Eileen Munro, a former government adviser, one of the UK’s foremost child protection experts has accused the government-commissioned review of children’s social care in England of ignoring the key role of poverty in driving the dramatic rise in youngsters being taken into care.
“If you are truly trying to help children have a better childhood you have to link it to a levelling up on child poverty,” said Munro, who is emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics. She said the terms of reference of the review only focused on services for children whose families were already in crisis, and while they mentioned domestic abuse, mental illness and substance abuse, they “do not show curiosity” regarding the root causes of those problems.
The review could not ignore poverty, poor housing and job insecurity, all major causes of poor parenting and poor child development, demonstrated by the increased incidence of social stress during Covid and the disproportionate numbers of children taken into care in poorer areas she said.
“A truly ‘bold and broad’ review needs to look at these root causes. Even the best of services cannot neutralise the harm of poverty.” She added: “It bothers me that the government draws attention to parental problems without seeing how poverty is such a big factor in those problems. It’s limiting the responsibility to parents instead of to how we function as a society."
She continued, “What worries me most is the [children’s services] system is totally underfunded, families are under huge strain, and wanting to make things better without guaranteeing any money – actually, explicitly saying you can’t assume there will be any more money – just seems to tie our hands around our backs.”
The Department for Education contract explicitly states that the review’s recommendations must be affordable and that the DfE “cannot assume any additional funding from the exchequer”.
The number of children in care in England rose from 65,520 in 2011 to more than 80,000 at the end of March 2020, while the number of children on child protection plans increased by more than half. Councils say English children’s services departments now face a funding shortfall of £800m. Latest official figures show 4.3 million children – equivalent to about 31% of all UK children – were in poverty in 2019-20, with hundreds of thousands more expected to have fallen below the breadline during the pandemic.