By Jack Hudson
Debbie Wilcox, a Labour councillor who is also the leader of Newport City Council, has recently said that pressures such as a lack of jobs and opportunities caused by austerity are causing families to fall apart, leading to an increase in the number of children ending up in care care. Wilcox said that she has seen huge increases in the demand of children’s services, not only in Newport but across the whole of Wales.
A report on local government funding and spending in Wales published by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre shows that the spending on social services has increased by £204 million since 2009/10, with £154 million more being spent on children and family services. This data is surprising as it shows that, despite dealing with an ageing population, the biggest increase in social care spending in Wales has been in relation to children. The university’s report states that the amount spent specifically on children in care has risen by £95.9 million (or by 33.2%) in real terms since 2010. It is already a legal requirement for councils to provide care for children who need it, which implies that these increases are almost entirely the result of rising demand and not political choice. The report also states that the number of children in care has risen from 4,695 in 2009 to 6,405 in 2018.
The report concurs with Wilcox’s comments, highlighting the effect of austerity on care home admissions and explicitly stating that the increase became very notable “particularly since the start of austerity, a period of welfare reforms and cuts on preventative services”.
One preventative measure which received funding cuts, presumably linked to austerity, was the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, a service that aimed to prevent children from being separated from parents with drug and alcohol problems. Cuts to this service have prevented it from expanding from England into Wales, and a lack of such services is likely contributing to rising family breakdowns.
Alison Michalska, the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has also concurred with Wilcox’s theory, arguing that funding cuts in welfare policies and family support services such as Sure Start, along with general rising poverty rates among couples with children in Wales, all contribute to fuelling the increase in the number of children admitted into care. Michalska argued that unless the benefits system becomes more flexible, deprived children will continue ending up in care.
Moreover, the Universal Credit benefit system being rolled out across Wales has caused financial problems for certain claimants who have ended up waiting longer than usual to receive their benefits whilst the rollout is introduced; this is also reported to have caused a breakdown in some families. In 2017, the Children’s Commissioner for England called for the rollout to be halted as the impact of Universal Credit on families with children had not been tested.
Finally, Wilcox has also discussed the effect of austerity on council funding. Cardiff University’s report shows that Welsh Government grants to local authorities have fallen by £918.5 million (18.9%) since 2009/10. Wilcox argues that the UK government needs to ‘make the cake bigger’ and provide more funding to the Welsh Government so that they can allocate more money to local councils. Austerity measures have ultimately meant that it is challenging for local governments to replace the extra money they have had to allocate to children’s services, meaning that other vital services may go underfunded.