Nobody knows better than local authorities the challenge of keeping vulnerable children safe.
The huge financial challenges that councils have faced over the past decade have made this job tougher, and we all know that, often, children are missing out on help – either because they are on the edge of statutory services and so don’t qualify for support, or because they’re falling through gaps in an overstretched system.
Identifying these vulnerable children is crucial and, in April, my office published new local area profiles showing the extent of child vulnerability around the country, council by council. This work is the latest stage in a three-year project asking: if society doesn’t know how many vulnerable children there are, how can it do enough to help them?
It is the only comprehensive source of data on all risks to children currently available in England.
These local area profiles of child vulnerability are important tools for national government and for councils – helping them to identify how many vulnerable children there are in each local authority area.
During the coronavirus crisis, they also highlight the groups at heightened risk, and provide a framework for central government to target additional resources at the areas most in need.
Local authorities should be factoring this information into their decision-making when it comes to COVID-19 responses – so, if 26 per cent of the children in your area live in crowded homes (as is the case in Newham), making sure there is space for them to play outdoors, or getting them into schools, should be a priority.
Our data shows that there are more than 50,000 children in the country on child protection plans, but also that there is significant variation around the country. In Blackpool, for example, 13 children in 1,000 are placed on child protection plans, while, in Westminster, it is only one per 1,000.
Our matrix of local need also suggests that the prevalence of domestic violence varies by area; around 5 per cent of children in Wokingham and Surrey live in a household where domestic abuse is occurring, while more than 10 per cent in Hackney do so.
These child-vulnerability numbers are stark. Indeed, we estimate there are more than two million children in England in homes where there is either a problem with drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence or serious parental mental health problems. Our data contains many more examples.
In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has forced government to act quickly to protect vulnerable children in a way none of us could have predicted even a few months ago.
After the crisis passes, I hope that the Government will understand better the dangers facing many vulnerable children, and that it will be bold and brave enough to recast our country to tackle many of these generational problems.
That must include providing much more support for councils and children’s services, and better long-term funding for early help programmes.
It is undeniable that there are millions of children who are not part of our nation’s progress. Identifying and then helping these children should not just be a consequence of a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis. It should be the mission of every government and every council, of whatever political persuasion.