’s social care. The final report of this review was published in May 2022. Responding to the report, Will Quince, the then parliamentary under-secretary of state for education, said in a statement to the House of Commons the government intended to publish an implementation strategy on children’s social care before the end of 2022.

During the repeat of this statement in the House of Lords, Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top asked the government what plans it had for preventing children having to go into the care system through early intervention. Responding, Baroness Barran, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Education, said the government’s priority was “supporting families to raise their children effectively” through its Supporting Families Programme.

3.2 Confirmation of family hub areas

In April 2022, the Department of Education announced which 75 local authority areas would be eligible to receive the funding announced in the Autumn budget and spending review in order to establish family hubs. Speaking in support of the policy, Nadhim Zahawi, the then education secretary, said family hubs would “level up outcomes” for vulnerable children. However, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the announcement had come too late to provide help for many children.

4. Read more

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