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'People are poorer, and that brings new challenges'

Action for Children

10 min read Partner content

A year on from the government's comprehensive spending review (CSR), we talk to Action for Children chief executive, Dame Clare Tickell, about the charity's 'Red Book' analysis on how government policy is affecting vulnerable children and young people on the ground.

How does Action for Children work to help children and families?

Action for Childrenworks right across the UK, with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families. We work at that 'heavy' end, if you like, where families are often suffering from multiple disadvantages.

We run over 120 different children's centres, throughout England, supporting over 90,000 children and families to get the early support they need. We do a lot of work with youth unemployment, particularly in Scotland.

We are one of the biggest providers of short breaks for children with disabilities. We provide support for young carers; we are a fostering agency and we are an adoption agency;

We also work intensively with families who are suffering from multiple problems. So the 120,000 'problem' families that David Cameron spoke about in his speech after the riots are very much where we come in.

We pioneered some work in Dundee about 15 years ago specifically working with families who had complex problems which were most probably going to lead to children being taken into care. Housing benefit arrears were very high so families were facing eviction, mums with mental health issues, substance abuse issues and semi-absent fathers because of being in and out of prison.

Worklessness is a huge issue: we see a lot of families where three, four and five generations of people have not worked. We developed a really effective model of working with those families and we have built on that.

Today, Action for Children has launched the 'Red Book'. What is it?

Well, it's the beginning of a process. A year ago, when the spending review was published, we thought it was very important to wait and see what the impact of the spending round would be.

We thought it was important to, in a sense, track and monitor the impact the Spending Review was having on the children, young people and families that we work with. We wanted to do it in a way that could track impact over the lifetime of this Parliament. We thought it made sense to do it annually and create a longitudinal aspect to it.

The aim was not to grandstand and showcase. We just really, really wanted to track and find out what was going on in a proper way. This is the first year. So we will build on it, year on year.

Every October we will go back and have a look to see what's happening to the services that we provide. Our intention is to put forward a genuine offering on what is happening on the ground.

To some extent there are some good policy intentions that have come out of the coalition government: great for the children and young people we work with, but there is an issue, I think, about how that happens in reality. There are some tensions between policy intentions and the reality on the ground, as we can see the impact that it is having on the children and young people we work with.

Why was it important for you to take a long-term approach rather than a knee-jerk reaction at the time?

Well, we are a service providing charity. Our legitimacy actually comes out of what is happening on the ground and I personally think that we have a duty, in a sense, to speak based on the evidence that we're seeing in our services.

The political landscape right now is incredibly complex. The new government is introducing reforms, which is fantastic, and it is what new governments do. Yet at the same time we have to reduce public spending which introduces a complexity to the landscape.

Within the context of the 'Red Book', what sort of level of cuts to services have you seen?

In a sense there are two things happening. Services are contracting at a time when the families we work with are under greater pressure. Both are pulling in opposite directions.

I think the significant thing is that there is clearly a huge will on the part of government – whether that is local or national government – to retain a lot of local infrastructure. A lot of profile has been given to early intervention, which is great. The difficulty is that a lot of our services are contracting into what aren't quite residual services but are much more targeted than they were, meaning they are not picking up cases at the earliest stage.

And actually we run, as I said, lots of children's centres, and children's centres are deep, broad services. The best ones don't do hard-to-reach, because they recognise that it is often the service that is hard to reach rather than the people who are hard to reach. It relies very heavily on networks and volunteers and a whole bunch of infrastructure, community infrastructure.

So a small amount of funding for a local authority that looks relatively straightforward to take away can have a disproportionate impact because it is that funding that provides the transport, or the little things in a children's centre or in the community to enable those universal services.

That is the worry, I think; that we are seeing a contraction at the same time as the families that we are working with are poorer and under greater pressure. Debt is a big issue for our families now in a way that was not so much of an issue before and it's coming up the league table, if you like, as something that we, our staff, see as a big issue that our families face.

If you are faced with crippling debt it's really difficult to engage with a parenting programme because your biggest worry is that debt; you are trying to pay money back, but you haven't got enough money. So just staying afloat is more important.

Are you seeing a greater need for even the most basic of provisions, like food parcels?

Well, we are, but in lots of our children centres we've done that for a long time. One of the reasons why children's centres are so important is that they are used as a community hub.

Also a lot of our children's centres we offer clothes that people can come in and take.

You mentioned volunteers: to what extent are your services manned by volunteers and is this something that you think needs to be increased in the future? Do you see volunteers as the future of service delivery?

We have lots of volunteers, people who initially use our children's centres as service users. They then stay and become volunteers. That is a brilliant thing, and they become fantastic ambassadors and bring in a wealth of ideas.

Some of our youth service centres now have various volunteers and mentors. They are really, really important, but they can't be a substitute for professionals.

We also do a lot of work in child protection, and some of the families we work with are under enormous stress. Working with them demands a level of skill, so whilst volunteers do fantastic work, they are only as good as their training and the extent to which you support and supervise them. So volunteering is not for free. Volunteering should not be considered as something that costs no money. But it is a brilliant thing.

You are starting to see the effect the cuts are having immediately, but what effect do you think they are going to have in the long-term future?

Well, the government has talked a lot about the importance of early intervention. What we are saying in the 'Red Book' is that it is really important to make sure that the decisions that are coming from the centre, notwithstanding localism, make it very clear that early intervention is the thing that will pay back over time. If we get that wrong, it is going to be much, much more expensive down the line.

Some local authorities are good on early intervention, and are holding their nerve and continuing to provide protection for early-intervention services, but others are finding it tough.

I suspect we will see very differing profiles three, four, five years down the track because the local authorities that have not held their nerve are going to be dealing with some very expensive decisions, because they have not made that investment in early intervention.

On the back of the 'Red Book', are there any other measures you are calling on the government to bring forward?

Firstly, we hope that the government and politicians more widely will read it. We do not want this to be seen only as a central government thing, because an awful lot of decisions are now taken by local authorities. It is really important that people hold their nerve on early intervention.

As well as the impact of debt, one of the really important things that we have seen come out of the 'Red Book' is the increasing anxiety amongst professionals.

People fear that they are seeing more neglect in children because of the amount of pressure coming from all sides. We think that is something that needs to be thought about explicitly.

How are you hoping to work with government to drive forward the findings in the 'Red Book'?

What is really important to us is getting the government to understand the importance of neglect and early intervention. By the end of this Parliament, we will be a broken record in terms of continuing to talk about the importance of early intervention. I hope I am wrong, but I think, maybe next year, we will begin to see more visibly the effects of those local authorities who have not taken the early intervention approach.

At the end of the Parliament you will have released one report each year, so then what?

The 'Red Book' follows on from a report we published under the Labour government. It tracked social policy changes affecting people up to the age of 21 years. We found that, unsurprisingly, and depressingly, there are a huge number of policy changes over that period – over 400 in total.

Every government and new minister comes into post and they want to make a change, make their mark and do a fantastic thing. But for the most vulnerable people that is not the right thing to do. These children have most probably had very fragmented early lives and they need stability. These changes create the exact opposite of stability.

What we said, following our previous report released under the Labour government, is that we need a narrative, an understanding across everybody that says that children need stability. We think the coalition government provides the opportunity to do something very positive here.

Party lines need to be put to one side and we need to think about how we 'hardwire' this stability into the system. We need an approach which provides a safety net and a harness for the most vulnerable children. This has to be remembered when a government is thinking about legal changes, because for all of the best intentions, we cannot continue chopping and changing and shifting. We need to make sure that the system is fit for purpose going forward.