The weekend’s newspapers were rife with rumours that the Chancellor would use his final Budget before Brexit to mollify backbenchers and foist giveaways onto groups at risk of causing future political headaches. But despite the upswing on the balance sheet and promises to secure our children’s future, new programmes of spending will not deliver the changes we need to see.
Away from austerity, and feelin’ good
Weekend speculation around good news was partly a consequence of Philip Hammond’s statement taking place on a Monday for the first time in over half a century, though the focal point for many was the Prime Minister’s foretelling of the end of austerity. A “feel good” budget, many agreed, would offer much needed relief from the uncertainties surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU.
And so we saw a spate of measures that would distract from potential pains; increases in the personal allowance were brought forward, a boost to the National Living Wage, and a freeze on taxes on beers, ciders and spirits, along with fuel duty.
The front pages and airwaves were dominated by announcements of extra money for the NHS and mental health services, investment in Universal Credit, and a tax on digital services.
The need to look to tomorrow
But short-term gratifications should not sway our judgement.
Funding for local authority children’s services fell by almost a quarter in real terms in the six years to 2016. And with demand rising, a worrying shortfall has emerged that will grow to £3 billion by 2025.
So the announcement of additional investment in children’s social care over the coming five years received a qualified welcome; extra money to keep children safe and confront the funding crisis in children’s services is sorely needed, but the £84 million promised over five years won’t even touch the sides while most of the remaining social care funding will likely be channelled into adult care.
Last year, councils had to significantly overspend on their own budgets for children’s services. Around the country, this amounted to £430 million extra spent on children in care and an additional £172 million on safeguarding. And the funding gap facing councils will be £1.1 billion next year for children’s services alone. In this context, the Chancellor’s pledge was more gimmick than giveaway.
A brighter future?
But we can, at least, take a glimmer of hope from the Budget.
Despite the amount being but a drop in the ocean, the Chancellor’s pledge confirms two important points. First, putting funding in place over five years suggests a longer-term outlook is being taken.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, allocating money specifically for children at a time when the pressures facing adult social care are mounting indicates that the Treasury isn’t blind to the problems shackling children’s services.
While the Budget wasn’t everything we wanted it to be, this should nonetheless give us hope that the Spending Review will commit to the long-term support that councils urgently need so they can deliver essential children’s services for vulnerable families and children.