14 Jul 2021

The reality of British children in poverty: no beds to sleep in or clean clothes to wear

North of England Correspondent

Council spending on early years intervention has fallen by up to 80 per cent in some of the most deprived areas in England, a report commissioned by leading children’s charities has found.

Charity workers in one centre dealing with children living in poverty told Channel 4 News a “crying room” had been set up for distressed staff and they regularly saw houses where children don’t have beds.

Kelly O’Reilly, who works for Alice, an outreach charity supporting disadvantaged families, said: “It’s really really sad… We have actually got a crying room, because a lot of us do come back and we cry.”

Government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24 per cent from £9.9 billion to £7.5 billion in real terms over a decade, the group of charities estimate.

Channel 4 News approached the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education for a response but we did not receive one.

‘Children without beds’

The charity Alice provides help for people in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-Under-Lyme.

Outreach worker Ms O’Reilly told Channel 4 News: “One in every two or three houses we go in, there’s a child without a bed.

“We walked into a house a few weeks ago where there’s a teenage boy sleeping on a wooden pallet. There’s no carpet on the floor, there’s just a pallet on the floor with a blanket.”

She said she had come across teenagers that are “still wetting the bed” due to  anxiety caused by “the poverty they’re living in”.

Without any means to wash the sheets, she said the teenagers  were “bullied at school because they smell”.

She added: “They’re not sleeping, their education is being impacted, their mental health and wellbeing is being impacted. It’s terrible. It really is.

“You wouldn’t think that it happens. It’s just such basic needs (and) a lot of people haven’t got them.”

‘It’s shameful’

Stoke-on-Trent council’s children’s services department has been deemed to be failing by Ofsted.

The Conservative leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Councillor Abi Brown, told this programme: “It’s shameful. It’s not a position that I’m proud of and it’s not one I’m going to accept.”

She added that she had overseen investment that had led to the recruitment of about 80 social workers in a bid to improve the situation.

Asked if she believed the children’s care system was broken, she said: “I think it definitely needs a big review.”

An Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has been launched by the government.

An interim report published last month said more money was needed by local councils.

However, the report added that money alone will not fix the system, which it likened to a “30-year-old old tower of Jenga held together with sellotape”.

‘A moral disgrace’

The charities Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the National Children’s Bureau and the NSPCC commissioned researchers to analyse council budgets between 2010 and 2020.

The research, by Pro Bono Economics, showed that local authorities are trapped in a vicious circle, the charities say.

Faced with a lack of funding, councils are forced to reduce spending on early support services leading to a greater reliance on crisis interventions and care placements, which are often more expensive and more disruptive to children’s lives, the charities claim.

Between 2010 and 2020, local authorities across England reduced spending on early intervention services from £3.6bn to £1.8bn, the research says.

Early intervention services help children, young people and their families before their problems escalate.

Examples of the help provided includes substance misuse support, help for young parents with babies, young offender and crime prevention services, respite care for families and disabled children, youth services, children’s centres, and family hubs.

The research also found that overall spending on all children’s services between 2010 and 2020 fell by £325 million across England.

Analysis of late intervention spending revealed it has surged between 2010 and 2020, from £5.7billion to £7.6 billion, a 34% increase.

Part of the reason for this is the rising cost of supporting children in care, with the average annual cost increasing from £53,000 to £64,000 over the 10 year period.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns for the charity Action for Children, said: “It’s a moral disgrace and an economic waste that children are left to come to harm before they’re given the help they need.

“An approach centred on firefighting crises is not a strategy that protects children. We will only be able to genuinely start preventing children from coming to harm when we overhaul funding of early intervention services and can act quickly.”

With more families needing support during the pandemic, the group of children’s charities believe local authorities will not be able to cope.

Producer: Robert Windscheffel

Words: Calum Fraser